At the end of June, Governor John Kasich vetoed a provision in the state budget bill that would have changed school grading calculations for purposes of evaluating the performance of Ohio’s charter school sponsors. Keep in mind that sponsors—as they should be—are evaluated in part on the basis of how well the charter schools in their portfolios are doing on state report card metrics. At issue here was the weight that the Ohio Department of Education places on student growth—or value added—relative to other measures. The General Assembly, seemingly unhappy with the current, bureaucratically derived framework for sponsor evaluations, had wanted to increase the weight on student growth from 20 to 60 percent. That change would have applied to the “summative” (or “overall”) A-F grades of charter schools when applied to the evaluation of their sponsors.
Transitioning sponsors towards a growth-centered system was a positive move by the legislature, and it’s disappointing that the governor vetoed the provision. Growth measures consider individual students’ academic performance over time and gauge a school’s impact on student achievement. They differ from status measures, such as proficiency rates, which are “snapshots” of student performance at a point in time. But why does growth deserve heavier weight—and not only for sponsors but for all schools?
Ohio’s current grading system doesn’t effectively gauge the performance of high-poverty schools. The present formula heavily weights measures that correlate with student demographics—things like proficiency and graduation—and the inevitable result is that almost all high-poverty schools receive D’s and F’s. For instance, upwards of 90 percent of Columbus City schools would have been assigned those grades had the state issued summative letter grades for 2015-16. In effect, this type of grading system views every high-poverty school as “low performing,” despite the fact that dozens of high-poverty schools are helping their students make up ground.
This has a direct impact on charter sponsors, especially those that authorize schools in high-need communities. Last year, all of Ohio’s thirteen largest sponsors—those with four or more schools, located mostly in poorer urban areas—received a D or F on the academic portion of their evaluation. That doesn’t necessarily mean those sponsors are doing a bad job. Rather, their grades were largely driven by their schools’ D’s and F’s on proficiency based metrics. Because of these low ratings—substantially an artifact of their schools’ demographics—sponsors may be less inclined to open promising new schools in impoverished areas or to renew the contracts of existing schools. The ultimate losers, of course, are needy children denied the opportunity to attend excellent, life-altering charter schools.
The unintended consequences of the current formula are hardly limited to sponsors. They also include: a) failing to inform low-income families about the academic quality of various school options—an inevitable result of schools in their communities getting nearly identical ratings even when one may be producing more student growth than another; b) discouraging investment in high-performing (as measured by growth), high-poverty schools; c) subjecting high-growth schools to invasive interventions; and d) discouraging effective educators from working in Ohio’s highest need schools if they think the state will label their schools as failures. None of these consequences does much good for families and children living in Ohio’s poorest communities—yet they result from a school grading system that’s biased against high-poverty schools, be they district or charter.
The governor explained his veto on grounds that a growth-centered accountability system would “hold those schools [i.e., charters] to lower standards than traditional public schools.” He wrote that “lowering those standards—even in a seemingly narrow way as this provision—undermines this progress [i.e., having uniform statewide accountability].” Although Kasich is correct that a different weighting system for charter sponsors would deviate from the overall accountability system, it surely wouldn’t be the first time: Already the summative ratings of sponsors’ schools figure into their evaluations, whereas districts receive no overall rating, much less an evaluation on quality practices or compliance with laws and regulations.
The governor’s veto message also strengthens the misperception that focusing on growth “lowers standards.” While it may seem counterintuitive, focusing on growth can heighten accountability for all schools and offers additional reasons why Ohio lawmakers should move the main accountability system to a more growth-oriented model.
- It raises the bar for suburban schools, which often receive “easy A’s” when the focus is on proficiency and graduation—status measures that more affluent students have less difficulty meeting. Yet a number of those schools could not count on high ratings when growth comes to the fore; all schools must demonstrate at least a year’s worth of student growth (including high-achievers) in order to earn a solid rating.
- It enhances accountability for high-poverty schools. When the state flunks nearly every high-poverty school, everybody—boards, superintendents, and educators—can dismiss those ratings as driven by poverty—and throw up their hands, as if demography determines destiny. With growth measures as the focus—measures uncorrelated with demographics—schools can no longer simply point to poverty for their poor ratings year after year.
- Finally, let’s remind ourselves that proficiency and graduation rates aren’t necessarily “high standards.” One could point to Ohio’s recent legislative meltdown over graduation standards, whereby young people in the class of 2018 can receive diplomas without demonstrating competency in English or math. In the past, the state set low bars for “proficiency,” though in the past few years it has moved towards a stronger one.
Under a growth-centered accountability regime, some high-poverty schools would earn overall C’s and maybe B’s. Some may think that such summative grades reflect “lower standards,” but in fact they better signal the positive impact schools have on student learning (A’s on value added), while also acknowledging that their pupils continue to lag behind (D’s and F’s on proficiency-based metrics). Under the current weights, the signal on status measures is far too strong and overwhelms the information on growth. A better balance is badly needed.
In the budget bill, lawmakers undertook a worthy fix to the sponsor evaluation system, yet the governor overruled them. What happens next is critical: Both branches need to work towards a more balanced approach to grading districts, schools, and sponsors. They should push for needed changes in the state’s clunky and unfair sponsor evaluation system. Better yet, they should reweight the summative grading calculation for all schools—district and charter—to put more emphasis on student growth.
 All districts and individual schools—district and charter—will begin to receive summative ratings with the 2017-18 school year. Charter sponsors have been evaluated based on Ohio’s summative rating formula since 2015-16.