from The Advocate-School Evaluations Tell Vastly Different Stories

Also Published EducationNews.org on March 2, 2005

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A Gannett Newspaper

February 11, 2005

School Evaluations Tell Vastly Different Stories

Guest Column

by Thomas J. Lasley II and William L. Bainbridge

Research has shown that high-quality elementary and secondary education results in higher lifetime incomes, lower crime rates and a higher quality of life for graduates. Research also shows that not all programs produce positive results -- because program quality is key.

In order to better assess program quality, groups often seek ways to ensure that funding invested in our public school programs actually produces results. Many organizations have developed rating systems as tools to evaluate the quality of state program standards established for schools -- not unlike the ratings commonly used to assess movies or restaurants.

Sometimes, like the movie reviews, the ratings of state education standards contain large discrepancies. Two reports recently made news regarding academic standards in Ohio: The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation issued Ohio a "D" for state standards, while Education Week's 2005 Quality Counts report posted an "A" for the Buckeye State. In the latter study, Ohio was one of just 12 states to receive the highest mark at all grade levels for "specific standards in English, mathematics and science."

When one organization sharply knocks our state's expectations of what all students should know and another gives us enthusiastic praise, is there any wonder confusion exists? There is a danger that when such groups rate programs differently, the community loses faith in the concept of the state standards altogether.

Leaders of the Fordham Foundation, consistently harsh critics of our public schools, have been proponents of "the need for dramatically higher standards" and "verifiable outcomes and accountability." On the other hand, the nonprofit Education Week has generally been more neutral.

Depending where one starts with any analysis of standards likely dictates the conclusions one reaches. If one assumes that memorization is an imperative, not just number fact fluency, and that technology can pose a barrier to understanding concepts, like the fact rational numbers necessarily have repeating decimals, any assessment of Ohio's standards yields a negative result.

The Fordham Foundation recently reviewed and critiqued the mathematics standards in all 50 states. Ohio received a "D" grade a long with 18 other states. But interestingly, of the three states receiving "A's," only Massachusetts outperformed Ohio at both the fourth- and eighth grade levels on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exams.

The Fordham Foundation report identified several major problems evidenced in the academic standards used by the 50 states. They included a lack of emphasis on memorization, too much emphasis on calculators and too much emphasis on manipulatives (learning materials designed to help students understand abstract ideas by handling physical objects. An abacus, for example, is a mathematics manipulative).

Education Week's analysis is broader. It examines standards in several academic areas, including mathematics, along with a focus on teacher quality, school climate and resources. On standards and accountability, Ohio received an "A." The Education Week analysis notes that standards have been established; they are clear and specific, and use a variety of test measures to assess student performance.

Two reports resulted in two different assessments. What does it mean for practitioners and policymakers?

Clearly, much work has gone into developing Ohio's academic standards. That work often occurs with political and practical compromises. It is no surprise that weaknesses occur within the context of the turmoil associated with committee-developed standards.

Reports such as the Fordham Foundation's should be neither fully embraced nor completely rejected. But now that Ohio has established standards, state policymakers should create cyclical reviews where standards are assessed based upon thoughtful critiques. More importantly, areas of significant weakness should be identified and addressed.

One of the critiques of the Ohio math standards by the Fordham Foundation suggests that statistics and probability are "grossly overemphasized" throughout the standards.

In a recent meeting of Ohio mathematicians, some of who helped develop the Ohio standards, one academician agreed with the Fordham Foundation assessment, but quipped, "What do you expect given the limited time we had to develop the standards?"

Interestingly, there is no relationship of either rating to the performance of Ohio students on college entrance examinations or standardized norm-referenced tests. Reviews of standards often are the result of autocratic decision making in designing the methodology, much like the movie reviews.

Ohioans should not be critical of one another about weaknesses within the standards. Rather, policymakers and practitioners should begin a process of thinking through how to review all academic standards on an ongoing basis in order to "get them right" over time, because it is simply impossible to get them absolutely right the first time.

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Thomas J. Lasley II is Dean of the School of Education and Allied Professions at the University of Dayton. William Bainbridge is President of SchoolMatch and Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Dayton.

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