The grades are in, and across the board in Lorain County, school districts are learning there is room for improvement.
In previous years, districts strived for rankings of “excellent with distinction” or “excellent,” both the highest a district could receive under the old system. But a new system unveiled Thursday by the Ohio Department of Education has everyone reaching for an “A.”
The decision to dump the old system was motivated by the desire to produce more transparency, said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Richard Ross. The designations of the past simply were too vague and concealed places where districts were doing a poor job.
Under the old system, more than six out of 10 districts received those top ratings, yet the Ohio Board of Regents reports that 40 percent of Ohio graduates who enter an Ohio public college must take one or more remedial courses before they can do college work.
In 2012, Ohio had 27,000 third-graders who could not read third-grade material.
“This shows us that not every boy and girl in the district with the highest ratings is getting the best education that can be offered,” Ross said.
The new system, a product of the Ohio General Assembly, is being rolled out in phases with Thursday’s release being the first time parents could see the new system.
Nine areas in four categories were graded, although by the time the full system is implemented in the next two years, districts will be graded in 17 areas divided among six categories.
This will give districts an opportunity to adjust to the massive changes in the way the state is holding them accountable and the expectations for districts to teach and test their students.
Tom Gunlock, vice president of the state Board of Education, said parents and educators should not try to average the nine grades into one overall grade.
“This system is very different and can’t be compared to the previous accountability system. Each area is weighted differently and all the components are not in this first set of measures, so trying to come up with an average will give an inaccurate grade and mislead parents,” he said.
Overall district grades will be given out in two years.
Time to dig in
The basic report card for Elyria is not pretty in some areas.
It reads like this: One A, four Cs, two Ds and two Fs.
“I know our report card will alarm some parents, but to that I say, each measurement is just one piece to the puzzle,” said Elyria Director of Academic Services Ann Schloss. “The best thing parents can do is ask questions, talk to the teachers and talk to the principals to find out what we are doing to address areas of concern.”
Elyria received a D for how many students passed state tests administered in 2012-13, a Cs for how well students actually did on the tests, a C in both the four- and five-year graduation rate and a F in how well it’s closing the academic gap when race, culture, income and disability are factors.
It scored an A in student academic growth among the entire student body, an F for growth among its gifted children, a C for its lowest-performing students and a D for the growth of its special-needs students.
Beneath the surface of Elyria’s report card, Schloss said there is also a story of successes.
An A in the “value-add: all students” area indicates students are making more than a year’s growth in a year. When compared with the other urban districts — there are 21 in the state — Elyria is leading the way with ensuring students grow from year to year.
The district only met the “proficient” benchmark — 75 percent of students passing a particular test — for 12 academic indicators. Last year, the district met 16 indicators. It lost the marking in four academic areas — 10th- and 11th-grade science and fourth- and fifth-grade math.
For the first time in several years, the district hit the third-grade reading indicator, going from a 71.3 percent in 2012 to 76.1 percent this year — nearly 5 full percentage points.
“To grow that much is phenomenal. It tells us the K-3 literacy program we put in place years ago is working,” Schloss said. “When we introduced the early intervention programs Wilson Fundations, reading and Level Literacy Intervention, we knew it would be several years before we saw the results.”
Elyria’s biggest struggle is closing the gap between smaller subgroups of students and the overall student body, which is measured in the annual measurable objectives category. With a sizable special education population, Elyria has trouble ensuring those students grow fast enough to catch up to the rest of the district.
For many years, North Ridgeville Schools has been able to boast that more than 93 percent of its students graduate from high school.
Thursday’s report card showed something different. With a grade of a D for both the four- and five-year graduation rates, the state says North Ridgeville needs to do a better job of making sure it hands out diplomas.
The D grade is the second-lowest in the county in the category, only behind Lorain Schools.
“It certainly is lower than we have received, but it’s a whole new system we are working with now,” said Superintendent Jim Powell.
With the new way the state is calculating graduation rates, districts have to do a better job of tracking students and making sure all stick to the standard four-year schedule. Summer-school graduates are no longer counted, and ninth-graders who withdraw from the district and can’t be accounted for are considered dropouts.
