Monday, Apr 23, 2018
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Making the grade

New state report cards for schools and districts make clear the link between income and student achievement

This year’s report cards issued by the state to Ohio public schools and school districts were supposed to be easier for parents and taxpayers to understand.

Instead, they now include a proliferation of measures that may make it tougher to figure out how a school or system is doing overall. Still, several trends are apparent from this year’s grades — some encouraging, some alarming.

The Ohio Department of Education previously assigned schools and districts annual ratings that ranged from “excellent with distinction” to “academic emergency.” The new report cards are designed to give them a single letter grade, but that will not happen until 2015.

In the meantime, the report cards include individual grades in nine areas, including graduation rates, student performance on standardized tests, and achievement gaps among students in different categories, such as disabled or low-performing students. Districts are playing up high grades and seeking to explain low ones.

Toledo Public Schools officials had pledged improvement on this year’s report card after a downgrade last year. That’s especially important as the district prepares to ask voters for a millage renewal in November.

The new report card gives TPS failing grades in five areas. These include meeting state standards for each academic subject in each grade, graduation rates, and annual improvement in student performance. The district also got two A’s.

Elsewhere in the metropolitan area, only one district got less than a B grade on the key measure of standards met (Oregon got a C). Local charter schools continued to vary in academic quality.

Tea Party types and many Republican politicians insist that money is unrelated to educational quality. Really? A simple chart prepared by the Ohio School Boards Association, Buckeye Association of School Administrators, and Ohio Association of School Business Officials refutes that canard.

The chart relates school districts’ performance in the standards-met category on the report card to household income. Among districts where the average family income exceeds $55,000 a year, 95 percent got an A grade for standards met. Of districts with average incomes of less than $35,000, fewer than 1 percent got A’s. (Ohio’s overall average income is nearly $52,000 a year.) The relation between income and school performance is nearly a straight line.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise. The obvious implication — except to those who refuse to see it — is that districts such as TPS with large numbers of low-income students need special help to overcome the effects of poverty. The answer certainly is not to divert resources from traditional public schools to charter and private schools, although that is the direction in which Ohio is moving.

A new study by the Economic Analysis and Research Network, a network of state policy groups, concludes that investing in education is the best way for states to raise their economic productivity. The report found that cutting taxes impedes such investment, while it has no relation to the strength of a state’s economy.

Policy Matters Ohio, a member of the network, notes that wages in our state have fallen over the past three decades. At the same time, Ohio is lagging most other states in growth in educational attainment. The two developments are not just a coincidence.

The new report cards, despite their limitations, provide a useful snapshot of how Ohio schools and districts, and the students in them, are performing. They suggest again that investing in these students now will not only create well-trained workers, but also attract the good-paying, high-skilled jobs that Ohio workers can fill productively. Underfunding by the state and by local taxpayers will have the opposite effect.

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