Thursday, November 30, 2000

Panel considers half grades

Students failing tests would stress English, math

By Debra Jasper and Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — Fourth-graders who repeatedly fail third-grade reading tests would have to attend summer school and could end up in grade “4.5” under a proposal put forth Wednesday by members of a commission appointed by Gov. Bob Taft.

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    Members of the Governor's Commission for Student Success floated several ideas for overhauling the state's proficiency testing system. Among those being considered:
    • The state would create clear, rigorous standards in core subjects such as math, reading and writing that all students are expected to meet.
    • The standards would specify what students should know and be able to do by grades three, five, eight and 12.
    • In kindergarten through eighth grade, all students would undergo diagnostic testing to identify their strengths and weaknesses. The results would help teachers and parents determine how to help them pass the achievement tests.
    • Students who perform below expected levels must be given more instruction, such as summer school or tutoring. Districts could require students to attend the extra classes and the state would fund intervention efforts.
    • The method of giving fourth-graders five tests in five days would be replaced by new statewide achievement tests, which students could take as soon as they are ready but no later than fifth grade.
    • Each individual school — instead of each school district — would be evaluated based on how well its students performed on achievement tests and the rate of that school's improvement over the previous year. The state would assist low-performing schools, but those schools would be subject to state intervention and could be shut down.

        Commission members also are considering requiring eighth-graders who repeatedly fail seventh-grade reading, writing and math tests to attend summer school and possibly end up in grade “8.5” — an alternative grade that would blend eighth- and ninth-grade subject matter with a strong emphasis on English and math.

        “We're proposing a pretty radical change,” said commission member and University of Dayton President Raymond Fitz.

        Members of the Governor's Commission on Student Success are still discussing these proposals but their fi nal recommendations, expected Dec. 14, will carry weight with lawmakers because several key legislators are commission members. In addition, Mr. Taft repeatedly has said he is waiting on this commission's final report before moving forward with school reforms.

        The 33-member group of business leaders, education officials and lawmakers has been studying proficiency testing for more than six months. It now appears ready to propose scrapping controversial fourth-grade proficiency tests, replacing them with new statewide achievement tests based on a new set of academic standards.

        These proposals come as parents, teachers and legislators grow more critical of the testing system. Many say the tests don't accurately measure students' abilities, cause tremendous stress and stifle classroom creativity.

        The backlash has been particularly strong against an Ohio law requiring fourth-graders in 2001-2002 to pass the reading portion of the five-section test in order to advance to fifth grade.

        A bill already in the legislature would relax proficiency testing standards and make it easier for elementary students to get promoted. Commission members also advocate replacing the current method of giving fourth-graders five tests in five days with new statewide achievement tests.

        Students could take the tests as soon as they are ready, but no later than fifth grade.

        Another proposal under consideration would allow high-school students to take “end-of-course” exams after finishing literature, English composition or other classes. Students could graduate if they passed a certain number of exams.

        For example, a student taking 10 exams could graduate from high school if he passed six end-of-course tests. As an alternative, students could graduate by passing a new 10th-grade high school graduation test.

        While the proposals remain in the discussion stage, the one generating the most controversy Wednesday was the idea of creating a grade 8.5. Bill Hiller, Mentor Public Schools superintendent and a commission member, questioned whether the proposal would create another new high- stakes, high-stress test that would anger parents.

        State Rep. Randy Gardner, R-Bowling Green, also objected.

        “My issue here is appearance of a new high stakes test in seventh grade,” he said.

        The proposal would allow students who fail the seventh-grade reading, writing and math tests to take the tests two more times in the eighth grade.

        Those who continue to fail the exams would then be required to attend summer school. If they still can't pass the tests they would move into grade 8.5.

        The plan would treat fourth-graders similarly. Those who repeatedly fail the test — even after summer school — would end up in grade 4.5. The alternative program would provide fourth- and fifth-grade course work but with a strong emphasis on reading.

        Other commission members, in cluding co-chairman Bill Patient, a retired business executive from Cuyahoga County, said the 4.5 and 8.5 grade labels were misleading.

        Students who fail the test would still go on to fifth and ninthgrades, he said, though they would attend alternative classes.

        “We're not going to dump students into a system where they are not going to succeed,” Mr. Patient said. “We're trying to force the (education) system to do what it is supposed to do, and that is educate the child.”

        Ohio State University President William Kirwan said the alternative grades may or may not end up in the commission's final report to Mr. Taft depending on how members and the public react.

        “It is a new concept to a lot of people,” he acknowledged.


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