Sunday, January 09, 2000

School-science goals, funding don't match up

Tests required, but pupil costs not factored in

Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        Knowing that high-paying jobs increasingly require a strong background in science, Ulysses Rozelle doesn't like what he sees in the biology classes he teaches at Taft High School.

        Students arrive in the fall and have two months to get up to speed before they take Ohio's ninth-grade proficiency test, which they must pass to graduate.

        Many don't have adequate reading skills to comprehend scientific terms and theories. And the out-of-print textbooks they're given don't make teaching and learning any easier.

        “We need to figure out how to make the test reflect what we're teaching our kids and expecting from them,” said Mr. Rozelle, a veteran teacher with 35 years of experience. “Right now it seems we're teaching one thing and testing something else.”

        The latest batch of state report cards detailing the academic performance of Ohio's school districts shows that mastering the state's science stan dards is a problem throughout Ohio, not just in big-city school districts like Cincinnati's.

        Only 20 of the 607 districts measured passed all five science standards, according to an analysis of the data by The Cincinnati Enquirer. Most schools in tough urban, rich suburban and poor rural communities fall short, failing to have enough students passing the exams in fourth, sixth, ninth, 10th and 12th grades.

        Moreover, only three of the 103 districts state lawmakers used to define the cost of a basic education met the five science standards, according to the analysis.

        Faced with an Ohio Supreme Court order to overhaul the school-funding system, lawmakers chose those districts two years ago because they were considered “effective,” meaning they met all the state's education goals.

        Science wasn't included in the equation, however. Lawmakers decided the science portion of the proficiency tests, added in 1996, was too new,

        even though they added science to the standards used to judge schools.

        Howard Fleeter, a school finance expert, said the poor showing in science could undermine the state's contention that Ohio's funding system has been fixed. The state's high court is expected to decide by spring if lawmakers passed the test, or must try again.

        “It raises some questions about the methodology they used,” said Dr. Fleeter, a former professor at Ohio State University who now teaches at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “If you redefine what's considered adequate, you need to redefine what it costs to provide an adequate education.”

        Determining how much more a basic education might cost is difficult, though. The Ohio Department of Education said it doesn't keep statistics that would allow such a calculation to be made.

Preparing for the future
        Beyond the question of money, there are questions about whether schools are doing enough to prepare students for 21st-century jobs.

        During his 1998 campaign, Gov. Bob Taft promised to improve student performance in both science and math. “We owe it to our children and our future to make sure Ohio's math and science education is world class,” he said at the time.

        He vowed to expand a program devoted to improving middle-school science and math education, create a science and math professional development center and provide $1,000 incentives for teachers to improve their training.

        Those initiatives are on the back burner for now. In a recent interview, Mr. Taft said he plans to keep his focus on improving the reading skills of youngsters.

        “You can't solve math and science problems unless you can read,” Mr. Taft said, noting that starting with this year's second-graders, students will have to pass the reading portion of the fourth-grade proficiency test to advance to fifth grade.

        “That's the first requirement,” Mr. Taft said, “and we still have a long way to go on reading.”

        Ohio isn't alone in the struggle to meet rising standards. Low achievement in math and science is a problem nationally, and even the highest performing U.S. schools don't measure up internationally, said William Schmidt, national research coordinator for the Third International Math and Science Study.

        The 50-nation study measured the performance of students in fourth, eighth and 12th grades. It found that U.S. students generally are ahead of their peers in science through the eighth grade, but performance dropped off significantly by the end of high school.

        Results from Ohio's latest school report cards indicate just the opposite. Only 57 of 607 school districts met the standard for the fourth-grade science test. But 475 met the ninth-grade science standard, most likely because schools place a greater emphasis on the graduation tests.

        “What we found is the expectations for our kids are very low compared to international standards,” said Dr. Schmidt, a professor at Michigan State University. “We need to improve our curriculum and teaching to catch up.”

        Passing the state's proficiency tests is critical for schools. Those that aren't considered effective (passing at least 25 of 27 standards) face state intervention, including, in the most extreme cases, a state takeover of the district's day-to-day operations.

        All the news wasn't bad. Of the 30 districts considered effective by the state, five of them — Forest Hills, Indian Hill, Madeira, Mariemont and Wyoming — are in Hamilton County.

        Those districts spend more than the state average on students. They also have high percentages of middle- and upper-income families, intangibles that affect student success.

        Other districts are battling the state over the report-card data. State education officials rejected requests from 14 dis tricts — including Princeton in Hamilton County and Wayne Local and Franklin City in Warren County — to submit revised information. Princeton has sued the state over the dispute.

        Like others across the state, Cincinnati Public Schools are busy overhauling the science curriculum to match the state's standards. CPS failed all five science standards.

        Cincinnati teachers also must improve their own abilities if they want to help students make the dramatic improvements the state demands, said Kathleen Ware, CPS assistant superintendent.

        “We're still at an early point with the science tests,” she said. “We have a lot of kids who may be taught science, but it may not be exactly what the tests are measuring.”

        Said Kathleen Klink, superintendent at the Lakota Local Schools in Butler County: “We're just not where we need to be. Our students need more skills to solve problems and think critically.”

Tests mired in politics
        Ohio's attempts to boost test scores are wrapped up in (some would say diverted by) continued political battles over the tests themselves and the complex formula used to pay for public education.

        The Ohio Education Association, the state's largest teacher union, last week called for a moratorium on the state's proficiency tests until “more valid instruments are developed.”

        Michael Billirakis, union president, said the state needs to develop new tests that match what kids are being taught. And teachers, administrators and students need time to adjust to the higher standards.

        “Districts have had to struggle to find time and funding to address curriculum changes so they can meet the standards set by the tests,” Mr. Billirakis said. “Basically, the process should be reversed.”

        Critics also contend that the General Assembly's failure to include science in the formula used to estimate the cost of a basic education effectively lowered the amount required to fund it.

        The state hired a Denver-based consultant, John Augen blick, to craft a response to the Ohio Supreme Court decision that struck down the old school-funding formula.

        Lawmakers adopted a revised version of Mr. Augenblick's plan, which determined the cost of an adequate education by averaging proficiency test scores, attendance rates and dropout rates in 103 of the state's top school districts. (He eliminated the richest and poorest schools from the mix.)

        His plan assumed that if all 611 school districts spent the average amount per student those districts did, they would produce the same results.

        Legislative leaders use the phrase “Augenblick formula” as a mantra when defending changes they made in an attempt to comply with the Supreme Court decision. “I'm confident we've met the court's mandate,” said Senate President Richard Finan, R-Evendale.

        Critics, though, think the method is flawed. They note state law doesn't require the formula to be revised until 2002.

        “The state's answer to everything is to test the kids and not to provide the basic equipment, supplies and other resources they need to learn,” said William Phillis, executive director of the Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, a group of schools that successfully sued the state.

        “It's like a farmer who thinks he can get hogs to gain weight by weighing them every day but not feeding them,” Mr. Phillis said. “It just doesn't work.”

        The coalition last fall called on the state to provide more teachers with better pay, smaller classes, more materials and support staff in up-to-date classrooms. State leaders dismissed the plan as politically unrealistic, estimating it would cost taxpayers an extra $5 billion a year.

        “I don't think it's a matter of money,” said Mr. Taft. “I think it's a matter of being clear about what kids should know and making sure that's what teachers are doing. It's still too early to make a judgment because the schools are still trying to get there.”


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