Students Helping Raise the Bar

English Language Learners Inspire
Posted on 09/13/2018
Image of Hien Dang(Doug Livingston writing for Beacon Journal)

Hien Dang pointed with two fingers to overcome the limited vocabulary of a Jordanian student.

“Eyes,” said Abdallah Damra, who speaks Arabic and has been in America for only a month. With his head in an English dictionary, Damra will be expected later this year to read a 26-page story written for the average, English-speaking eighth-grader.

“We still set high expectations. That’s what helps them achieve,” said Dang, a 15-year teacher at Akron’s Jennings Middle School, where there are enough non-English speaking eighth-graders from Africa, Asia, Central America and the Middle East to fill three classrooms.

Akron Public Schools excels in helping the children of immigrants and refugees speak English. It’s a bright spot teased out in Ohio’s new report card, if discerning observers know where to look.

The perennial challenge of school districts this week will be to explain how the state report cards, despite the addition of an overall grade, tell only part of the story. Akron, for example, has reason to brag about closing the gap between fortunate students and their poor, minority and non-English speaking peers. Gap closing, one of six components that roll into the overall grade, climbed from a D to a B this year. Though the measure accounts for less than other subcategories, it yielded Akron the most points.

Translation: As Ohio reinstates penalties for failing public schools this year, the work of teachers like Dang and students like Damra likely spared Akron an overall F.

With state testing, learning standards and a system for measuring success all in flux since 2010, the format of the report cards is finally set with letter grades for six components and a single composite score, though lawmakers already are considering scrapping the freshly inked letter grades.

School districts accountable to the report cards continue to bypass the state rankings by telling personalized interpretations of how local students and teachers are overcoming the ever-changing standards thrust on Ohio schools. Akron and other area schools, regardless of income levels, have taken to promoting and maintaining electives like music and the arts as state testing bends teaching time to core subjects such as math, reading, science and social studies.

“It’s hard to change to meet state requirements,” Ginger Baylor, an Akron Public Schools board member, said this week when the urban district was given an early look at another scathing annual report card. “It’s hard to change because the state requirements are inconsistent. Despite all that, we have some major improvements.”

The revamped report cards, part of a new strategic plan unveiled late last month and set for public consumption on Thursday, have been a work in progress since the state began the shift to letter grades in 2013. The shift continues.

Ohio House Bill 591 moving through the General Assembly this month would abolish letter grades. The Republican candidate for governor, if elected, would request fewer tests next year. The state board of education, which will continue conversations in October about eliminating more confusing portions of the report card, is considering an extension on more lenient graduation requirements that expire this year.

These proposed changes come on the consequential mandate of 2013 when districts were told to prepare for tougher state tests aligned to deeper learning standards known as Common Core. When the online tests replaced the old paper and pencil versions, the average performance of Ohio’s more than 800,000 tested students plummeted from 80 percent in 2014 to 68 percent in 2016 before rebounding slightly to 70 percent last year.

That three-year drop — the equivalent of bordering on a B to narrowly escaping a D — is evidence that the tests have gotten harder, especially for low-income districts. A Beacon Journal/ analysis shows that scores for districts with at least 25 percent of students in poverty dropped twice as much as districts with less than 10 percent student poverty.

The drop is a contributing factor to the overall D Akron Public Schools will get Thursday.

“This year, we made big gains but you don’t see it because you’re still dealing with two years of some awful value added changes,” Ellen McWilliams-Woods, Akron’s assistant superintendent and director of Curriculum and Instruction, said of tweaks in how the year-to-year success of students is measured. “We’re still feeling drag in the state tests.”

Parents, taxpayers, Realtors, anyone interested in successful schools may glance at Akron Public Schools’ six component grades (three Fs, two Ds and a lonely B) or just the overall D and miss the universal academic gains in every grade and tested subject in middle and high school, with the exception of fifth-grade science. A lower score on third-grade reading follows the state raising the goal posts. And perhaps the most unsung factor buried in that fat D: nearly 40 percent of the district’s overall grade can be attributed to the efforts of educators who must teach kids to speak English before they can read Shakespeare.

Still, a D has never been better than an F.

A handful of districts that flat out fail the report cards could find their elected school boards stripped of the authority to allocate local tax dollars and state funding to educate local students.

“The good news is that we have never been on that path to the academic distress commission,” McWilliams-Woods said of the state’s three-strike path to a state takeover.

The report card is the cornerstones of accountability for public schools that educate 1.8 million students. With six component grades based on complex calculations, critics are already attacking the report card for being too complicated to understand or failing to recognize nuances.

For the past three years, lawmakers and state education officials held districts and teachers harmless during the transition. Most of these “safe harbor provisions” expire this year.

Tests will again be used to determine the worth of individual teachers in annual evaluations. Low-scoring school districts can become eligible for competition from charter schools or vouchers for private schools. Students who have had to clear the state’s third-grade reading guarantee to get to fourth grade can now be based on tests throughout elementary school. And districts shielded from falling into academic emergency again face the possibility of a state takeover.

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