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 (ESSA) 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."
In January, ODE released a draft on how it will implement the federal government's new criteria in the ESSA, which will replace the 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, the federal law replacing the controversial No Child Left Behind law -- proposes no changes in student testing, prompting complaints from educators, parents and others .
According to the Akron Area School Superintendents' Association (AASSA), the state had been hosting regional meetings and webinars to allow educators, parents and community members to voice their opinions. However, said the Association at the draft's release, 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 to the Department of Education 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 the public hearings.
Participants had 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," noted AASSA.
Department 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 the 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. "The repeated changes in the report card have also made it confusing and meaningless to parents and community members," said the Association.
"During the feedback period, a wide array of useful suggestions were provided to ODE. When the initial plan was presented, we were stunned that few, if any, of the suggestions were included in the plan," said Davis. "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."
Cuyahoga Falls City School District Superintendent Dr. Todd Nichols applauded the AASSA leadership for organizing responses and sending them to the Ohio Department of Education. Nichols noted he was concerned that the delayed submission of the ESSA plan "has more to do with the movement toward privatization of education at the federal and state level." He said people should be aware of the executive order signed by President Trump, as well as HR610 at the federal level "which would repeal ESSA amongst other things," and SB85 in Ohio "which would dramatically expand the scholarship/voucher program in Ohio."
"In my opinion, these movements represent a direct and imminent threat to public education as we know it," said Nichols. "While we appreciate the delay, I am concerned about what appears to be the real reason for the delay."
What's ahead for Ohio's plan
According to ODE, DeMaria is convening a Superintendent's Advisory Committee on Assessments to focus on the full range of testing issues -- including state-required tests, as well as district-level tests. This work will allow for a more thorough and complete review, and recommendations for adjustments to these assessments both state and local.
In addition, ODE will continue to work closely with legislators, the governor, business leaders, educators and the public to undertake a comprehensive strategic planning process. The strategic plan will include a clear vision for education in Ohio, supported by a set of goals, strategies, tactics and metrics.
In addition, 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.