Mission: Inform Ohioans of effective steps to secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the State.

The trial court in DeRolph explicitly required the state to ensure that students could "function socially and economically in Ohio and globally." However, the current system of proficiency testing may undermine this mandate.

Ohio's Proficiency Tests Fail to Meet the Thorough and Efficient Mandate

Ohio's school funding litigation (the DeRolph case) produced guidelines for public school accountability. The current system of proficiency tests do not fully conform to those guidelines, and need to be improved.

In 1994 the trial court DeRolph proposed criteria through which public schools could demonstrate compliance to Ohio's constitutional mandate of "thorough and efficient" public education. The guidelines speak to four areas relevant to the role of proficiency testing:

The current state proficiency test undermines these guidelines in two ways. First, it establishes a "one size fits all" mininum standard which can impede meeting these four goals. That is, students are measured against a fixed criteria regardless of their "full potential." Students with high potential are not challenged by the proficiency tests to be academically competitive with students throughout the world, and districts are encouraged to emphasize success on proficiency exams at the expense of these more appropriate educational goals.

The "thorough and efficient" guidelines are undermined in a second way. The first step to ensure high levels of achievement for all Ohio's schoolchildren is to determine when and where student performance improves. But the proficiency tests do not measure improvements in student performance. Thus, the proficiency tests do not identify schools which best serve at-risk student populations. Nor does the test ensure students in such schools achieve their full potential. Finally, by not reporting student improvement, teachers who serve the most at-risk students are unlikely to recieve due recognition when those students improve.

Thus, the proficiency test does a disservice to both high-achieving students and low-achieving students. High-achieving students are more likely to spend time in classes mainly focused on proficiency test preparation, and low-achieving students (and their teachers) are not recognized for progress toward passing the proficiencies.

High Levels of Achievement are Important for Ohio's Students

As already mentioned, Ohio's schools are responsible to provide skills which allow students to "function socially and economically in Ohio and globally," and allow students to "compete favorably with their counterparts throughout the world."

However, researchers have shown that Ohio's schools are not meeting the mandate. In A New Compact for Ohio's Schools: A Report to Ohio's Educational Policy Leaders (March 1999), Achieve, Inc. reported on an earlier study:

The question for Ohio, as for most other states, is whether the rate of educational improvement is sufficiently rapid, especially given the pace of change in the larger society. The most powerful and sobering answer to that question is contained in Knowledge and Know-How: Meeting Ohio's Skill Gap Challenge, a 1998 study conducted by the Ohio Business Roundtable and the Department of Education in conjunction with American College Testing. This report, based on a sophisticated analysis of the skill level requirements of entry-level jobs in five high growth career clusters, and a related skills assessment of a representative sample of 14,000 Ohio high school seniors, revealed that only one Ohio student in fourteen is leaving high school well-prepared to participate in Ohio's emerging knowledge-based economy.

If thirteen of fourteen Ohio students are not "well-prepared to participate in Ohio's emerging knowledge-based economy," are they nonetheless able to "function socially and economically in Ohio and globally" as mandated by the Ohio Constitution?

By focusing school districts on the pursuit of mininum standards, The proficiency exam puts Ohio's students at risk of not competing "favorably with their counterparts throughout the world." Consider Ohio's level of student participation in more demanding tests, such as Advanced Placement (AP) testing:

83 per 1000 students in Ohio take AP tests while 122 per 1000 nationally do so, leaving Ohio ranged 32nd in this category. Utah and Virginia had the highest rates, 229 and 221 respectively, while South and North Dakota had the lowest rates, 35 and 24, respectively. p17

Clearly, the "one size fits all" mininum standard dictated by the proficiency exams does not encourage students to achieve a high levels, to "compete favorably with their counterparts throughout the world," or to be "well-prepared to participate in Ohio's emerging knowledge-based economy."

Equity Issues Related to Proficiency Testing

By making the proficiency exams a key component of the State's accountability system, schools may be tempted to "dumb down" the curriculum by teaching to the test. In fact, researcher Gerald Bracey describes just such a scenario and suggests that it may adversely impact students based on ethnicity:
In reaction to the National Educational Goals, Ohio has constructed a series of proficiency tests that must be passed as a condition of graduation. There are large differences in passing rates among different ethnicities. This might result in "curriculum deflection" for those at risk of failing the tests, That is, the curriculum for such students might well narrow and concentrate on materials and objectives related to the tests. [p viii]
In fact, Tennessee has already noted racial inequities in the ability of their schools to serve high achieving students:

Clearly, the state's accountability system must not encourage schools to further underserve racial minorities, as Bracey's scenario suggests. Nor should it penalize those teachers who work with students unlikely to pass proficiency exams.

Accountability and Improvement in Student Performance

The Achieve study recommended that Ohio's accountability system be strengthened by the following actions: However, the current proficiency tests do not measure student improvement. They measure a "proficiency level" which has not been shown to correspond to "leaving high school well-prepared to participate in Ohio's emerging knowledge-based economy."

As the Achieve report notes, an appropriate accountability system must reward significant improvement and encourage global competitiveness. These two goals can not be served by a one-size-fits-all proficiency test.

Are the Proficiency Test Counter-Productive?

Although proficiency testing is flawed and has its detractors, its flaws are correctable. If the flaws go unaddressed, however, the current proficiency testing system will continue to encourage district to "teach to the test" at the expense of students who need far higher goals than the state's mininum standards. In addition, it may lead to ignoring the instructional needs of those students with little hope of passing the proficiencies. Finally, as Bracey suggests, teaching to the test might lead to inequities along racial lines. The better solution is to ensure that each student progresses at a rate appropriate for that student. This can be achieved through "value-added assessment," which also addresses the Achieve report's goal of measuring student improvement.

Rather than mobilizing districts to meet "one-size-fits-all" mininum standards which fail to recognize schools which effectively serve highly disadvantaged students, districts should be held accountable for student improvement. This maintains accountability of the district for students who are easily able to pass the current proficiency test as well as those students who are unlikely to pass the test. By holding Ohio's schools accountable for student improvement and high achievement the General Assembly helps ensure that "common schools are being operated without there being mismanagement, waste or misuse of funds."

How Value-Add Testing Addresses the Current Flaws

As noted, the proficiency tests may result in ignoring the educational needs of students at both ends of the achievement spectrum. Value added assessment encourages improvement for all groups of students. It also addresses other flaws in the current system. For example, an ETS white paper, Too Much Testing of the Wrong Kind; Too Little of the Right Kind in K-12 Education notes:

We are in danger of focusing too much on highly structured systems--largely for outside control--and not on the teacher as a professional.
If tests are used to judge teachers and schools, they should measure gains in achievement, not just levels of knowledge.
Similarly, Charting New Frontiers: Creating High Performing Schools observes:
The only way to significantly improve student achievement is by significantly improving our public education systems. Everything else is just useless, and often times harmful tinkering.
Transforming state testing programs from centralized inspections systems to decentralized process improvement systems is the single biggest obstacle to the creation of high-performing schools. Alignment, continual improvement, prevention, and management by facts are not possible if reliable and valid measurements do not exist in the classroom.

Students and teachers all win when schools are held accountable for student improvement rather than merely meeting mininum standards. Such accountability instruments provide the facts necessary to distinguish meeting mininum standards from achieving high levels of student improvement, and ensure that at-risk populations are appropriately served without discrediting the efforts of heroic educators who work with disadvantaged students.

More information on Value-Added Assessment can be found at Value-Added Assessment: An Accountability Revolution and Comprehensive Information on The Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System

Inform Ohioans of effective steps to secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the State.