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Board member Wagner calls testing system ‘class warfare’

State board of education argues over low test scores

Ohio students performed dramatically worse than expected on two state exams this spring according to preliminary results, and state officials want to soften the scoring system so more students pass.

But state school board member A.J. Wagner of Dayton says the proposal doesn’t go far enough and will leave many Ohio students at risk of not graduating.

An Ohio Department of Education memo leaked by Wagner shows that only 24 percent of students scored proficient or better on the Geometry test, and only 21 percent did so on the other sophomore math option — Integrated Math II. Students had to get roughly half of the questions correct to be proficient.

Even with harder, Common Core-tied exams, that’s much worse than expected. In January, Ohio Department of Education officials had projected that 59 and 56 percent of students, respectively, would pass those tests (roughly in line with projections for other state exams).

So Jim Wright, director of ODE’s office of curriculum and assessment, on Wednesday proposed softening the scoring system so that 52 percent of students would pass the Geometry exam and 35 percent would pass Integrated Math II. Wright said the state board would be asked to approve those changes at its June 13-14 meeting.

These are high school exams, tied to Ohio’s new graduation requirements, and Wagner argued that low passage rates mean Ohio is risking a dropout/non-graduation epidemic if the standards aren’t softened further.

“We are headed for a train wreck! These scores and the arbitrary standards being set for rigor put as many as two-thirds of our students in jeopardy for graduation!” Wagner posted on his Facebook page. He added with sarcasm, “That’ll show the world how tough we are!”

Wagner calls the system “class warfare,” pointing out that for years, test scores have closely tracked income levels, with poorer students scoring worse. He said “it would be a miracle” if half of students in poor, urban districts graduate under this system, and argued that not all students need to be “college-ready.”

“Most of these kids aren’t going to try that hard. They’re going to give up. Then you’re left with kids who can’t get jobs or take care of themselves,” Wagner said. “I’m not selling those kids short. I’m facing the practical realities that some kids, because of things beyond their control, from their very birth, can’t compete effectively in the model we’re setting up.”

Tom Gunlock, chairman of the state school board, has long taken the opposite approach, arguing for high standards, and saying Ohio’s students will rise to the occasion if challenged.

Gunlock pointed out that a bad score on one graduation-tied test can be offset by higher scores on others. Beginning with the class of 2018, Ohio high school students are taking seven state exams, each scored from 1 to 5, and must get a total of 18 points to graduate. Students are allowed to retake state exams that they do poorly on, just as they could under the old Ohio Graduation Test.

And he said students who struggle with state tests have two other pathways to graduation — posting a “remediation-free score” on the ACT or SAT (the state will pay for each student to take a test), or earning an industry-recognized job credential and passing a workforce readiness test.

“We’re increasing the rigor as we should. We should make sure that every child has the ability to perform at something after high school,” Gunlock said. “Hiding behind the fact that they all got a diploma even if they weren’t qualified doesn’t make any sense to me. … The idea that this is holding back poor kids is baloney.”

While two tests yielded surprising scores that were 35 percentage points lower than projected, preliminary results of the other 16 math and English tests were more expected. Passage rates on the other math tests ranged from 47 to 72 percent, with most in the 50s and 60s. Passage rates on the English exams ranged from 51 to 63 percent, with the exception of eighth-grade English at 43 percent.

Overall, students fared better than expected on seven tests (including five of eight English exams) and worse than expected on 11 tests (including 8 of 10 math exams).

Like many other states, Ohio has seen a strong anti-testing movement the past few years. The state ditched the PARCC exams and adopted new state tests this year that were several hours shorter. These new tests, created by the American Institutes for Research, will be tweaked slightly next year, as Ohio creates its own question bank.

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