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Published: Wednesday, 10/25/2000

If Johnny can't read, he won't be in 5th grade

BY JAMES DREW
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS -- Three years ago, state lawmakers searched for ways to build support for a statewide tax increase for Ohio's K-12 system.

The result was a new law that Republican legislators said would make school districts more accountable for how they educate children.

Starting next school year, fourth graders will be required to pass the

reading section of the state's fourth-grade proficiency test to move on to

fifth grade. The exception is if the principal and reading teacher agree the

student is "academically prepared."

High school students, starting in 2004-2005, must pass proficiency tests

based on 10th-grade knowledge in reading, writing, math, and citizenship to get their diplomas. Students now are tested on ninth-grade knowledge.

Despite the new law, voters in May, 1998, overwhelmingly rejected an

increase in the state sales tax to provide more money for schools.

But the law remains and over the past three years, Ohio has joined a

national debate over the use of "high-stakes" testing to effect change in

public schools.

Ohio is among 36 states in which parent groups and teachers' unions are

fighting the use of statewide testing.

Earlier this year, the controversy prompted Governor Taft to appoint a

33-member commission to analyze Ohio's proficiency tests, academic

standards, and "accountability system."

Steve Rea is among parents who believe the proficiency tests should be

scrapped, in favor of standardized tests. A Salem, O., resident, he is

leading a citizens' group opposed to proficiency testing.

"It is never redone the same way it was done last year. It is always a

moving target," he said.

Although the GOP-controlled legislature has introduced several bills to

revise the testing system, key lawmakers remain supportive of the idea of using statewide tests to measure results.

"The state's taxpayers are spending billions of dollars on public schools,

and I think there is a responsibility - from school board members,

legislators, and state Board of Education members - to attempt to see that we have high expectations and we achieve results," said state Rep. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green).

The Ohio Department of Education is in the midst of a study on whether to lower the score needed to pass on to the fifth grade. Parent groups have complained that the test is too difficult and is creating too much stress for children.

The study, conducted by a Cleveland firm, found a high level of agreement among teachers and principals about which students are ready for fifth grade. The study analyzed student test scores and then compared them with how teachers and principals evaluated the readiness of those children to move to the fifth grade.

Researchers found that the highest rate of agreement between the judgment of teachers and principals and test performance was when student scored around a 200 on the fourth-grade reading test. The "proficient" score needed to pass to the fifth grade is 217.

But the firm, Assessment and Evaluation Services, discovered that the

judgment of teachers and principals did not correlate with how some students did on the reading test.

For example, among students judged by their fourth-grade teacher not to be prepared for fifth grade work, about 20 per cent scored 217 or higher on the state's reading proficiency test.

Among students who were judged by their fourth-grade teachers to be ready for the work in the next grade, 32 per cent scored less than 217, while 8 per cent scored below 200. Yet, only 62 students - 1 per cent of the sample were retained in the fourth grade.

The second phase of the study is expected in mid-2001, said Jan Crandall, assistant director of assessment and evaluation for the education department.

Lee Miller, a member of Mr. Taft's commission who is in charge of the

English Department at the high school in Sidney, O., said the consensus of experts is a single test should not be used to determine whether fourth graders are held back.

"The other half is the child's grades. Some districts want to use

portfolios. The state might say, OHere are some examples that ought to go into multiple measures,' and the district can select what it wants," he

said.

Although lawmakers have talked about changes to the proficiency test program, it's unclear whether they will follow through after the Nov. 7 election.

A recent poll released by the Governor's Commission for Student Success found that 62 per cent of those surveyed said they support the law referred to as the "Fourth Grade Reading Guarantee."

But the poll also revealed that when asked how to evaluate if fourth graders should be held back, roughly two-thirds rated grades and teacher evaluations above proficiency test scores.

Mr. Taft's commission also is focusing on how to create standards that drive questions on the proficiency test. Educators have said the opposite is true now, as changing test questions lead to changing standards, said Mark Real, director of the Children's Defense Fund-Ohio.

"The logic of this is you establish standards. The curriculum is tied to the

standards, and the [tests] are guided toward the curriculum. The lesson from the states, from Kentucky to North Carolina to Texas, is they have tried to create a coherent system," Mr. Real said.



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