STEUBENVILLE - Local school administrators say it will be a year or two before the new state report cards give a real measure of how good a job they're doing educating students.
The new reports cards, issued late last week, replace labels like "excellent" or "continuous improvement" with traditional letter grades to make it easier for taxpayers to understand how their district measures up, said John Charlton, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education.
"We feel that's easier to understand," Charlton said. "People understand what getting an 'A' means, they understand what an 'F' means, so the ratings are more understandable."
Charlton, though, said there is no overall rating this year. That won't come until 2015, when state officials figure everyone's had time to adjust to the new system "and focus their efforts on being successful in all areas that are being measured."
This year's report cards still grade so-called performance indicators measuring how many kids meet minimum proficiency levels of knowledge. "It only measures kids who are proficient," he said.
There's also a graded performance index that measures the achievement of every student, not just whether or not they reach "proficient," and awards points to the school district. The better students do, the more points their school receives.
And there's a progress section that analyzes data to gauge what kind of job schools are doing. Because it compares up to three years of data, schools aren't penalized if students do badly in any particular year, the theory being that there may be a "great deal of academic growth taking place moving students toward academic success."
"Personally, I think achievement, how you do on tests on a yearly basis, is very important," Edison Local School Superintendent Bill Beattie said. "But the value-added, the progress portion for students, (is critical). What are they learning from one year to the next is more valuable than how you do on a test over a one-week period. Value-added is the most important piece."
In terms of the 2013 results, Edison and Buckeye Local scored an A on the value-added assessments, while Harrison, Indian Creek, Toronto and Steubenville scored Fs.
But in terms of the performance index, Edison and Steubenville scored Bs while Buckeye, Harrison, Indian Creek and Toronto were awarded C grades, though on the performance indicators, Steubenville got a B; Edison, Buckeye and Indian Creek earned C's; Toronto got a D; and Harrison and F.
Under "closing the gap," which looks at annual measurable objectives, Edison and Steubenville scored D's and Buckeye, Harrison, Indian Creek and Toronto each got an F.
And if you look at "standards met," Steubenville earned a B for achieving 21 of 24 standards; Indian Creek, Edison and Buckeye Local each earned a C for achieving 18 of 24 standards, and Toronto a D for achieving 14 of 24 standards.
Confused? You're not alone. Even longtime educators aren't sure what to make of the new report card.
"Achievement's important, you want to know what kids are learning now," Beattie said. "But in terms of progress, what they call value-added ... what they learned from last year to this year .... that's the important thing. Our grades aren't fantastic in those four areas, but overall we scored pretty well."
Toronto Superintendent Fred Burns, in the midst of moving into a new school building, said Friday he was disappointed with his district's scores, but said he hadn't had a chance to really look at them in depth. He did note, however, that the new scoring system "can change your status so easily." Toronto Schools had an A rating in 2011-12, for instance.
"You get used to one way of scoring, then all of a sudden they switched everything," Burns said. "One of the things when you have a small school district, numbers change so drastically with one or two students and how they do. It puts small districts at a disadvantage, but we'll do everything we can to raise our level. I just hope they keep the standards, whatever they set, the same for a period of time so we can work on achieving whatever it is they wish us to get. We're starting a little late this year, because of the new building going in, but we'll have an in-service (this week) where we'll be setting our own goals for what we want to achieve by next year at this time."
Steubenville Superintendent Michael McVey pointed out no district escaped unscathed in the report cards, though his seemingly fared better than most.
"We didn't get good scores in everything," he said. "Obviously, we have work to do in those areas. We're just trying to figure out how they achieved the data."
McVey said it's a big change from past years, when the state scored them on how many standards they met, plus graduation and attendance rates. He said school districts, including his own, are still trying to understand how the state arrived at its calculations.
"Year One is just the starting point," he said. "You just have to get the data from it and move on from there. You almost have to give it a two- or three-year prognosis and move on. It's a strategy you have to come up with. But as long as we know the rules, how they're grading us, we'll be fine."
Buckeye Local Superintendent Mark Miller said he's "all for accountability, for standards and raising the bar," but schools didn't get a fair shake.
"I understand it, I completely agree with (the goals)," he said. "But I think the rules of the game should be put out ahead of time for everybody to understand. It makes it very difficult if you don't know the playing field before hand."
Miller said taxpayers don't understand how schools classified as "excellent" last year could be middle-of-the-road this year.
"I am happy that (we did) so well," he said. "Can we improve? Absolutely we can. I'm for accountability, everybody should be accountable. We should measure what kids are doing in the classroom - we just need to know the rules ahead of time. That's my beef, if you want to call it that - don't change the rules."
Assistant Indian Creek School Superintendent T.C. Chappelear said they were disappointed with their results, "but at the same time it's hard for us to make a whole lot of sense out of it because we've had so many changes in the district, we've had a jumbling of staff due to financial reasons, and it's hard to get a comparison year to year."
"On the student achievement side we're not as strong as we've been in the past," he said. "As a district, we've gone through a lot of changes, we've had reassignment of staff due to financial reasons, restructuring of grade levels. But at the same time, the new report cards emphasize different things."
Still, Chappelear said, they've "already got a plan put together to address that, do what's best for the kids."
He also pointed out this year and next are baseline years, "after that there will be a new testing system in place. We'll have two years of this data, then it's going to look a whole lot different again."
"I think the important thing is not to compare, but to look as an organization what it means for us, what direction does it lead us in, where do we have to be building our capacity for staff," Chappelear said.
For now, McVey said the "letter grades, the performance indicators will tell you if the majority of your kids are learning, if the staff is doing its job, that kids are graduating."
"I think everyone had a good graduation rate and good attendance rate," he added, cautioning against trying to compare a school like Big Red with smaller schools, like Toronto.
"It's apples and oranges," he said. "We're not alike. We don't have the same (demographics)."
State Superintendent Richard Ross agreed comparisons are difficult without an overall grade, and that's just not available at this time.
"(The public) needs to understand that if a school or district gets a lower grade than expected, that doesn't necessarily mean students got a poorer education there than they did the year before," he told the Associated Press recently. "But what it does mean is that the school and district will have to work to meet new, higher expectations," he said.
Charlton agreed the new report cards are more rigorous, but said that's by design.
"We know we have to raise the bar; 40 percent of high school grads attending college in Ohio have to take remedial courses," he said. "Last year, we identified 27,000 third-graders who couldn't read at third-grade levels."
The important thing, he said, is that Ohio schools "are improving and meeting needs of all the students."
"We have to make sure we raise the bar and improve the educational system in Ohio. Every student deserves a quality education, we want to make sure every student's prepared for success. The reforms we're implementing, they raise the bar; the report card, in particular, makes sure we're measuring the success of subgroups and making sure our schools are doing a good job."
From the state's perspective, "I wouldn't say we're disappointed," Charlton said. "When you look at the results and see the range of grades, even within school districts, you see some schools that did very well also have things they need to improve. No school (was perfect). The important thing is we're improving and meeting the needs of all our students."
For now, at least, Buckeye Local's Miller said people are "going to have to be patient."
"It's going to take a while for us to work out the bugs," he said.