Since 1996, when I first began covering schools, I’ve seen many news articles on the state’s testing and report card system. Those are the news stories that today contain terms such as "Value Added" and "Performance Index" that even seasoned reporters (and editors) have to look up every 12 months to ensure accurate translation into common English.
Often, we wonder how many people actually read past the first iteration of the word "Indicator."
While the earliest resources on school testing and state report cards are no doubt buried in dusty, pre-Internet file cabinets, it has been a story of unrelenting change.
A single department of education report I did find online shows the whole system dates back to 1987, when the state legislature made the ninth-grade proficiency test a high school graduation requirement, beginning in 1994 (It was then delayed two years.) The new law also established a 12th-grade proficiency test — which wasn’t then required for graduation.
Soon, students in fourth and sixth grades were also taking proficiency tests.
Life was simple back in those early years, when the toughest thing we had to explain to readers was how last year’s test scores were apples to the oranges just released. That’s because each year, there was some reason that it was impossible to compare one year’s test results to the prior year.
One year, the math portion of the sixth-grade test would be harder. The next year, there might have been an added requirement for written answers. It seemed rare for a test to survive the summer break without returning the next fall with pimples and a squeaky voice.
By 2003, when the No Child Left Behind act became federal law, things started to become even more convoluted. Proficiency tests became achievement tests, and "performance designations" for students taking those tests were changed from four (advanced, proficient, basic, and below basic) to five (advanced, accelerated, proficient, basic, and limited).
Still with me?
So, we ended up writing about how kids in last year’s grades did on their tests, and how that compared with how kids two years ago did on tests that couldn’t be considered comparable.
Ultimately, the tests became the basis for state report cards.
I can’t remember the exact year state report cards were established. It might have been the year the department of education sent us condescending press kits that also pleaded it was our responsibility to explain to everyone how their new system worked.
At the time, school districts were given designations based on how well students did on state tests. Those designations ranged from the fiscally derived "Academic Emergency" and "Academic Watch," to the awkwardly termed "Continuous Improvement," the understated "Effective" and the self-evident "Excellent."
The top rank eventually was augmented with the "Excellent with Distinction" designation, possibly to set aside the most affluent communities from those with lesser property values.
The A to F letter-grade system was established in 2013-14 school year. It was billed as being "easy to understand" by the state superintendent of schools. That was the year the state switched (again) to "more challenging" achievement tests.
In the meantime, if journalists and parents were having trouble understanding the system, educators had more complicated issues to deal with. For example, here’s a question that was "frequently asked" by educators, according to the ODE website:
Q: In my building's AMO measure, I had a subgroup that grew to have 30 students for the first time during the 2012-13 school year, but did not meet the AMO target for reading or math. Can this subgroup get partial credit and earn points towards the AMO letter grade?
A: No. (In 53 words)
Today, and even though I’ve been following education for more than 20 years, I have trouble understanding the increasing complexity that goes into the state’s school accountability system. And that’s with the benefit of the familiarity one gains in trying to explain something complex to others.
Some local schools are also feeling frustrated, struggling to get the word out about all the good things that are happening in their districts by publishing "Quality Profiles." The profiles outline six categories where school districts affect student’s lives in ways not measured by state tests and other standards.
They are, essentially, a list of good things about the district in six areas — academics, arts, student leadership and activities, fiscal stewardship, parent and community involvement, and student services. In it you’ll find things listed such as how many student athletes there were and how high their average GPA is, or which schools did what on Science Day, etc.
In Northeast Ohio, districts that have released such profiles include Aurora, Hudson, Nordonia Hills, Stow-Munroe Falls, Twinsburg, and Woodridge.
What does all this mean to parents?
Are you involved in your child’s education? Is your child excited to learn new things? Is there a sense of opportunity in your home? Do you celebrate achievement?
Testing is an unavoidable fact of life, and can even be a valuable resource (for those who wish to study education policy). However, what you see each year as your child grows from one grade to the next will be your best guide to how your schools are doing.
How you support that process is up to you.
In the end, what matters most is the answer to this question: "How did your kid do in school?"