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Nearly half million Ohio kids likely to fall from ‘proficient’ under new standards and not ready for college

By Doug Livingston
Beacon Journal education writer

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Jenna Bates, a 12th grade English teacher, reviews an assignment with her class on the first act of the Shakespeare tragedy Titus Andronicus at Coventry High School Friday. Each student chose a song that would best match the mood and theme to the play's first act. The assignment addresses common core teaching standards such as using evidence to support an argument. (Karen Schiely/Akron Beacon Journal)
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In 2014, Ohio will begin using new online tests to determine how our public school children compare on core subjects with those in other states and whether they are college ready.

And when those tests are scored, the results are likely to send a shock wave through the state.

Today, one out of three Ohio public school children scores as “proficient” on the state proficiency and graduation test. Those students rank in the middle of Ohio’s academic performance spectrum.

However, under the new tests, they’re likely to learn that their performance falls short of national goals, and most likely they’re not prepared for college.

How many is that? Nearly a half million kids.

Districts such as Mogadore, Coventry, Akron and Barberton may be facing the biggest shock. A Beacon Journal analysis of area school districts shows that those have the largest percentages of students who scored as “proficient,” meaning they may see painful changes in their academic rankings.

“It’s a whole different game,” said Patricia Cleary, superintendent for Barberton City Schools.

Cleary is concerned. The tests target core knowledge that is necessary for success in college, but she worries whether students are prepared for the higher standards.

Mogadore, a community that takes pride in its schools and football team, has recognized the upcoming shock factor and is trying to prepare for the change.

“If a child lands in the proficient category [today], it’s a false sense of security,” said Mogadore Superintendent Christina Dinklocker, “... because I think that as a teacher and a parent when you see that a child is proficient, you feel a sense of satisfaction.”

Like many districts, Mogadore began implementing Common Core content standards in 2011 — the standards adopted by most states and that are the basis of most of the new tests. The district has employed the Summit County Education Service Center to train teachers on the new content standards.

College-ready is the goal

The goal is to set a standard that identifies whether a student is on a “college-ready” learning track.

The Ohio Board of Regents, which governs higher education, determined that 41 percent of public university enrollees in 2009 arrived unprepared and often took on debt for remedial classes so that they could handle college-level work. Universities were ordered to sharply reduce their remedial interventions by raising the admission standards, thus blocking those who are unprepared.

K-12 schools then will suffer the consequences of not preparing students for college.

“It’s kind of the domino effect,” said MorraLee Keller, director of outreach and member services for the Ohio College Access Network. “There will be implications all along the pipeline.”

The process could alter the state’s perception of how students are performing.

“The bottom line is that it’s going to be a shock to people in the system when they see scores dropping through the floor,” said Aaron Churchill, Ohio data and policy analyst for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

In a report released in mid-December, Fordham warned that hundreds of thousands of students who pass proficiency tests each year might not be so successful in 2014. For example, in Kentucky, the proficiency rate fell more than one-third after administering tougher exams.

Pennsylvania and Florida also have begun the transition.

“Florida has already seen declines in its proficiency rates when it changed exams, and Pennsylvania is expecting a fall in proficiency when it implements new high school exams next year,” the Fordham report finds.

Researchers expect no less in Ohio.

“Our research seems to be bearing that out,” said Matthew Deevers, a senior research associate at the Summit Education Initiative, an Akron-area education research and advocacy group. “Proficient will no longer be an acceptable standard.”

Cause for alarm

Deevers gathered elementary and high school test scores for all Summit County students, including those who earned a “college-ready” ACT score of 21, a nationally recognized benchmark.

What he found is likely to alarm everyone.

“There’s going to be this dramatic drop in passing ...,” said Deevers, who has been campaigning with SEI to raise educators’ and legislators’ awareness of that scenario.

Deevers’ research indicates that an eighth-grade student who maintains a 3.6 grade point average and scores at least a 447 on the Ohio Achievement Assessment reading portion — good scores — is 70 percent likely to be “college-ready.”

But that’s not where most students are. According to an SEI analysis, the average Ohio eighth-grader has a 2.9 GPA and scores a 430 on the OAA reading section.

How it will affect students

Essentially, what SEI has determined is that “accelerated” or “advanced” students — the top two categories in the five-tier OAA ranking system — are college ready.

Those who fall into the lower category of “proficient,” long deemed as adequate, are unlikely to be college ready.

Those numbers are huge.

Across the state, about 35 percent of 2010-11 test scores fell into the “proficient” category, including 480,089 students who achieved the minimal passing level on the reading OAA, according to Ohio Department of Education statistics.

That’s 480,089 Ohio students who may teeter on the edge of passing and failing when the state implements tougher standards.

Analysis of October OAA reading scores for elementary students reveals more of the same. Under the state’s current assessment, 78.5 percent of students scored proficient or higher. But experts project a 20- to 40-point drop in proficiency rates, resulting in only 39 percent of students passing Common Core standards. That’s 325,050 elementary students, or 40 percent of elementary test takers, who may not pass the state assessment in 2014.

Privately run, publicly funded charter schools are at even greater risk. Those schools tend to perform more poorly than traditional public schools, which have larger numbers of students in the advanced and accelerated categories. Charter schools’ best students are more likely to rise only to the level of proficient.

A Beacon Journal analysis shows that of 131,338 OAA tests administered in charter schools, 43.4 percent scored as proficient, compared with 34.7 percent of 3.5 million tests administered in traditional public schools.

Summit County charter schools, which include a digital academy sponsored by Akron and a learning center operated by Cuyahoga Falls City school district, averaged 45.5 percent proficient.

In reality, though, no one will escape the lower scores.

“Everybody’s test scores are going to go down, but we are trying to prepare as best as possible,” said Cleary, superintendent of Barberton City Schools. Behind Mogadore, Barberton had the second highest percentage of students (44 percent) scoring proficient among Summit County public schools.

Cleary employs language arts and math coaches to prepare teachers for the rigor of Common Core, which the district expects to roll out in the fall.

If there is a trend, it is that wealthier, more educated communities will not experience as much of a jolt because their students are more likely to score in the advanced and accelerated categories, which are considered on track for college.

Revere and Hudson, with household incomes of $55,664 and $64,018 respectively, have only 24 percent and 19 percent of their students scoring as proficient. In comparison, the urban districts of Akron and Barberton, where household incomes hover below $24,500, the percentage scoring proficient is nearly 40 percent.

The same holds true statewide. Of the 100 most affluent communities, less than 28 percent score in the proficient category. In the 100 poorest districts, nearly 40 percent of test scores are in the vulnerable proficient group.

Higher-education trap

The reason for the pressure to identify non-college-ready students is to stop them from falling into a costly higher-education trap.

“They kind of go backwards,” said Fordham’s Churchill. The students take longer to catch up, extending the time and money they spend on a four-year degree, which compounds student debt, burdens state budgets and stymies a college’s graduation rate.

To force the change at the college level, the higher-education funding formula is shifting from enrollment numbers to one that includes a graduation factor. That means colleges will want to enroll only those students who are most likely to graduate. That’s why they want to see more predictive testing.

The University of Akron, for example, knows from the ACT college entrance test that 27 percent of the persons who score 21 or higher are likely to graduate in four years. Only 3 percent of those who score 17 or lower will graduate in four years. Those scores and grade point averages are being used to review candidates more carefully.

“One of the things that we’ve been saying is that the standards are not tough enough. We need to raise the standards,” said John Charlton, spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Education.

“We need to provide a better way to assess if students are career and college ready,” added Kim Norris, spokesperson for the Ohio Board of Regents.

Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com.