Yesterday, Ohio released school district report cards that reflect the test-and-punish theory that if we hold schools accountable for raising students’ test scores and graduation rates, teachers will somehow rise to the occasion and find a way to raise measured achievement to high levels. Instead, the new state report cards demonstrate just what we already knew they would. While the 2018 school report cards in Ohio have now become official and will subject the school districts branded with “F”s to punishments like state takeover, the state has been releasing unofficial, trial-balloon school and school district grades for several years now, and every time, the school districts in the state’s wealthiest communities got “A”s while city school districts, and inner-ring suburbs got “D”s and “F”s.
This year, 28 school districts across Ohio earned “A” ratings. Twenty-three “A”-rated school districts are located in the state’s wealthiest suburban and exurban areas surrounding Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton and Toledo. Eleven of the A-rated suburban districts are located in greater Cleveland, including five of Cuyahoga County’s privileged suburbs and six exurbs in the surrounding Geauga, Summit, Portage, Lorain and Medina Counties. Five “A”-rated school districts are located in small towns—four in prosperous farming country in western Ohio.
Fourteen districts across Ohio received “F”s yesterday. These include the majority of the state’s largest cities: Cleveland, Canton, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, and Youngstown. Ohio’s other two big-city school districts—Cincinnati and Akron—earned “D” grades. The list of so-called “F” school districts also includes a number of very poor, segregated inner ring suburbs including East Cleveland and Euclid in greater Cleveland and North College Hill in greater Cincinnati. The two Ohio school districts currently under state takeover—Youngstown and Lorain—did not improve this year under state management; both earned “F” grades. Three school districts were waiting to learn whether the state would take them over if they earned an “F” again for the third time this year: Warrensville Heights in greater Cleveland and Trotwood-Madison in greater Dayton raised their scores to “D” and avoided the takeover. East Cleveland, among the very poorest and most racially segregated school districts in Ohio, will face state takeover, as its 2018 grade adds a third year to the district’s “F” ratings.
The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell has been reporting since 2013 (here and here) on what many Ohio researchers and educators believe is the correlation of the state’s school and school district grades with aggregate family income in the communities served by particular school districts.
More broadly, academic research, for half a century since the 1966 Coleman Report, has confirmed the correlation of school achievement—measured by standardized achievement tests and graduation rates—with aggregate neighborhood and family economic circumstances. More recently, the Stanford University sociologist, Sean Reardon has shown that our society is resegregating by income with wealthy families and poor families moving to separate communities. Reardon also demonstrates that the number of mixed income communities is declining. Reardon has also shown that as our society is becoming more residentially segregated by family income, there has been a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap. The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap. The geographic distribution of Ohio’s 2018, “A”–“F” school grades demonstrates the growing residential segregation of our state’s metropolitan areas and the kind of economic achievement gap Reardon has identified.
In his important new book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Harvard University’s Daniel Koretz describes the testing regime formalized in the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms… Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (pp. 129-130)
A new report this week from the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools additionally indicts what remains very unequal school funding. While it has been repeatedly demonstrated that school districts where poverty is concentrated need extra money to meet their students’ many needs, these school districts across the United States have fewer dollars per pupil once state and local funding is combined: “Districts serving white and more affluent students spend thousands to tens of thousands of dollars more, per pupil, than high poverty school districts and those serving majorities of Black and Brown students. The challenges faced by these schools—larger class size, fewer experienced teachers, the lack of libraries, science equipment, technology and counselors—all reflect a lack of resources.” The report adds, “The Education Trust found that in 2015, on average, districts with large majorities of students of color provided about $1,800 (13 percent) less per student than districts in the same state serving the fewest students of color.” Howard Fleeter, an economist and school funding analyst at the Ohio Education Policy Institute, confirmed in a recent report that Ohio’s current school funding formula fails to compensate for vastly unequal local fiscal capacity across Ohio’s school districts.
There are many reasons to be concerned about the broader implications of Ohio’s policy of awarding “A”–“F” grades to the state’s very unequally funded school districts—places which also reflect the geographic distribution of our society’s massive family economic inequality. While the federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to evaluate schools and publish the results, and while ESSA says that standardized test scores and graduation rates must be part of the calculation, Congress does not require states to award a single “summative” grade to each school and school district. Several years ago in greater Cleveland, a local fair housing agency, Heights Community Congress sponsored a well-attended program on how real estate websites—like Great Schools, which at the time published A-F grades for public schools (Great Schools now uses numerical ratings.)—have been redlining particular school districts and the neighborhoods in the attendance zones of particular schools. You would think these real estate websites have been violating the Fair Housing Act by steering families away from particular school districts, but they have been, in fact, merely using the information provided by the state of Ohio in the school report cards. The branding of public schools with “A”–“F” grades (or today’s Great Schools’ numerical system) encourages families who can afford it to avoid poor and mixed income school districts and buy homes in homogeneously white and wealthy exurbia.
Instead of branding Ohio’s poorest African American and Hispanic school districts with “F”s and punishing the state’s very poorest school districts with state takeover, the state should significantly increase its financial support for public schools in poor communities and encourage the development of full-service wraparound schools that provide medical and social services for families right at school. Ohio’s system of branding the state’s poorest schools with “F” grades and imposing sanctions like state takeover undermines support for public education in school districts that desperately need strong community institutions. The school district report cards also encourage segregation of the state’s metropolitan areas by race and family income.