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Harmony tested selectively; Charter's state scores challenged by public-school critics

Below this reporter's account, you can read Harmony's explanation.

By Jennifer Mrozowski

Harmony Community School officials touted the school's big jump in test scores when it earned the second-highest student achievement rating on its state report card.

But some skeptical public school officials, who analyzed the scores, said the charter school didn't assess most of the students who were required to take state tests.

Harmony was among the dozens of Ohio charters that tested fewer than half of students mandated to take reading and math tests, according to Ohio Department of Education test participation rates.

Just 18 percent of Harmony students took the math tests and 40 percent took the reading tests, yet the school received an "Effective" rating, the second-highest score on the state's five-tier ranking system.

Two other Cincinnati charters, PACE High School in Avondale and Life Skills Center of Cincinnati in Walnut Hills, assessed fewer than 10 percent of their students.

Charter schools blame traditional public schools for the low participation rates. They say that when students transfer from public schools to a charter, the public schools don't transfer records detailing whether students have taken and passed state tests, leaving charters to guess which students should be tested.

Some public school officials say charters are held to a lower standard.

"If we're into school choice in Ohio, parents ought to have accurate information," said Gary Gellert, superintendent of North College Hill City Schools.

In North College Hill, 99 percent of students took mandated state tests. "I don't believe (the report card) reflects the achievement Harmony had last year."

The federal No Child Left Behind act requires schools to test at least 95 percent of students. If they don't reach that goal for two years, they face sanctions.

State officials say they expect charter and traditional public schools to give required tests to all students. Yet under Ohio's rating system, a school could receive an 'Effective' label - like Harmony - for at least one year, despite low participation rates, if students who took the tests scored high.

That situation is rare, state officials said, and they have begun investigating schools where enrollment doesn't correspond with the number of students tested.

Public schools can receive fiscal penalties, but it's unclear to state officials whether charter schools receive similar penalties, said Mitch Chester, assistant superintendent for policy and accountability at the Ohio Department of Education.

The state's accountability system penalizes schools that miss the federal testing goal for two consecutive years, Chester said. The best rating those schools can receive is "Continuous Improvement," the middle of the five rankings.

"We're very concerned when we see any school with low participation in the testing program," Chester said. "We have an increased ability to identify schools where their enrollment is discrepant with the number of students they are testing, and we are pursuing those schools... We do support public school choice, but not without accountability."

Deland McCullough, Harmony's executive director, said the school's contract with the state does not require students to take the Ohio Graduation Test if they don't have enough credits to be a sophomore. While the state labels a student a sophomore because of age and expects those students to take state reading and math tests, the school doesn't, he said. That could contribute to the school's low participation rate, he said.

Harmony, which serves students ages 11 to 22, does not assign students to specific grades.

"We have students who were 17 years old coming from (public) middle school," he said. "I think that's very unfair to say these guys need to take this test."

McCullough said the students eventually have to take the Ohio Graduation Test to receive a diploma.

Lawanda Engleman, who works with school data at PACE High School, said some students who come from traditional public schools say they have already taken and passed the tests, when they haven't.

Engleman said some districts don't promptly send a student's file when a child transfers to the charter school. "It becomes a cat-and-mouse game," she said. "Charter schools are really not their first priority."

PACE High School decided that any students who don't have records this year will have to be tested.

Representatives for White Hat Management, the company that runs a group of charter schools called Life Skills Centers, also said they have trouble with the public schools transferring records.

"We have been working together with the Ohio Department of Education to find a solution... but have not arrived at a satisfactory result just yet," said White Hat spokeswoman Markila Brown.

Not all area charter schools struggled with test participation.

W.E.B. DuBois Academy in Over-the-Rhine tested 97 percent to 100 percent of students in reading and math. The school received the state's top rating of Excellent.

Traditional public school districts had much higher participation rates, but some individual schools within those districts struggled to test most kids, too.

In Cincinnati Public Schools, 99 percent of the students who were supposed to be tested took state reading and math tests.

But at Woodward Traditional High School, a school being phased out by Cincinnati Public, just over half of students took reading and math tests. District officials were unavailable for comment.

E-mail jmrozowski@enquirer.com

Tresting Rates Low

In dozens of charter schools statewide, fewer than half the students took required reading and math tests. Federal law states that 95 percent should be tested. The lowest testing rates in Greater Cincinnati:

Life Skills Center of Greater Cincinnati: Reading, 4.3 percent; Math, 6.5 percent

PACE High School: Reading, 4.8 percent; Math, 4.8 percent

Life Skills Center of Hamilton County: Reading, 10 percent; Math 10 percent

Life Skills Center of Middletown: Reading, 31.7 percent; Math 31.7 percent

Harmony Community School: Reading, 39.5 percent; Math, 17.8 percent

Source: Ohio Department of Education

Here's how Harmony explains its jump in test scores.

The Facts Behind the Report Card Gains
at Harmony Community School

What is the story behind the highly unusual achievement of Harmony Community School? Few schools, if any, in Ohio have climbed three levels in one year on the Ohio School Report Card – from Academic Emergency to Effective.

Harmony educators organized the 2004-2005 school year in accordance with the renewal of its charter in June 2004. The majority of students who selected Harmony Community School as their school of choice were students “at risk.” The administration and staff made key changes in the charter and in the organization of the school that prompted its ascent from Academic Emergency to Effective.

Changes and thinking that went into the astonishing improvement included:

* Harmony extended the school day by one hour with an additional three weeks of summer school for students who did not meet academic standards.

* Administrators provided for two weeks of staff development before school started, addressing all changes that were to be made in the 2004-2005 school year.

* The school emphasized key academic subjects, providing extended time through block scheduling.

* Every student was tested in reading and math to determine who needed remediation.

* Administrators divided the school into “academies” with an intervention specialist assigned to each academy.
* Within the academies, the school grouped students by ability, and completed this delicate task without the students knowing how the groups were formed. This prevented any problems of students being stigmatized. Students were placed with age-appropriate peers in accordance with Harmony’s policy of being a non-graded school.

* Moreover, Harmony created additional special programs to address social as well as academic needs.

* A full-time school counselor and school nurse were hired. Additional nursing services were provided by a team of student nurses from the University of Cincinnati School of Nursing.

* This was the first year Harmony received Title One funds commensurate with our high poverty population. Harmony used these funds to hire two remedial reading teachers, three intervention specialists and three additional teachers to provide individual assistance to students who needed remediation.

* Intensive remedial reading and math were provided to the students with greatest needs for 90 minutes twice weekly.

* Additional remedial programs and help with homework were provided up to 7:00 p.m. thanks to funds received from being awarded a 21st Century grant.
Harmony Community School is the only charter school in Ohio to have received a $1.4 million entitlement grant.
An average of 90 students per day attended these after-school sessions.

* The school initiated a policy to get tough on truancy and attendance problems. Teachers took attendance three times a day and the school required parents to attend a hearing for students with excessive unexcused absences.

* For the first time in accordance with our new charter, the curriculum was aligned with state standards. All curriculum areas addressed the 9th grade proficiency test and the OGT were highlighted. Students were being tested on what they were taught.

* The administration made every effort to conform to Harmony’s policy of keeping class size at 15 or under.

* With more than 90 percent of the teachers returning from the previous year, staff turnover has become an issue of the past.

Harmony Community School’s rise of three levels on the Ohio School Report Card was the result of a great deal of effort by teachers, staff and students.

— Jennifer Mrozowski
Cincinnati Enquirer


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