Powell said the state lumps all freshmen into one block and will penalize a district if it cannot account for the graduation of all students.
“Students that move out of state and don’t tell us count against us, just as those students who go to online schools but don’t graduate with their original cohort,” Powell said. “The same happens for our students with special needs. In the past, they could stay in system and take their time to graduate up to age 22. We can’t do that now.”
Powell said the district has taken steps to better account for students and keep them on track. He said the graduation rate will jump in the future.
“We know they are changing things, but I don’t think that is necessarily bad,” Powell said. “We just have to focus.”
North Ridgeville scored well academically, reaching 23 out of 24 indicators. Seventh-grade math was the weakest area, with 71.4 percent of students passing at the proficient level.
However, next year when the stakes are higher and the state mandates 80 percent proficient before it will consider an indicator met, North Ridgeville could lose in several areas.
Math and science continue to be weak subjects for the district, so much so this year instructional time for seventh-graders has been increased to 80 minutes.
Starting from the bottom
Lorain Schools is making progress.
Yes, the district of more than 7,000 students has one of the lowest report cards in the state with four Fs, two Ds, two As and one C, but its progress is evident within the fine details of the data.
“Am I happy where we are at? No,” said Superintendent Tom Tucker. “But when you look at where we put our emphasis, that is where you also see our gains. We still have a ways to go, but the gains validate what our staff is doing.”
Lorain is one of two districts in the state under the watchful eye of the state and an Academic Distress Commission. Low test scores triggered the takeover. A reform plan has since been submitted to the state, but it uses data from 2011-12.
Tucker said the plan falls in line with the newest data. It calls for increasing students’ mathematics proficiency by 11 percent and reading by 10 percent, improving third-grade reading scores by 15 percent and increasing high school graduation rates by 13 percent.
Reading was heavily emphasized last year. The results show in several areas of significant growth, Tucker said.
The third-grade reading score went from 58.5 percent last year to 66.5 percent this year. The fourth-grade score jumped from 61 percent last year to 70.4 percent this year.
“Last year, we met just one indicator, and this year we met three,” Tucker said. “If we were under the old rules, we would be in continuous improvement. We have actually gone up a little bit. I’m not making light of the work that still needs to be done, but we are heading in the right direction.”
Bright spots in the report include how Lorain handles gifted students as well as its lowest achievers.
Both areas garnered the district an A grade, meaning Lorain has done exceptionally well making sure those students make more than a year’s worth of growth.
Other districts did not score as well. Elyria received an F in how much its gifted students grew while Avon Lake and Wellington both earned Ds.
The new report cards are using standards for grading that are more rigorous than in the past.
Additional measures will be added to the report card over the next two years and that phased-in approach is being looked at with optimism by districts.
“We want to be transparent with our parents and talk about what we are doing well, but it would be irresponsible to just assign a letter grade without explaining the data,” said Avon Superintendent Michael Laub.
Avon’s report card has four As, one B and four Cs. Laub said he knows some parents will see the C as indications that performance is average in Avon, but in those areas — how students grow from year to year — the Cs mean the district met the expected growth for the year.
“When the data shows we are meeting a year’s worth of growth, that means we are doing what we are supposed to do with the kids, and I am proud of that,” he said. “We are always doing more to stretch the students, but the reaction to the letters themselves could be misconstrued by parents.”
Laub said he expects future difficulties to come in how well districts, not just Avon, do in closing the educational attainment gap across racial, cultural, economic and other subgroups. When the bar is raised for everyone, there will always be a group that will have to jump higher to reach it.
Thursday’s report cards show that many Lorain County districts struggle to close that gap.
Clearview, Elyria, Lorain and Wellington received failing grades. Vermilion, Sheffield-Sheffield Lake, Oberlin, Midview and Keystone all received a D grade.
Ross said the state will not allow districts to simply say some groups can’t achieve.
“Every child should be expected to achieve regardless of income, race, culture or disability,” he said. “We must get all students — all students — to the same educations attainment. We have to have the courage to be honest with ourselves and the community about where we stand. If we do that, we will better understand what it takes to get students to a place where they can have the jobs and careers they desire and are prepared for.”