At a time of growing concern around the country about the academic accountability of charter schools, Ohio has mandated a new regime of testing solely for those schools that may force the shutdown of repeated low performers.
Under a new state law, Ohio charter schools that meet certain criteria will have to give an extra set of standardized tests at the start and end of each school year, in addition to the regular state assessments given in all public schools.
A subset of those charter schools that miss state-prescribed goals for academic growth for three years in a row must close, under new requirements incorporated into the state budget signed into law late last month. No regular, district-run public schools are subject to the new testing requirements.
The move comes as other states with large charter sectors, such as California and Florida, are experimenting with new accountability approaches that go beyond the oversight provided by the school districts or other authorizers that grant the publicly financed but largely independent schools their charters.
The Ohio budget law imposes even more new demands on its growing cadre of cyber charter schools—called e-schools in the Buckeye State. Those include the threat of losing all aid for students who miss the new testing benchmarks for two years straight and for students who fail to take state tests for two years.
Sen. Joy Padgett, the Republican who chairs the education committee of the state Senate, said the new measures will help make Ohio “a leader in accountability for e-schools and charter schools.”
“Ohio, I believe, definitely is a story of choice [in education],” she said. “Fine, we’re just going to make sure those choices have standards.”
The two-year measure for fiscal 2006 and 2007 also sets a new cap on the creation of charter schools, imposes a moratorium on new e-schools, and includes a major expansion of the state’s school voucher program. (“Ohio OKs Vouchers for Pupils in Low-Rated Schools,” July 13, 2005)
Jeanne Allen, the president of the pro-charter Center for Education Reform, based in Washington, said Ohio’s requirements for charter school testing and accountability are now “more far-reaching” than any other state’s. She said she was unaware of another state that had a testing regime set up exclusively for charter schools.
“This will give a clear, transparent understanding of whether and how Ohio’s charter schools are performing,” she said.
‘There Are Waivers’
Home to an especially intense political debate over charter schooling in recent years, Ohio has about 250 charter schools serving some 62,000 students, according to J.C. Benton, a spokesman for the state department of education. Of those, 44 are e-schools, serving nearly 17,000 students.
Under the new law, certain Ohio charter schools, starting in the 2006-07 school year, will have to administer norm-referenced tests for reading and mathematics each fall and spring. Such tests measure individual students’ performance against the scores of a large group of test-takers, rather than a specific set of standards.
A subset of those schools will have to ensure that at least 55 percent of their students meet a growth target still to be set by the state. If a school fails to reach that target for three consecutive years, it is supposed to shut down.
The new testing rules apply to all charter schools not rated in the two highest of Ohio’s five performance categories under the state accountability system. They also apply to all schools that don’t have a performance rating because they did not yield large enough samples to produce reliable data, as well as to schools open for less than two full years.
Ratings from the 2003-04 school year suggest that most Ohio charter schools may have to test their students. The threat of closure, however, doesn’t apply to all those schools. Only schools that are rated in the two lowest accountability categories, “academic emergency” and “academic watch,” face the closure threat, as well as those that don’t have a state rating.
“We have a number of [charter] schools that are successful,” said Speaker of the House Jon Husted, a Republican. “We think they’ll be able to hit these marks quite easily.”
As for the low performers, he said, the message is: “Either get the job done or get out.”
Still, Sen. Padgett hinted that schools may get some leeway before being closed. “If we see that in three years they’re getting close, you know, there are waivers,” she said.
For e-schools, the new law imposes an enrollment freeze on schools that do not meet the achievement targets for one year. If a school falls short for two consecutive years, its students who do not meet the requirements will have to leave the school unless their families pay the per-pupil costs out of pocket.
The moratorium on new cyber charter schools is to last until the legislature establishes new standards governing such schools’ operation. Sen. Padgett said the standards should be in place no later than the 2007-08 school year.
To the chagrin of many advocates of cyber charters, the legislation also imposes what amounts to an estimated 10 percent cut in state aid to those schools.
Anita Nelam, who chairs the board of the Ohio Charter Schools Association and is the president and founder of two charter schools in Columbus, said that among her concerns about the new requirements is that they apply only to charter schools.
“It’s certainly not the way many of us would have written it, but we are supportive of the point that they’re attempting to make,” she said of state lawmakers.
Tom Mooney, an outspoken critic of charter schools who is the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, argued that the new accountability measures are too weak. He pointed to the 55 percent growth threshold, for instance, and the fact that the extra tests for charter schools are given only in reading and math.
“They have now explicitly set a lower standard for charters,” he said. “That’s pretty stunning.”
But Speaker Husted, a staunch advocate of school choice, said charter schools must continue to meet all state and federal requirements.
“They have the same academic standards,” he said, “plus an added accountability measure where they could actually … be put out of business.”