MARIETTA - Local residents used to area schools receiving mostly "effective" and "excellent" ratings - with a few "continuous improvements" scattered in - on the annual state report cards may have been surprised to see D's and F's on the new measures unveiled this week.
"That doesn't necessarily mean students got a poorer education there than they did before," state Superintendent of Public Education Richard Ross said during a conference call with media members in advance of the report cards' release on Thursday. "But what it does mean is that the school and district will have to work together to achieve new and higher standards."
While Ross and other state education officials emphasized during the call that the data being released was not intended as a "gotcha," Belpre City Schools Superintendent Tony Dunn disagrees. He said people likely won't dig very deep into the data available on the Ohio Department of Education website and will simply take the letter grades at face value - even if they don't understand how they were determined - and assume the worst.
"What the whole premise was on these report cards was to make them understandable to the public," he said. But the new standards are "as convoluted as anything that has ever come out from ODE."
The new standards replace the long-used scale ranging from "academic emergency" at the bottom to "excellent with distinction" at the top. During a visit to Washington County earlier this week, Ross said there was a disconnect between those ratings and actual student performance.
"We have 60, 61 percent of our schools excellent, excellent with distinction, and a 40 percent remediation rate" for high school graduates entering public colleges and universities in the state, he said.
An overall letter grade for districts and school buildings won't be included on the report cards until 2015, as schools transition to the new rankings. The documents released online at reportcard.education.ohio.gov include nine of a planned 18 performance measures. The other nine will be added in 2014.
While no district in the state received all A's or all F's, schools and communities had been warned in advance to expect some lower ratings than they might be accustomed to as the state transitions to more rigorous standards.
That was perhaps most evident in Washington County in the category of annual measurable objectives, where five of six districts received F's. That measure, abbreviated AMO, replaces adequate yearly progress and attempts to gauge whether gaps in achievement are being closed among student sub-groups (like economically disadvantaged and students with disabilities) and the district's population as a whole.
And there were A's, Wolf Creek Local Schools earned for meeting all 24 of the performance indicators, including proficiency in reading, math and other subject areas in various grades. Warren Local Schools posted A's in its overall value-added score, which measures whether students are making a year or more's worth of growth in a year's time, and value-added for students with disabilities. Fort Frye Local Schools' 94.1 percent four-year graduation snagged it an A as well.
Meanwhile, even districts that saw no A's on their overall tallies often earned them in individual schools. For example, the Frontier Local district got an F on its AMO, yet Newport Elementary got an A and Frontier High School and New Matamoras Elementary each got B's.
The AMOs set progressively higher standards for students to meet that exceed the percentages schools must post to meet performance indicators like proficiency in reading and math at various grade levels. There is a mathematical formula to account for this, but Dunn questions how many people will take the time to read that far into the measure.
Wolf Creek was the only district not to receive an F on its AMOs. It got a C, and Superintendent Bob Caldwell said that was likely due to the score of a single student in one of its subgroups. The cutoff was missed by a tenth of a percentage point.
"Point three, point four caused us to go from getting 50 points to getting zero points," he said.
Caldwell said he doesn't think the system is intended to let that much of a grade hinge on just one student, and he hopes the Department of Education takes that into consideration as it continues to evaluate the standards.
"Their way of analyzing the data has to improve, just as I said we'll try to improve," he said.
Caldwell said he's looking at the new standards as "an opportunity ... to reflect and establish manners for you to improve in the future."
Marietta City Schools Superintendent Harry Fleming said he'd like to do that, but he's still trying to determine how his district got the grades it did and how to use that information going forward.
"It's very complicated and confusing," he said. "I don't know how this is going to help us communicate with the public better than the system we had."
Dunn said he doesn't dispute Belpre needs to improve in some areas, and he noted there were some positives to take from the grades released Thursday. For example, while the overall value-added score was an F, the district earned a B on value-added for gifted students and C's on the measure for students with disabilities and those on the lowest-performing end of the achievement spectrum.
"We as public schools have usually done a poor job with" those groups, Dunn said. "Our kids with disabilities showed a year's worth of growth. That's great. In fact, some groups probably showed more than a year's worth of growth."
But that also shows the district needs to do more with the students in between, he said.
Frontier Local Superintendent Bruce Kidder said residents can fairly take from the district's report card - which included an F, three D's, three C's and two B's - "that we need to continue to work on raising the academic level all together."
The B the district got in value-added for the lowest 20 percent of students in terms of achievement and C for students with disabilities show the district is doing better with its lower-performing students, Kidder said. But he's concerned about the D in value-added for gifted students. He noted the district sent five teams to the state's Future Problem Solvers competition in spite of limited resources for gifted students.
"When they (the state) provide adequate funding for gifted education, that might help," Kidder said.