June 18, 2008

Ohio Graduation Test Scores Up on Tougher Subjects

By Jennifer Smith Richards, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio

Jun. 18--Central Ohio sophomores made strides in two of the five subjects on the Ohio Graduation Test this spring, but they faltered on writing, the section long regarded as the easiest.

Passing rates in social studies and science are up among the 49 districts in central Ohio, but they remain the most difficult subjects to master on the test. They're up statewide, too.

Sophomores took the graduation test for the first time in March. Most will need to pass all five sections (math, reading, science, social studies and writing) to eventually earn a diploma.

The test -- and a heap of ultra-specific data associated with it -- have forced schools to revamp when certain concepts are taught.

After a change in their social-studies curriculum, Columbus students boasted the biggest improvement on that test in central Ohio, raising their passing rate by 12.5 percentage points, to 66.3 percent.

Columbus shifted more geography, economics and lessons about people and societies to create an "interdisciplinary social-studies course, as opposed to the general history course," said Matthew Doran, who works with the district's high-school social-studies curriculum.

Marysville was one of three central Ohio districts that improved in all areas, including a gain of more than 10 points in science. Marysville's passing rate on that test was 77.7 percent .

"Our high school was not satisfied a year ago with the test scores, and there was huge focus and refocus on the OGT and standards," said Superintendent Larry Zimmerman. "It's paying off now."

Upper Arlington and Johnstown-Monroe were the other local districts that improved in all areas.

Statewide numbers mirrored those in central Ohio: Passing rates held steady or were down in math, reading and writing, but were up in science and social studies. The percentage of students who passed all five sections on the first try was 65 percent, down a tick from last year.

One of the state's testing experts says it's not uncommon to see an initial dip in scores with a new test. This is the second year that students had to pass in order to graduate, but the test has been given since 2005.

"One theory is that after the first year of hype, there's kind of a letdown in the second year. (Districts) take it for granted a little bit," said Stan Heffner, the state's associate superintendent for curriculum and assessment. "I'll be curious to see next year if we don't see some overall upticks."

The leader of Columbus' teachers union has her own theory about why the district's reading and writing totals each slipped about 2 percentage points.

"There's a tendency in high school not to focus on literacy skills, and students need literacy skills, especially at the adolescent level. That could account for the decrease in reading and writing," said Rhonda Johnson, president of the Columbus Education Association.

The numbers released by the Ohio Department of Education represent only sophomores who took the test. Data are preliminary, meaning school districts haven't had a chance to check or challenge their validity. But significant changes are relatively uncommon. Some seniors took the test in March, too, in a last-ditch effort to clear the standardized-test hurdle before commencement.

The department says 8,940 seniors failed one or more portions, roughly the same number as in 2007. It did not provide passing rates on particular sections.

The department did not release school-level data for students. That, and the results from other state tests, will be part of the report cards due out in August.

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