Put central Ohio schools under a microscope and this is what you'll find: More than 40 percent didn't make a year's worth of academic gains last year.

But most of them still were awarded A or B grades.

The microscopic measure of school success, called value-added, offers an unprecedented level of detail about the state's public schools.

But it and other new calculations on the state report cards released last month also offer new contradictions about the state of education in Ohio. Among them:

* Statewide and in central Ohio, schools and districts received more top grades than ever before. About 45 percent of local districts and 37 percent of local schools received A's or better.

* By other measures, students did not show much progress from a year before. The broadest measure of how
students scored on state tests, the performance index, has been virtually frozen for three years. Statewide, it was 92.3 of 120 possible points last school year.

* Fewer local districts (31, compared with 41 a year ago) were in trouble because they had failed to make sure no child was being left behind, but some qualified as making adequate yearly progress even though they have yet to show
it for all types of students. Ohio introduced a new prediction that gives schools credit for being on a trajectory to meet
federal standards.

The new value-added calculation is complex, but it answers a simple question: Did a school provide students with at least a year's worth of education?

This year, in central Ohio and statewide, the answer in many schools is no. Statewide, about 44 percent of schools didn't make a year's worth of growth.

Most worrisome, nearly a quarter of central Ohio schools that failed to make a year's progress also received a D or
an F grade, evidence that the schools simply aren't effective.

"We think people should be alarmed," said Terry Ryan, an education-policy analyst who is studying Ohio's
value-added results. "At the end of the day, these children have to go out in the world and compete for a job, be
thoughtful citizens, be able to take care of their families. And these measures are beginning to show us pretty clearly
that we have pockets of excellence in education, vast landscapes of mediocrity and some seriously poor-performing
schools."

Ryan is vice president for Ohio programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which oversees several Ohio charter schools. Most of the state's charters didn't fare well on the report cards.

Buildings that have low grades and teach students less than a year's worth of material "are very ineffective schools both in attainment and progress. These are schools that people really need to pay a lot of attention to," said researcher William Sanders, who invented the value-added testing concept. Ohio uses his method.

Five Columbus City Schools -- South Mifflin, Ohio Avenue, Hamilton and Deshler elementaries and Hilltonia Middle
-- fall into that category.

District officials are looking at Columbus schools that did well with similar kinds of students to find best practices,
spokesman Jeff Warner said.

"We know that, systemwide, we can learn from ourselves," he said.

There's no penalty yet for lagging on value-added. But next year, schools that have been behind for three straight years could have their grades docked.

The value-added measure exposes "schools that are letting their kids slide" because it looks deeper than other measures of student success, Sanders said. It tracks individual students instead of pretending that schools have the same student body each year. Also, it does not assume that all students start school at the same level.

"You start exposing schools with kids getting all the advantages but sliding toward mediocrity," he said.

Suburban schools say value-added is a reality check.

"Anytime we are not at standard or above, it's a red flag and we need to do something about it," said Diane Conley, Westerville schools' chief of academic affairs. "We can't just wait until the red flag hits you on the head."

Students at nearly two-thirds of the district's 20 elementary and middle schools failed to make a year's worth of growth even though almost all of the buildings earned A's or B's.

Westerville officials hope recent central-office changes will help principals and teachers home in on areas that need attention. The district added directors of elementary and secondary education and additional staff to serve students who have special needs or limited English proficiency.

Liberty Union Elementary in Fairfield County has earned A's for four straight years but has missed the value-added mark for the past two years.

"Certainly, we do feel the pressure," Principal Kelli Brownfield said. "We certainly think we're doing a good job. But as long as some students are not making gains, we're not meeting the measure."

Since the first value-added scores were released, Liberty Union added reading specialists and an after-school academic program, Brownfield said.

The value-added measure also highlights schools that gave students more than a year's worth of learning. Doing so could boost ratings. That happened in 160 districts and 394 schools statewide this year.

Some schools were able to use value-added to show that, even though not enough students were passing state tests, they were making measurable progress. Wedgewood and Indianola middle schools in Columbus, for example, have been rated in academic emergency -- an F -- for the past two years. But both made more than a year's worth of progress with students last year.