These are unprecedented times. COVID-19 has greatly altered or paused much of what we do on a daily basis, including education. Governor DeWine has suspended in-person classes in K–12 schools statewide from March 17 until at least May 1. While most schools are attempting to offer some type of distance learning, it’s decidedly not business as usual.
In response to the pandemic, the legislature passed much-needed emergency legislation, HB 197, on March 25. The bill includes a variety of education provisions that essentially put school accountability on hold. This includes waiving state testing for 2020, suspending state report cards, permitting on-track seniors to graduate without completing all requirements, allowing local schools to determine whether third graders read sufficiently to advance to fourth grade, and making teacher evaluations optional.
In a normal year, these changes would be a big deal, especially as some violate federal education law. Nevertheless, pressing pause on accountability is absolutely the right thing to do. The governor and General Assembly deserve credit for taking this action.
Given that Fordham is a staunch advocate of school accountability, our support for this pause merits an explanation. There are three main reasons this was a good idea.
First, state tests are, at their core, designed to measure a student’s academic achievement. Did Suzie learn what fourth graders are supposed to learn? This year, schools stopped in-person instruction after about 75 percent of the year. It stands to reason that there are a number of concepts in both math and reading there just wasn’t time to cover. Suzie would inevitably—through no fault of her own—perform worse than she otherwise could have.
That’s only half the story, though. It’s easy to focus on the pandemic-forced changes in education, like the difference between in-person and online learning. But that’s shortsighted. With 22 million Americans and more than 850,000 Ohioans joining the ranks of the unemployed in just the last four weeks, the impact on family life will be significant. Such abrupt changes, combined with concerns about the virus itself, are extremely likely to increase fear and uncertainty at an unparalleled scale for a significant number of students. And we know from many years of data that students facing these types of challenges are likely to perform more poorly on state assessments. It will tell us little about a school or district’s academic achievement when an abrupt shock to the system—like this pandemic—occurs. This doesn’t diminish the importance and value of testing. It just isn’t important or particularly useful given our current context.
Second, accountability systems are supposed to be fair. This is a key principle for advocates on both sides of the accountability debate. We may disagree—and often do—as to whether a particular report card component is calculated properly or is important to measure, but we don’t disagree that fairness is imperative. Even if it were possible to administer state assessments this year—and there are some arguments as to why it might not be a bad idea—it simply wouldn’t be fair to pretend that it was a typical year.
The issue of fairness goes beyond the district and school ratings captured by state report cards. The legislature was smart to recognize that students and teachers are also impacted. Third grade students missed out on important opportunities to strengthen their reading skills and meet the state’s threshold for promotion to fourth grade. Seniors, in addition to missing prom and spring sports, also missed the chance to take or retake end of course exams and demonstrate they’ve met the state’s graduation requirements. Similarly, to the extent teacher evaluations are still using student learning as a factor, there’s no reasonable way to assign a rating. And that’s OK. These measures, while intended to incentivize and prioritize student achievement, should be placed on hold.
Finally, the governor and legislature rightfully limited the pause to just one school year. This is especially important given the ongoing discussions around how to improve the state report card. Lawmakers could have opportunistically attempted to pause accountability for an extended number of years or even pressed stop. They didn’t and deserve credit for this. That doesn’t mean lawmakers won’t be discussing report cards and accountability later this year. Fordham has been recommending ways to improve state report cards for more than two years now, and the debate is most certainly going to continue. But now, lawmakers will also need to have important conversations about how to restart the accountability system after a year without testing.
This pandemic has been tough for everyone. Ohio, thanks to strong leadership and a little luck, has weathered the storm much better than many places. The storm clouds will pass, and we’ll eventually get back to some measure of normalcy. When we do, we’ll need to assess the damage, see where we are, and decide how to move forward. But for now, Ohio was right to pause accountability.