Friday, December 15, 2000

Proficiency testing plan offers hope, challenges

Battle brewing already over who will foot bill

By Debra Jasper
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COLUMBUS — Ohio should overhaul its flawed proficiency testing system and provide intense intervention programs for students who fall behind, a governor-appointed panel recommended Thursday.

        But a battle is brewing over who should pay for recommendations in the 40-page report and signs are emerging that it may not make it through the legislature intact.

        “The report is a final product and it is an excellent product, but our work has just begun,” Gov. Bob Taft told the 33-member panel, which unveiled its report after months of study. “This will be a long journey. Improving every school does not happen overnight.”

Governor's Commission for Student Success
        Recommendations include replacing the current proficiency tests with achievement tests aligned with school curriculums.

        The report also recommended scaling back the number of subjects an Ohio high school student must master to graduate and requiring schools to send students who can't pass the tests to summer school or other remedial programs.

        Mr. Taft promised he would work to push the recommendations through the legislature. He anticipates a bill will be introduced early in 2001.

        Later, Mr. Taft said he would not seek new taxes to fund the proposals. Some recommendations, he said, such as requiring schools to send slower-learning students to summer or Saturday school, should be paid for in part with local dollars.

        Educators praised the report but also questioned how schools can afford to implement many of the recommendations.

        Tom Mooney, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, asked how the commission could demand that schools provide more individual attention to certain students if the state doesn't pay for smaller class sizes.

        “Gov. Taft and state legislators should address funding or none of this will be credible,” he said.

        The report's biggest problem is that it fails to address the state's role in giving schools resources they need, said Bill Phillis, executive director of the school coalition that sued the state over its school-funding formula.

        The lawsuit spurred the Ohio Supreme Court to rule Ohio's school-funding system unfair and unconstitutional and that it must be fixed by June 15.

        Mr. Taft said the recommendations would go a long way toward meeting court-mandated school reform. But Mr. Phillis said the governor and lawmakers must first determine how to pay for improved classroom technology, teacher development and other needs before demanding students pass new achievement tests.

        “The poor districts don't have the resources, so they won't meet the expectations,” Mr. Phillis said. “ We've got to level the playing field.”

        Questions about costs could hinder Mr. Taft's efforts to shepherd the bill through the legislature in coming months. The governor has thrown considerable clout behind the commission - asking legislators months ago to wait for its final report before moving to overhaul proficiency tests.

        Thursday, Mr. Taft said he is relying on key legislators who served on the commission to promote the proposed bill.

        But even those lawmakers predict big hurdles. Commission member and State Rep. Randy Gardner, R-Bowling Green, said he expects more opposition to emerge once the bill is introduced and its costs assessed.

        “If we require a certain type of intervention (such as mandatory summer school), then the state would have to pay for it,” he said.

        Mr. Gardner noted the state spent more than $100 million on remedial reading programs in the last budget. He said he is unsure how much additional remedial programs might cost and said law makers may not embrace all of the recommendations.

        State Sen. C.J. Prentiss, D-Cleveland, also expressed doubts.

        “This is a good report, but are we going to fund it?” she asked. “Is there going to be enough leadership from the governor to get it through?”

        Ms. Prentiss predicted some programs would have to be combined and said the state would have to find more money to pay for the recommended changes. “I recognize as a lawmaker that my work has just begun,” she said.

        The report's recommendations include:

        • Creating a clear set of academic standards — what Ohio students should know and be able to do — in key subjects, such as reading, writing, math, science and social studies.

        • Requiring districts to diagnose the strengths and weaknesses of students and provide feedback to parents and teachers.

        • Providing schools with tools and resources needed to give students additional instructional time to make sure they succeed.

        • Creating a system to hold schools, not just districts, accountable. Require, for example, new school report cards to be released to the public indicating how well students perform on achievement tests, how well different demographic groups perform, and charting rates of improvement.

        Mr. Taft praised the 33-member commission, saying its recommendations should address much of the opposition to existing proficiency tests.

        “Proficiency tests were implemented before standards were prepared, which was putting the cart before the horse,” Mr. Taft said. “Now, we're doing it the right way.”

        Jennifer Mrozowski contributed to this report.


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