Holding School Accountable

Bill Rice- Students at Maple Elementary School in North Olmstead are ready for summer. Just two more days to go, and then three months of freedom from pencils and books, school lunches and report cards. Maple Principle Kenneth Towne says it's been a good year.

Kenneth Towne- I'm very satisfied with the efforts we've made at the school this year in terms of the kids and their progress. Our mission at our school is to create success for every kid ito teamwork and a positive focus, and I think we've kept that mission in terms of positive focus and teamwork.

BR- That feeling of satisfaction is tempered just a bit by results of this year's proficiency tests, which are cause for concern. His school's fourth grade reading scores were down this year by 17%. Towne says the tests are a big deal these days in Ohio's schools.

KT- I will say this, that it permeates everything I do anymore compared to, say, ten years ago. Everything we do in school now revolves around proficiencies.

BR- Like many educators, Towne believes schools should be held accountable for how well they educate kids. So does Douglas Clay, Director of Accountability and Assessment at Cleveland State University's Center for Urban School Collaboration. Clay says school accountability is an old concept, but in the last decade has embraced a new paradigm: schools must now demonstrate they're actually teaching kids. And proficiency tests, he says, to some degree do that.

Douglas Clay- Statewide testing around the country, and now the call for national testing, allows us to start comparing school districts. And now there's this big push to make sure kids are actually learning. The argument 'Well, I taught it but they didn't learn it" doesn't fly anymore.

BR- Today so-called "high stakes tests" are a central fact of educational life. Like Towne, Clay supports testing. But some aren't so generous in tying tests to accountability. Gloria Ladson Billings is a noted author and education professor at the University of Wisconsin.

Gloria Ladson Billings- The problem I have with accountability in schooling is the burden for that accountability is falling on the weakest links.

BR- Those weak links, Billings says, are teachers and students, both of whom, in many struggling districts, often find it impossible to rise above very difficult circumstances. Many teachers often they don't have up-to-date textbooks, computers or science labs.

But perhaps the heaviest burden, Billings says, falls on the students, especially those who's life circumstances, in effect, deny them the opportunity to learn.

GLB- When we came out with these standards what we said we were going to do is that one set of standards would be an "opportunity to learn" standard. And that kids could not be held accountable for all these other standards if the opportunity-to-learn standard is not in place.

BR- Billings says such is the case at many schools throughout Ohio.

But even among those who approve of testing as a measure of school success, there is dissatisfaction with Ohio's testing system. Cleveland State's Douglas Clay says Ohio wasn't particularly smart when it put together a plan to monitor schools' progress.

DC- Ohio did this backwards. Ohio jumped on the bandwagon and came up with tests, and teachers are saying this test doesn't match what I'm teaching. That's because there wasn't a standard they could see. Every school district in Ohio had it's own curriculum, largely based on whatever textbook they chose.

BR- Ohio should have worked to establish standards first, Clay says, implement them in the classrooms, and then develop the tests to measure how well those standards are met. That's what's happening now in the state legislature, he says. Senate Bill 1, which is still being debated, attempts to address many of the concerns about proficiencies that have come to light. And lawmakers have already rescinded a requirement to hold kids back who fail the reading test, a move that's especially gratifying to Maple Elementary Principle Kenneth Towne.

KT- If we were looking at what we'd have to retain we'd be retaining 40% of our kids. In Cleveland they'd have to retain 80% or 70%. It's logistically, educationally, socially a very unsound decision that anybody would ever make.

BR- That rule would have taken effect with this year's fourth graders. As is stands, most will move on to fifth grade, and can breathe easy as they leave their school worries behind for the summer. In Cleveland, Bill Rice, 90.3 WCPN News.

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