Last spring in a profound commentary the editors of Rethinking Schools magazine argued that school accountability based on high-stakes standardized tests merely disguises class and race privilege as merit. While individual children of all economic and racial groups are likely to score all over the spectrum on standardized tests, in the aggregate scores are likely to be higher among privileged children. And if schools in our racially and economically segregated society are judged by the students’ test scores, the schools serving wealthier children will appear to be doing a better job just because the children who attend the schools bring their privilege with them to school.
Ohio, like other states, ignores this reality by attaching its rating system for schools and school districts to the standardized test scores of the students. The state credits standardized test scores to the quality of the school district’s teachers and the curriculum and ignores other variables that might be affecting the test scores.
Ohio is currently in transition between a school district rating system that awarded ratings of “Excellent, Effective, Continuous Improvement, Academic Watch and Academic Emergency” to our new system which will feature school district grades of “A, B, C, D, and F.” Next year districts will receive overall letter grades; late last week the Ohio Department of Education released complicated report cards for school district performance during the 2013-2014 academic year, report cards that award a miasma of letter grades and raw scores. Most all the grades, however, are for scores on various standardized tests, with the graduation rate and attendance added in, along with a formula-based grade for “value added.”
In the concluding chapter of Public Education Under Siege, Mike Rose and Michael Katz address the trend across the states (including Ohio) to rate school districts on test scores alone: “Perhaps the greatest strength of the current reform movement is its focus on inequality… (but) Because reformers want to keep focus with ‘no excuses’ on the unacceptable performance of poor children, they insist on addressing outcomes (in the form of test scores) rather than on inequality of resources and social conditions. This is an understandable strategy, but its narrow focus has a potent liability. Poverty itself tends to be pushed out of the picture. Poverty is mentioned, but in a variety of ways it is downplayed. So all the damage poverty does to communities and to households, to schools and to other local institutions is rarely addressed… Low achievement then, by default, has to be attributed to teachers and administrators.” (Education Under Siege, p. 222)
Just before Ohio released the new school district report cards last week, the Plain Dealerreporter, Patrick O’Donnell (like almost everybody else across the state who just accepts the ratings on their face) neglected to wonder about the legitimacy of Ohio’s system for evaluating and ranking school districts and seemed to understand his task as explaining how the rating system works for the purpose of measuring the quality of the county’s 31 school districts: “If enough students score well enough to be proficient in fourth-grade math, for example, a school or district has met that indicator and receives credit for it. The report card will show the number of indicators met and will grade each school and district on how well it has met indicators.” A follow-up article in Saturday’s Plain Dealer when school district ratings were published does mention some concern among the state school boards’ and superintendents’ organizations in Columbus about the correlation of district rankings with poverty, but even the emphasis of these policy advocates seems to be on more state funding for districts serving children in poverty (a good idea) without any pointed critique of the premise of test-based accountability.
Because I suspect that—in the words of Buffalo Springfield’s 1966 song,”There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear”—I checked the Ohio Department of Education’s Office on Child Nutrition’s data to track the percentage of children who qualify for federally funded free lunch. The number or percentage of children in a school district who qualify for the federal free and reduced price lunch program is widely accepted as a proxy for student poverty. To qualify for free lunch, a child must live in a family at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty line; hence a family of four whose children qualify for free lunch has an income under $31,005 per year. Then I compared the percentage of students who qualify for free lunch to the school district’s “Performance Index,” on Ohio’s state school district report card. (“Performance Index” is the factor which the Plain Dealer describes as being the overall reflection of standardized test scores.)
Cuyahoga County, where Cleveland is located, has 31 school districts. I looked at poverty data for the eight Cuyahoga County school districts with the lowest Performance Index ratings and the eight districts with the highest Performance Index ratings. My informal analysis is consistent with what academic research has demonstrated again and again: test scores, on average, correlate with family income. School districts with the highest “Performance Index” scores are wealthy—often outer-ring—suburbs, while the Cleveland City Schools and several suburbs in the inner ring score low in the “Performance Index” ratings. The difference in the amount of family poverty between the high and low scoring districts is startling.
Here is the free lunch data for the eight bottom scoring school districts. Warrensville Heights with the lowest “Performance Index score” has 73.45 percent of children qualifying for free lunch; East Cleveland–92.19 percent; Cleveland–74.83 percent; Maple Heights–73.45 percent; Euclid–66.7 percent; Garfield Heights–61.60 percent; Richmond Heights–66.40 percent; and Cleveland Heights-University Heights–59.43 percent.
Then I looked at the eight top scoring school districts. Solon, the district with the highest performance rating, has 8.89 percent of children who qualify for free lunch; Rocky River–13.01 percent; Beachwood–8.75 percent; Chagrin Falls–3.16 percent; Independence–7.33 percent; Bay Village 6.16 percent; Brecksville-Broadview Heights 10.19 percent; and Orange–11.34 percent.
Randy Hoover, professor emeritus at Youngstown State University clearly understands what’s happening here. Hoover recently described both the irony and tragedy of how standardized testing and the rating of school districts is playing out among his former students who have become public school teachers: “For my students working in high-poverty schools, the isolation and alienation was palpable, with very good, dedicated teachers feeling demoralized and abandoned amid the very public, state-mandated accountability reports showing them to be professionally incompetent. Equally disturbing were those in the wealthier schools who were starting to become a bit smug because these same accountability reports portrayed them to be professionally excellent. Neither group understood that teachers in low-performing schools were no more the cause of low performance than those in high-performing schools were of performance success.”