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State's delay in education plan renews optimism

Twinsburg school officials sign letter to Ohio Schools superintendent addressing concerns

By MARSHA MCKENNA and APRIL HELMS Stow Sentry Senior Editor and Twinsburg Bulletin Reporter Published: March 22, 2017 12:02 PM

The decision by the Ohio Department of Education to delay submitting the state's education plan to federal regulators is raising local educators' hopes that their voices may be heard.

Ohio Schools Superintendent Paolo DeMaria announced March 13 that the state will delay until September its submission of its Every Student Succeeds Act plan to allow time to create "greater unity and a clearer sense of direction."

"I didn't want submission [of the plan] to be a divisive event," DeMaria said. "Additional time will allow us [to have] conversations that need to be had."

Twinsburg Board of Education President Mark Curtis credited public correspondence with the statehouse for the delay. Both Curtis and Twinsburg City School District Superintendent Kathryn Powers criticized the draft of the plan, which they said did not take advantage of the flexibility of ESSA.

"Folks in the legislature have been getting feedback from people from all over the state," Curtis said during the Board's March 15 meeting. "Raising your voice works. Making a collective effort works."

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Powers said that she and several Twinsburg staff members signed a March 1 letter to DeMaria addressing several concerns, including the number of tests given, how graduation rates are tracked, how student and student attendance is recorded and more.

Concerned citizens should continue contacting their state legislators, Powers said. She said she plans to survey district teachers about what they would like to see in ESSA, what they feel is crucial and what they feel could be dropped or altered.

In January, ODE released a draft on how it will implement the federal government's new criteria in ESSA, which will replace No Child Left Behind. The state's draft of compliance with the federal ESSA aims to guide student testing, course standards and other school-related issues.

The 118-page report included descriptions of the state's learning standards; an explanation of testing requirements; descriptions of the state's goals for student performance and improvement; outlines of how the state supports struggling schools and districts; and a review of report cards and other measures to inform about school progress.

The state's new testing and accountability plan -- required under ESSA -- proposes no changes in student testing, prompting complaints from educators, parents and others .

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According to the Akron Area School Superintendents' Association, the state had been hosting regional meetings and webinars to allow educators, parents and community members to voice their opinions. However, the association said its members "are alarmed that the feedback gathered during these stakeholder meetings does not appear to have been included in Ohio's plan."

"Obviously, I am very pleased that ODE has postponed submitting the state's plan ... and believe that the ongoing advocacy work of school district leaders across Ohio was instrumental in the decision to do so," said Walter Davis, president of the AASSA and superintendent of Woodridge Local Schools.

"I know that our members are cautiously optimistic, pleased that the delay has been announced, and hopeful that the review that our State Superintendent has announced will be thorough and inclusive. We are hopeful that representative members of our Association, and the other Superintendents' Associations across Ohio, will be at the table to assist in the work that will be required to revise the plan," Davis added.

Melissa Cropper, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, said: "Missing from the draft ESSA plan as it stands is a vision for reshaping our current education system to be more reflective of what students truly need. We are committed to working with Superintendent DeMaria to craft a plan that changes our education culture from one that currently focuses on testing, sorting, labeling and punishing to a culture that focuses on student well-being, promotes powerful learning, builds teacher capacity and fosters collaboration."

Testing remains an issue

Federal law still requires accountability from states and local districts that public school students are being taught appropriately and being prepared for future college coursework and careers.

That means Ohio's new plan still requires testing in reading, mathematics, science and other standards, but the state will set those standards rather than being required to meet a plan mandated by the federal government.

Excessive testing -- some of it used exclusively to evaluate teachers -- was the top concern expressed about the proposed ESSA plan during recent public hearings.

Participants urged the state to reduce the amount of testing, which is allowable under ESSA; however, according to AASSA, the proposed plan maintains the existing levels of testing.

"This is also an opportunity to reduce testing at the high school and replace the end of course exams with the nationally normed ACT or SAT, which are more relevant to our students and their families. All state mandated testing should be consistently maintained for an extended period of time to allow for longitudinal data collection and analysis," according toAASSA.

Ohio Department of Education officials have cautioned that many of the tests students take are mandated by state law, and the legislature would need to change laws to eliminate them. Ohio requires students to take 24 assessments, including 17 required by the federal government. That does not include tests to evaluate teachers and those required by school districts.

A recent analysis by the education department found that students spend 215 hours from kindergarten through 12th grade on testing, or 1.7 percent of their time in school. About one-third of the hours are mandated by the state.

"There is a clear voice out there for less testing," DeMaria said.

"The fundamental problem is that most stakeholders were asking for changes in state law, and those should be undertaken by the General Assembly and not via a plan created by the Ohio Department of Education to comply with federal law," said Chad Aldis, vice president for Ohio policy and advocacy for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Changes in the state report card system were also recommended by AASSA. The association recommended the elimination of the letter grade report card system. While ESSA does mandate an accountability measure, it does not require using a letter grade to rate school buildings or districts.

"During the feedback period, a wide array of useful suggestions were provided to ODE," Woodridge's Davis said. "When the initial plan was presented, we were stunned that few, if any, of the suggestions were included in the plan. Now, we are hopeful that this review will provide the opportunity for these ideas to be implemented. We believe the ideas shared will strengthen Ohio's plan."

What's ahead for Ohio

ODE officials say the department will start work on a broader education plan for the state that will go beyond both student testing and the federal law to look into issues such as instructional practices, early learning and school culture. DeMaria stressed that a final report will outline the state's vision and goals and not override any plans of school districts.

Ohio's current proposal also sets a number of goals for reducing chronic absenteeism, increasing the graduation rate and providing more help to children in military families, those who are homeless and others facing similar challenges.

"As Ohioans, we all want every child to receive a high-quality education so they can succeed in life, careers and future learning. That unity is crucial as we seek to lead our education system to be the best it can be in the service of every child," said DeMaria. "Only by working together can we reach our aspirations. We are excited to begin the important work of creating a strategic plan for education in Ohio, supported by a set of goals, strategies, tactics and metrics."

Editor's note: Catherine Candisky of The Columbus Dispatch contributed to this report.

Email: ahelms@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9423

Twitter: @twinsburgohio

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