The Ohio State Board of Education is meeting today and tomorrow in Columbus, and in conjunction with the State Board meeting, something unusual is happening. School superintendents and members of local boards of education are expected in Columbus for a protest rally to demand that something be done to ameliorate a high school graduation crisis caused by the state’s new, and very demanding, end-of-course graduation exams. About a third of Ohio’s current high school juniors are behind where they need to be in passage of these exams in order to graduate on time in June of 2018.
Cut scores on standardized tests are a political calculation. There is nothing scientific about the measurement of proficiency by the standardized tests our state use today. Politicians, not psychometricians, set cut scores that determine who passes and who fails. Too often the people setting the cut scores are anxious to “protect the quality of the diploma” and guarantee “college-and-career-ready.” For fifteen years now across the country, politicians have been trying to drive school policy by using test scores as a way to bludgeon educators into raising expectations. The implications for young adults left without a high school diploma are rarely considered.
Ohio recently abandoned its Ohio Graduation Test and made passage of state-provided, end-of-course exams the bar for high school graduation, but it still seems there is big trouble. Patrick O’Donnell reports for the Cleveland Plain Dealer: “About one-third of high school juniors across Ohio are in danger of not graduating on time, according to estimates that have superintendents warning of a graduation ‘apocalypse’ and the state considering rewriting requirements for the class of 2018… This year’s 11th-graders are the first subjected to new state rules requiring students to score well on new state tests to graduate, beyond earning credits and strong grades in their schools. Students earn ‘points’ toward graduation based on how well they score on seven end-of-course exams. The tests are more demanding than the old Ohio Graduation Tests that students had to pass before—so much more that proficiency rates have fallen dramatically and students are not earning enough ‘points ‘ to be on track to graduate.”
After a protest last spring by A.J. Wagner, a member of the state board of education, the state board of education lowered the bar on the new end-of-course Geometry and Integrated Math II exams last June. But O’Donnell explains that Wagner did not get all of the adjustments he predicted would be necessary: “When Wagner asked the rest of the board to adjust graduation requirements this summer, the board agreed to only minor changes, not the large ones he wanted.” In contrast to Wagner, the chair of the state board is committed to setting a high bar, no matter the collateral damage for students in the class of 2018: “(B)oard President Tom Gunlock has said he doesn’t want high graduation rates just so everyone feels better for a short time, while students don’t have skills they need to succeed in the workplace.”
Does widespread failure on this year’s new end-of-course exams mean that Ohio’s high schools are suddenly expecting less of their students and the students are learning less in their classes? No. It simply means that state policy makers imagined they could drive higher expectations across the state’s schools by setting the cut score higher and reducing the number of students who pass. Politicians imagined that schools would be able to respond by demanding more of students, but here is the problem. This is the first year of the tests. The Columbus Dispatch quotes Hilliard Superintendent John Marschhausen, “We don’t even have the item analysis for last year’s exams… We know what the kids scored, but we don’t know what they need help with.” An official from the Olentangy schools also complained to the Dispatch that students have been scoring lower than they should partly because the exams are administered on the computer, while students are more accustomed to paper and pencil tests.
The reality, of course, is also that children living in poverty are even less likely to have access to computers at home and less opportunity to feel comfortable with online exams. O’Donnell reports that, “School districts have been sorting out where their students stand since receiving new state report cards this fall and several have started sending letters to parents informing them of their teenager’s progress. The Cleveland school district is just sending those letters out, with about 50 percent of students behind where they need to be to graduate.”
It seems some members of the State Board and the Legislature are amenable to making adjustments—either reducing for now the number of points (earned by passing state tests) required for graduation, by phasing the new requirements in over time as high schools become accustomed to the requirements of the new tests, or by expanding alternative paths to graduation. The fact that school superintendents and school board members—exhausted by the state’s shifting demands over many years and often split by the disparate impact of state accountability on suburban, rural and urban districts—are rallying together in Columbus today may serve as a motivator for the state’s politicians to respond to their public.