By Melanie Williamson
Last month the state report cards for all the school districts were released. In an article published in the Thursday, September 21, edition of the Photojournal, superintendent Phil Pempin and assistant superintendent Jim Balotta responded to the release of the state report card. At that time, both Pempin and Balotta reiterated their belief that while there is always room for improvement, they take issue with how the state comes up with these grades.
At the Monday, October 9, school board meeting Balotta and Sailorway assistant principal Bobby Figuly presented to the board information they put together on how Vermilion schools did on the state report card in comparison to the rest of the state in each testing area and within subgroups.
There are 23 state tests issued each year from third through twelfth grade. Of the 23 tests, Vermilion students scored higher than the state average on 18 of them. In some areas, they scored significantly higher. For example, for third grade math, the state average if 70.7% and Vermilion scored an 85.2%; fifth grade math, the state average is 61.6%, and Vermilion scored an 80.3%; fifth grade science, the state average is 68.3%, and Vermilion scored an 83.6%. Nine of the state tests are administered at the high school level, and of those nine, Vermilion scored above the state average on eight of them. This information leads to the question; if Vermilion received unremarkable grades, but the district is doing better than the state average in most areas, what does that say about the grading criteria being used?
The state recognizes economically disadvantaged students and special education students as subgroups, and the district receives a grade specifically on how members of these subgroups perform on state tests. Vermilion Local Schools received an “F” in “meeting the performance expectations for our most vulnerable populations of students.” Despite the deficient grade, of the four subgroup grades, Vermilion “substantially outscored the state average” according to Figuly. He then passed out a chart showing that for math and language arts scores for students classified as economically disadvantaged and special education, Vermilion scored between 6.1% and 15.3% higher than the state average.
Balotta reiterated the fact that these grades are based on one test students are given on one day; they do not reflect growth, and in many cases, they do not reflect the students’ real knowledge or potential. He cited studies that have been done demonstrating how the smallest change could drastically change test outcomes. One example was a study in which the teachers gave half of the students a mint candy to suck on while they take the test. Those students outperformed the students without a mint.
Balotta went on to say that the tests also do not reflect the career prep and academic opportunities the district provides students. He referred to the student presentations that were made at the start of the board meeting on the technology and journalism classes, stating that none of that is taken into consideration when grading the district.
Balotta and Figuly also explained that some of the grades are deceiving. For example, a “C” in the progress category of the report card indicates one years’ growth. That means that is a student passes their sixth grade math test with the same score that they passed their fifth grade math test, the district gets a “C” because the student demonstrated one year’s worth of growth academically. A “C” is considered good in this case.
Figuly presented a slide show for the board meeting that included trend data showing how Vermilion has progressed over the past five years. The trend data revealed that despite the constantly changing tests, students have improved year after year. The trend data also revealed that the fifth grade has consistently done well over the past five years. Figuly explained that one of the things they are doing is looking at how the fifth grade teachers address and prepare for the state tests to see if they are doing something differently from the other grades.
Figuly also pointed out that the prepared for success category on the state test takes into consideration things like ACT and SAT participation, honors diplomas, and such. It does not take into consideration career training or alternative programs. Board member Stepp pointed out that she finds it odd that the district received a “D” in prepared for success, but an “A” in graduation rate. She questioned how having a high graduation rate isn’t considered success.
Balotta reiterated that there is always room for improvement and they will keep working to provide students with more and better opportunities. However, he stated clearly, “We should be proud. Our students are very active, engaged, and interested in a lot of things.” He referred to the number of students involved in afterschool activities when talking about student engagement.
Board member Chris Habermehl responded that he thinks the district is doing the right things, and that they should reach out to other districts that are doing better to talk to them, as well as continue to look at what is being done at the fifth grader level. He stated, “we need to better understand where we need to make changes.” Figuly responded in agreement and added, “We are trending in the right direction, but there is always room for improvement.”
Following the presentation, superintendent Pempin stated, that he “understands the district grades impact people’s emotions whether that is fair or unfair and that it is something that may impact the district in regards to open enrollment.” However, he went on to say that the multitude of issues that come out of the state’s system of grading districts, makes the grades absurd.
He furthered his argument by asserting that state testing comes down to money. He asserted that the test companies have lobbyists that influence state officials and they influence the decisions being made regarding state tests. Pempin stated again that the entire thing is absurd. The changing tests and changing criteria are all absurd, and it comes down to money. He referred to the protest he participated in with other superintendents from around the state last November, and stated that they made their concerns known but nothing has been done about it.
After sharing his views with the board, Pempin passed out a sample resolution that was presented by the Olmsted Falls Board of Education. He stated that many of the superintendents throughout Lorain County and Cuyahoga County are looking at this and similar resolutions. The sample resolution called out the state standards for their inadequacy and committed to creating a new set of standards that are appropriate and more accurate for the district.
The Olmsted Falls resolution states the school board believes that the “state-imposed educational accountability system…ignores the complexity of schools and education because such a grading system is unable to reliably and accurately capture the nuances of student achievement.” The resolution further states that the board believes the state-imposed accountability system has “unintended consequences that may impose limits on a public school system by forcing that system to ‘teach to the test’ which in turn shrinks the curriculum and forces teachers to teach for coverage rather than teach for understanding.”
The proposed resolution is to “create a more relevant and responsible set of school district and student outcomes that our local community values. These outcomes will extend beyond simple standardized test scores.” The resolution also commits to, “working with a broad group of stakeholders to create a Profile of an Olmsted Falls City School District Graduate that captures not only the academic skills necessary to be a productive person but accounts for the overall value…”
After passing out the sample resolution, Pempin asked the board members to read over it and take some time thinking about it. He would like to make some changes, so it is more relevant to Vermilion and then discuss the possibility of passing such a resolution. In past discussions about the state testing, Pempin has stated a desire to create a policy that would essentially relieve the teachers from the pressure of being evaluated based on the state tests, so they have the freedom to be more creative in their teaching and curriculum. This sample resolution could accomplish that.