The Ohio Department of Education's annual state report cards are out, and district leaders across central Ohio have been stunned and frustrated by bewildering and, in many cases, lower-than-expected results.

Delaware and Big Walnut district leaders are no exception.

The superintendent of the Delaware City School District said he worries the varied grades the district received on its latest report card may end up confusing residents.

The district earned an F for how it closes performance gaps for vulnerable students, a B for student progress and a C in student achievement on its 2016-17 report card, released earlier this month. The ODE graded the district with a D for how well it prepares students for success, a C for how well it gets young readers on track and a B for its graduation rate.

Chris Woolard, a senior executive director at the ODE, said the grades need to be viewed in the proper context. He said a district getting an F in a category is not analogous to a student getting an F in a subject.

"It does not mean that your school district is failing," he said.

Woolard said the report cards are "designed to be aspirational."

"The whole point of the system is it's designed to be a system of continuous improvement," he said.

Superintendent Paul Craft said he's afraid the current grading system may confound district residents looking to get a snapshot of how the schools are doing.

"If you're going to use an A-F (scale), F should probably mean what everyone thinks it means," he said.

Craft said the F grade the district received in the subcategory "indicators met," which measures student performance on state tests, exemplifies his problem with the report card system. He said about 80 percent of public districts in the state received an F in the subcategory.

"Are you really saying you think 80 percent of the districts in the state are failing districts?" he said.

Despite his concerns with the fairness of the letter grades, Craft said he thinks the data provided by the state can be useful for districts. He said district employees will study the numbers to see if there are specific areas where Delaware schools can improve.

"I still think (the report card) can tell you some important things," he said.

Craft said he thinks the district's high mark in progress accurately reflects the academic growth students are achieving.

"We know our kids are progressing significantly more than the average student in the state of Ohio," he said.

Big Walnut and Buckeye Valley schools also earned a B in the subject. Olentangy received an F for progress, but district officials have questioned the accuracy and fairness of the measure.

Craft said he thinks the new report card ultimately may not be illuminating for district residents.

"You could use this report card to reinforce your belief the Delaware City Schools are amazing," he said.

"You could take the same report card to reinforce your belief they're terrible."

The Big Walnut Local School District improved in some areas and held steady in others in this year's report cards, but like Delaware, the district is taking the results with a grain of salt.

This year, Big Walnut received a C in student achievement, a C in gap closing, a B in K-3 literacy, a B in student progress, an A in graduation rate and a C in how well it prepares students for success.

The district's gap-closing grade improved from an F, and its K-3 literacy grade improved from a D on the 2016 report card. The district received the same grades last year in the four other categories.

Superintendent Angie Pollock maintains the report card is simply "a piece of a larger puzzle," not a referendum on the entire district.

But she added she's glad to see growth.

"Overall, we were happy that we showed improvements in about half the measures this year," she said. "We're constantly working in a growth mindset and working toward continued improvement, so we're glad we're improving."

Pollock called the ratings "flawed" last year, and said some categories were "a joke." She said she still feels the tests are poor indicators of a school's performance.

"I think most educators feel (the report cards) have lacked stability for the last few years," she said.

"We've now had two years in a row that we've had the same test, so at least it's a better system than last year when it was the third year in a row of change. But until these tests stabilize over time, I think it's hard to make value judgments from them."

Jen Young, Big Walnut's director of academic achievement, said some scores can be more related to "good record-keeping" than actual education, and said she doesn't believe parents put much faith in the grades either.

"As a principal or in my role now, I've never had a parent ask about the report cards," she said.

But Pollock said that doesn't mean the district ignores the scores. She said leaders simply use them as one of many metrics.

"It's not that we don't care about them," she said, "but I think a lot of people and districts overemphasize them. ... We have lot of other measures we think are more valid."

Pollock said she would rather her teachers focus on "getting better every day" than report-card scores -- and she believes they're doing that.

"We would rather teach (students) how to think," she said, "and hopefully they can transfer that over to the testing."

To view report cards for Ohio school districts, visit reportcard.education.ohio.gov.

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