Panel weighs in on state testing

Jonathan Delozier | Amherst News-Times
Activist Susan Kaeser speaks on high-stakes school testing while Oberlin principal Michael Scott listens.


Changes to the structure and implementation of Ohio state testing are needed, according to a panel of school officials who gathered April 9 in Amherst.

Their verdict: Today’s testing environment comes with far more pressure than what they faced as students — and testing results are often used as a means of threat and sanction from the state rather than a way to help those who need it the most.

The League of Women Voters of the Oberlin Area hosted the talk at Cole’s Public House on South Main Street.

Invited to field questions from a moderator and audience members were Oberlin Schools superintendent David Hall, Oberlin High School principal Michael Scott, community activist Susan Kaeser, retired schools test coordinator Gloria Buxton, and Ohio Board of Education member Kirsten Hill.

Hall said standardized tests don’t take “bad days” into account, but they should.

He recalled crying one day in the fourth grade during his parents’ divorce: “My teacher pulled me out of the classroom to talk to me. He was a mentor for me. I can’t even fathom taking these tests that day. I would’ve bombed the test.”

Any time you have an accountability system based on test scores that don’t account for differences in student opportunity, you’re going to be biased against certain types of communities, said Kaeser,

She pointed to state data that has drawn a strong correlation between between higher median incomes and better district scores on the state’s annual report cards.

A 2017 study revealed that Ohio districts that scored an A for achievement had average household median income of $70,979.

As median wealth declined, so did report card grades. Districts earning B’s came in at $55,398, C’s at $42,253, D’s at $35,824, and F’s at $27,879.

The Amherst Schools earned an overall B grade in the latest round of report cards and a C for achievement. According to census data, the city averaged a $68,159 median household income and nine percent poverty rate between 2013 and 2017.

Over that same period, Oberlin has averaged $51,117 with a 23.5 percent poverty rate. The public schools there earned a C overall and D for achievement on its 2018 report card.

Hill and other panel members talked about the Fair School Funding Plan, a proposal making its way through the General Assembly. It would overhaul funding mechanisms for public school districts while adding as much as $720 million to their budgets over the next two fiscal years.

Oberlin would gain another $400,000 per year under the new formula while Amherst would see another $1.2 million annually.

“It’s amazing how it’s been 22 years since something was declared unconstitutional and nothing has happened,” said Hall, referencing the 1997 decision in DeRolph v. State of Ohio.

At its conclusion, the Ohio Supreme Court ordered state officials to make school funding rely less on property taxes. “You break the law for 22 years and it keeps going on,” Hall said.

“The current formula, from what I understand with all the caps and guarantees, it’s a running joke that nobody can figure it out,” Hill said. “How things are being funded now isn’t necessarily the same as during the DeRolph case. The current funding formula hasn’t been tested to see if it’s constitutional. It’s multiple iterations later.”

Buxton and Scott said they watch testing and test preparation increase stress among students.

“There is a great deal of difference now from a social-emotional side of things,” said Scott. “Our students show up prepared to do their best but you can just feel the exhaustion afterwards. It’s a high-stress scenario.”

“We used to be measured by our grade point average,” Buxton said. “That GPA was so important. We received our grades from our teachers, who were the clinicians and experts in the classrooms. I thought about how creative they were and the different models they used to make school a happy place. Now it’s more of a drudgery. The children are exhausted. The teachers are spending time teaching to the test.”

In May, the local League of Women Voters chapter will vote on a proposed update to its position on state education standards.

Changes include better consideration for students with disabilities and those who are learning English, not using state tests in high-stakes determinations such as grade promotion and graduation, and not linking funding to district test performance.