Making (Up) The Grade In Ohio

Every year, most schools (and districts) in Ohio get one of six grades: Emergency, Watch, Continuous Improvement, Effective, Excellent, and Excellent with Distinction. Schools that receive poor grades over a period of years face a cascade of increasingly severe sanctions. This means that these report card grades are serious business.

The method for determining grades is a seemingly arbitrary step-by-step process outlined on page eight of this guidebook. I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice it to say that a huge factor determining a school’s grade is whether it meets certain benchmarks on one of two measures: The aforementioned “performance index” and the percentage of state standards that it meets. Both of these are “absolute” performance measures – they focus on how well students score on state tests (specifically, how many meet proficiency and other benchmarks), not on whether or not their scores improve. And neither accounts for differences in student characteristics, such as learning disabilities and income.

As I have discussed before, there is a growing consensus in education policy that, to the degree that schools and teachers should be judged on the basis of test results, the focus should be on whether students are improving (i.e., growth), not how highly they score (i.e., absolute performance). The reasoning is simple: Upon entry into the schooling system, poor kids (and those with disabilities, non-native English speakers, etc.) tend to score lower by absolute standards, and since schools have no control over this, they should be judged by the effect that they have on students, not on which students they happen to receive. That’s why high-profile schools like KIPP are considered effective, even though their overall scores are much lower than those in affluent suburbs.

The strong relationship between district poverty and one of these absolute performance measures – the state’s performance index that Fordham’s Terry Ryan discussed – is clear in the graph below, which I presented in a previous post.


Perhaps the people who designed the Ohio system made a good-faith effort to achieve “balance” between the various components – a very difficult endeavor to be sure. But what they ended up with was a somewhat arbitrary formula that produces troubling, implausible results based on contradictory notions of how to measure performance. The grades are as much a function of income and other student characteristics as anything else, and they’re more likely to change than stay the same between years. So, while I can’t say what the perfect system would look like, I can say that Ohio’s report card grades, without substantial changes, should be taken with a shaker full of salt.

Unfortunately, that’s easy for me to say, but parents, teachers, administrators, and other stakeholders have no such luxury. These grades are used in the highest-stakes decisions.

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