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More third-graders could be held back

By SHANNON GILCHRIST and APRIL HELMS GateHouse Media Ohio Published: July 15, 2017 4:00 AM

Several urban school districts say changes in scoring on the state's reading tests might have left hundreds, or even thousands, of students at risk of being held back in August.

District administrators came before the State Board of Education this week to ask for help. Hours of public testimony and debate about whether to take action ended only after board member Stephanie Dodd extracted a promise from state Superintendent Paolo DeMaria that he and the Ohio Department of Education will study the problem with test vendors and districts.

Third-graders must pass either the state's standardized reading test, or one of four state-approved alternative tests, to move on to fourth grade. In the spring, district officials told a few state board members and the Education Department that they suspected the passing scores for those alternative tests were set too high in 2016-17 compared with the passing score on the state's test. That has meant that more students were unable to pass either test.

"Right away, we started calling our colleagues and saying, 'Are you all seeing the same thing?'" testified Ellen McWilliams, assistant superintendent of Akron Public Schools.

Dodd said the districts had come to the state earlier for help but nothing happened, and time is growing short before the next school year. "I was very happy not to even bring this forward in a resolution if a commitment would've existed that simply said, 'We recognize that this is a problem, we recognize that this needs to be looked into, we're going to do that,'" she said.

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Bob Dunn, the superintendent of the Southeast Local School District, said that the district is "currently in a summer camp" for students who struggled with the test.

"We have 15 students who did not make it," Dunn said.

One of the tests, TerraNova, saw the cutoff score go from 22 to 27, Dunn said, who added this increase "impacted many of our students." Dunn said the district is creating programs aimed to help the third-grade students pass the tests.

"We think we will have much better results for students moving to third grade," he said. "They need to be able to read successfully to advance."

Shawn Braman, the superintendent of the Waterloo Local School District, said he had issues with the number of tests given to the students in general, particularly the younger ones.

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"This has been a problem since the get-go," Braman said. "But it's something we've had to get used to. It's a source of frustration, especially with the third-grade reading. It's a lot of pressure to put on such young kids, to expect them to hit it out of the ballpark with just one shot. It's frustrating."

Dennis Honkala, the superintendent of the Ravenna School District, said he was frustrated by the constant changes to the standards.

"It's another piece in the ongoing frustration we have with our legislature and the Ohio Department of Education in what we see as an arbitrary changing of what the standard is," Honkala said. "It's frustrating. It's not consistent and it's not been consistent through the years."

Another frustration, Honkala said, is that for many gradeschoolers, this is the fourth test the students will have had to take in four years.

"It has limited the ability for us to focus on valid data," Honkala said. "We will keep working at it. We have multiple assessments we can use. We will continue to do right by kids and right by families."

Tom Larkin, the assistant superintendent with the Kent City Schools, said the district was still evaluating the impact of the scores.

Pat Ciccantelli, superintendent for Aurora City Schools, said that Aurora's third-grade students all passed. He said the district uses the Iowa test.

"We are very proud our third-graders have made it," Ciccantelli said. "It's a lot of hard work for our students, parents, teachers, and staff."


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