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Has Ohio set test score targets too high for graduation? Study suggests it has

By PATRICK O’DONNELL • Jul 21, 2019 at 10:00 AM

CLEVELAND — Ohio’s never-ending debate about state tests and how much they should matter has a new twist and question to resolve: Are the state’s test score targets for college readiness or earning a high school diploma too high?

Internal research by the Ohio Department of Education suggests they might be, though that’s up for additional analysis and debate.

The department and board intended for students scoring the second-highest of five levels, or “accelerated,” on state tests, to be fully ready for college and in no need of remedial classes to do college-level work.

But an analysis prepared in June shows that many students now rated as “proficient,” a lower level and the middle of the state’s five levels, score well enough on the national ACT to be considered “remediation-free” for college classes.

While those ratings don’t play a role in college admissions — schools make those decisions on their own — they do matter in a very real way for students trying to meet the state’s high school graduation requirements. Students earn “points” toward graduation depending on the level of their test scores: For example, 3 points for “proficient” and 4 points for “accelerated.”

The state requires students to earn 18 “points” through seven “End-of-Course” exams by receiving one to five points on each test, depending on their score level. Though students can score below “proficient” on some exams and still gather enough points, they must score “proficient” or above on some, too.

State school board member Stephanie Dodd told the board last week that scoring students who know the material well enough to avoid remediation as just “proficient,” shortchanges them on graduation points. That scoring system also hurts lower-scoring students trying to reach “proficiency” targets that might be unreasonably high.

“The disconnect is possibly that our scores are set wrong,” Dodd said.

That could be a major finding, if it holds up to further scrutiny, because students across Ohio, and particularly in urban areas, are having trouble scoring well enough on state tests to earn enough “points” to graduate.

With loud complaints across the state, the state legislature and state school board have made some adjustments and added other temporary routes to earn a diploma. Two competing plans are now before the state legislature, held up because the state budget bill is in limbo.

Dodd told the board that it could solve the issue on its own by changing the point structure of the scores that count for different ratings, as state law allows.

After Dodd brought the analysis to the board’s attention, President Laura Kohler assigned a board committee to review the research this fall and report back.

The report in question compares the test scores of students to ACT scores received by the same students. It then looks at how many students with each state test score also meet the remediation-free ACT scores that the Ohio Board of Regents uses to see which students are qualified for college work.

The analysis suggests that students scoring as “proficient” regularly meet those ACT targets. See the full report below.

State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria cautioned in a note to board members this week that results are preliminary, that state tests and the ACT measure different things, and that teams of Ohio educators helped set the score ranges Ohio uses for its tests.

“Nothing in the analysis suggests a conclusion that the ‘proficient’ score has been set too high, or two low, although some may argue those conclusions,” DeMaria wrote. “Score-setting decisions start with the intention behind what scores are intended to mean. Any decision to change either the performance descriptors or cut scores should utilize the past practice of engaging teachers in making recommendations.”

Chad Aldis of the Fordham Institute, a right-leaning advocacy group that has routinely backed tougher grading of tests, said he wanted to see more before taking a position. He said that if the scoring system is demanding kids score as “remediation-free” to earn needed graduation points, an adjustment might be needed.

But Aaron Churchill, also of Fordham, said common sense says that students that are considered “proficient” ought to be on track to not need remedial classes in college. Renaming the categories might be part of the answer.

“It’s a problem if you send home test score reports for high school kids that say they’re proficient and then they do poorly on the ACT,” he said.

But he added: “If you set a bar at true college level, I don’t think that’s fair either.”

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