As Ohio investigates claims that officials at least three school districts altered attendance records to boost scores on state report cards, state Superintendent of Schools Stan Heffner said this week that there's too much emphasis on those measures.
He recently told The Columbus Dispatch he felt "the report card over time has just taken on way too much importance."
Some local education officials agreed, saying that while the accountability measures are useful, the final numbers and overall ratings only tell part of the story.
"There is a lot of pressure" to do well on the report cards, said Jason Smith, director of teaching and learning for Marietta City Schools. "I think in the public's eyes we're judged by what's on that report card."
The Auditor of State's office announced this week it was expanding an investigation that started with allegations at schools in Columbus, Toledo and suburban Cincinnati retroactively changed data to improve their test scores. Now all schools and the Department of Education will be scrutinized after Auditor Dave Yost said in a letter to the state Board of Education president that the problem could be systemic.
On Wednesday, the Education Department announced the Lockland school district in suburban Cincinnati had filed false attendance data. The allegation is that 36 students were falsely reported as having left the district and added back to the rolls later. That break in enrollment resulted in their test scores not being counted toward the district's overall performance ranking.
Tentative release date for state report cards:
When Lockland's report card was amended, its overall rating dropped from "effective" to "continuous improvement," the next rating down.
Smith said he was at a conference where a consultant recommended districts un-enroll students who are suspended then re-enroll them, which would eliminate their effect on the test scores. While the individual said the practice was legal, Smith said Marietta did not adopt it.
"Number one, it's not the ethical thing to do," Smith said.
It's also hard to tell how that would affect test data since a suspension doesn't automatically mean the student would have poor scores.
Frontier Local Superintendent Bruce Kidder said picking and choosing which children are counted on the tests is "just terrible."
"If the student is yours, the student is yours," he said.
Kidder and Smith said there can be an over-emphasis on state report cards, especially when they're viewed out of context. For example, when the scores are announced and reported in the newspaper, all the schools in Washington County are lumped together in many people's eyes, which Kidder said is not an apples-to-apples comparison.
"We all start at different places, and we all have different resources," he said.
Smith noted the grades are determined by complex formulas that some people don't take the time to try and understand.
"It's not something that I think the average person might want to do," he said.
Based on preliminary data for the upcoming state report cards, Smith said Marietta saw scores rise in 11 of 19 categories. Yet the district did not meet the standards for "adequate yearly progress," which measures whether students are improving at the required rate.
"The average Joe Public just sees 'didn't make it'" and may not look at areas where improvements were made, Smith said.
Kidder said he's more concerned with the district's value-added score, which measures whether students learned a year's worth of material in a year's time.
"I worry about ... if we're going in the right direction," he said.
Warren Local Board of Education President Bob Allen said he's proud of the district's students, teachers and administrators for the "excellent" rating earned on last year's state report card. But he also believes there can be too much focus on the report cards.
"I think that we're putting our teachers as well as our administrators in very difficult positions," he said.
Allen said the ratings system creates a push to teach to the test, forcing teachers to move on to cover all the necessary material, even if some students may not be ready.
"Our teachers put in extra time and do extra assistance (for students) but they still have to move on," he said.
"I think we need to have a balance between the testing and the local teachers and the school district deciding what needs to be emphasized in the classroom," Allen said.
Kidder said the testing data can be valuable, as educators glean much more information from it than a glance at the report card can provide. They can identify specific areas, like nonfiction literature in English, where students may have struggled.
"We'll tear the data apart ... and see what areas we didn't do well in," he said.
While Kidder said he doesn't hear much from parents about the report card data, he invited any with questions about it to contact him.
Some parents do watch for the report card information.
"I used to pay attention to that," said Marietta resident Helen Hirschi, 53. "And I used to be emotional about that."
While she couldn't immediately recall the precise issue, Hirschi said concerns on a past state report card for Marietta High School led her and her husband to enroll their son in the Post-Secondary Enrollment Option classes at Washington State Community College. She said he's doing well in that environment and they plan to have their daughter go the same route.