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Ohio Graduation Test Will Deliver Shocks to Many

July 4, 2004

by Thomas J. Lasley, II and William L. Bainbridge

The Ohio Graduation Test will have an impact. Whether that impact is perceived as good or bad depends on who’s talking.

Some critics predict massive student failures; others suggest the outcomes are still understandably murky; still others see no connection between high stakes tests and lower graduation rates.

What to believe? Who to believe?

The push toward standards, assessment and accountability started 20 years ago with the "A Nation at Risk" report. Its authors claimed that the well-being of America was being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity.

A room full of subsequent reports suggest every conceivable type of solution. The one most Ohio parents will experience is high-stakes testing such as the Ohio Graduation Test (OGT).

Starting next year students across Ohio will be taking the OGT. Their ability to pass that test will dictate whether they can graduate from high school. Debates are now occurring about the content of the OGT and the process for determining who passes and who fails. In early versions designed to establish cut-off scores, far too many students failed and especially far too many students of color performed poorly. Experts are now "playing" with the test.

But the test is coming.

The questions are: Will Ohio’s 10th-graders be ready? Are Ohio’s schools adequately preparing students for success? And, is there anything that can be done to mitigate the likelihood of an educational policy disaster?

Our answers: No, No, and Maybe.

First "No": Ohio’s 9th-graders are not now ready for the tests. Ohio, like other states, is slowly aligning its systems of standards, assessment and accountability. But many students will fall between the cracks of those unaligned systems.

The conservative Thomas B. Fordham Foundation rated Ohio’s accountability system. It found the newly implemented standards solid but rated as only fair the alignment of test and content.

Is it reasonable to expect Ohio’s students to be ready if the state system of standards and assessments is still a work in progress and not fully implemented?

Second "No": Ohio’s schools are still not adequately preparing students for the OGT. There is, as the saying goes, blame enough to go round. Pick your least favorite institution, agency or social phenomenon.

As examples: Teacher education institutions are still uneven in terms of how well they prepare teachers. And, schools, especially urban schools, are just beginning to identify practices that can make a difference in content areas such as reading and math, but they often lack the resources to develop in their teachers the needed skills.

So, the state is now getting its act together (thanks to efforts such as the Governor’s Commission on Student Success), but educational institutions still have far too many weak links in the educational chain.

The OGT is still going to be administered.

The outcome won’t be pretty. In early trial tests, up to 75 percent of some student groups failed. Later tests produced more positive, but still disturbing, results.

That brings us to "What to do?"

Clearly, Ohioans want the high school diploma to mean something. It should and must be more than a seat-time credential.

The State Board of Education’s Task Force on Quality High Schools offered two improvements:

(1) Use end-of-course assessments, based on a rigorous curriculum, rather than a single high school exit exam. Exit exams in core subjects are becoming increasingly popular. Though problems have emerged in some cities where required exit exams in core courses are in place, the use of exit exams holds promise. The state should find ways to use the exit exam approach.

(2) Create an appeals system for students who fulfill the requirements of a rigorous curriculum but who cannot pass the OGT. Other states have done this with some success; Ohio should embrace the approach. There will always be some students who know the content but cannot pass the test. While we cannot explain why that is the case, it is clear that it is a reality. Ohio’s system needs to be open enough to ensure that a student who cannot test is not tested beyond his or her limits.

We suggest a third improvement:

Create more secondary school structures that meet the unique learning needs of the diverse student populations now in secondary schools. Urban schools such as those in Dayton (the Dayton Early College Academy) are already beginning to make this change. Secondary students can go through high school in lots of different ways that are not at all typical of the traditional comprehensive high school. If the goal is to help all students to learn to their potential and to a set of agreed upon standards, then Ohio needs to become a leader in what high school looks like.

Why all the fuss about how to teach and test? Why not just set the standard and hold students accountable?

Because no one really knows what will happen. Some researchers claim drop out rates increase with exit tests. Some say they don’t. Who is right? No one really knows.

What is known is that Ohio can create a system that has the complexity and sophistication that Ohio’s young people deserve.

Without solutions, good solutions, it is likely that large numbers of students will just not make it. We already have a system where students drop out. Ohio must create something better . . . and that means that more than a test must be put in place.

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

is Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Dayton and is President & Chief Executive Officer of SchoolMatch®, a Columbus based educational auditing, research, data firm.

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