Detail still missing from Indiana grade-change story

John Grew and William Sheldrake provide the most complete account to date on how the Indiana Department of Education struggled to implement A-to-F school grading last year. They also offer solid recommendations as the state moves to a new system in 2014.

But their report doesn’t put to rest one question: When and why did former state Superintendent Tony Bennett and his staff remove a “ceiling” on the grade points that schools could earn for math or English test-score improvement, a move that ended up raising grades for 165 schools? Did they make the change to boost the grade for Christel House Academy, a favored Indianapolis charter school? Or was it a broad policy decision that officials just forgot to make public.

The Grew-Sheldrake report says former DOE officials claim the decision was made before the State Board of Education adopted the A-to-F rule in February 2012.

“According to DOE management staff, the removal of the growth caps was indicated by the language of the final approved rule, but erroneously not implemented in the computer programming of the model,” the report says. “This mistake was found in the final weeks prior to the embargoed release of the grades’ data to the schools on September 19, 2012.”

It appears to be true that the ceiling was not included in the language of the rule. But here are three reasons to suspect the decision may not have happened the way DOE management staff say.

First, an FAQ page explaining the point ceiling remains on the Internet (See items No. 11 and 29). According to the page’s document information, it was created in March 2012, a month after the SBE approved the rule. Continue reading

Lifting ‘ceiling’ helped Christel House, other schools

It was widely reported last week that Tony Bennett boosted the grade for Christel House Academy by finding a way to disregard scores on high-school-level algebra and English assessments. But that only got the school’s grade from a C to a B. How did it get to an A?

Here’s the answer, thanks to Cynthia Roach, director of assessment for Indianapolis Public Schools: Indiana Department of Education staff also removed a “ceiling” that had been used in calculating grades.

This is a pretty big deal. The change improved final grades not only for Christel House but for more than 140 others schools. Some school officials may have been aware of the new approach, but I can’t find evidence that DOE officials discussed it as a policy matter with the State Board of Education or shared it with the public.

Indiana’s grading system gives schools 4 points for an A, 3 points for a B, 2 for a C and so on. Elementary-middle schools get a base grade for the percentage of students who pass ISTEP exams in math and English/language arts. Additionally, they get up to 2 bonus points if a high percentage of certain students show “high growth.” Sub-grades for math and English/language arts are averaged to produce the school’s overall grade.

The state initially put a ceiling of 4 points (an A) on the math or English sub-grade for any school; in other words, a school couldn’t get extra credit for high scores and high growth in the same subject. State board members said this would keep schools from getting an A if they didn’t excel in both math and English. You can see an explanation and the rationale for the ceiling in items No. 11 and 29 from an old FAQ document for the state’s grading metrics. But those items were deleted from the current version of the FAQ.

The ceiling was still in place last summer, according to information provided to school officials at the time. And it was still there when Jon Gubera, the DOE’s chief accountability officer, emailed Bennett with the bad news that Christel House had earned a C. The school’s elementary-middle students earned 3.5 points for their math passing rate and got 1 point for growth, a total math sub-grade of 4.5 But Gubera capped the math score at 4.

Once the ceiling was lifted, however, Christel House had just enough points to meet Bennett’s expectation that the school get an A. Continue reading

Do low school grades drive away good teachers?

Grading schools on student performance is supposed to improve education by giving teachers and administrators an incentive to do better. But it could be having the opposite effect.

That’s one conclusion to draw from research by education economists Tim Sass, Lin Feng and David Figlio. Looking at data for Florida schools, they found teachers were more likely to leave schools that received Fs in the state’s grading system. And effective teachers were especially likely to leave.

Sass, a professor in Georgia State University’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, talked about the research last week at an Economics of Education Seminar at Indiana University Bloomington. “It’s really that scarlet letter F for a school that seems to impact teacher decisions,” Sass said.

Florida was the first state to adopt the now common practice of giving schools letter grades based on student performance and/or improvement on standardized tests. It started in 1999, when Jeb Bush was governor. Indiana got on board with letter grades a couple of years ago. Continue reading

Trying – oh so hard — to look at the bright side

The Indiana legislature has produced almost no good news for public schools this year. But here’s a little: Republicans and Democrats joined together this week to push for improvement to Indiana’s A-to-F grading system for schools.

The Senate Education Committee voted 11-0 to approve Senate Bill 416 and send it to the full Senate. As amended before passage, it’s a simple bill: It would repeal the grading rules that the State Board of Education approved a year ago and direct the board to adopt new criteria based on students’ test-score growth compared to established standards, not on students’ growth compared to their peers.

This is arguably a rare victory for Glenda Ritz, the Democratic state superintendent of public instruction. The Indianapolis Star’s Scott Elliott writes that Ritz wants to replace the A-to-F grades with designations of reward schools, focus schools and priority schools. The ratings would be based on the percentage of students who pass state tests and a measure of student growth on test scores, Elliott writes.

But it’s way too early for Ritz’s supporters to declare victory. For one thing, getting a bill through a Senate committee is just a small step toward making it a law. For another, while almost everyone found something not to like about the current grading system, we won’t all agree on what a better system would look like. Continue reading

Indiana’s grading curve runs uphill for high-poverty schools

NOTE: This post was written before Glenda Ritz upset Tony Bennett in last week’s election for Indiana superintendent of public instruction. Ritz has been critical of the state’s school-grading system. As superintendent, she can’t change the law that requires the rating of schools or the rule that sets the grading rubric. She argues that she can influence how the system is implemented.

The school grades that the Indiana Department of Education released recently may tell us a little about which schools are effective. But they also reinforce a false and ugly stereotype: “Good” schools enroll students from families that are well off financially; schools that serve poor kids are likely to be “bad.”

This would be obvious to anyone who scanned the results. In Indiana’s wealthiest school districts, most if not all the schools get As. Most of the schools with Fs are clustered in urban districts with high poverty, especially Indianapolis, Gary, Hammond, Evansville and South Bend.

Matt DiCarlo shows what’s going on in this post at Shanker Blog. He breaks down the Indiana data and demonstrates clearly that there’s a high likelihood low-poverty schools will get good grades and high-poverty schools will fare poorly with the grading metrics that Indiana adopted this year.

The problem, DiCarlo explains, is that Indiana’s system relies heavily on absolute performance – the percentage of students who pass ISTEP-Plus exams in math and English. And those percentages are highly correlated with family demographics. Schools can improve their grades a bit if many of their students show “high growth” on the tests from year to year. But with a few striking exceptions, most high-poverty schools are starting in too big a hole to dig out.

The bias, DiCarlo writes, “is a feature of the system, not a bug – Continue reading

Indiana lawmakers to hear from public on A-to-F grading standards

The Select Commission on Education of the Indiana General Assembly will have another meeting Friday. On the agenda: public testimony on the rules that the State Board of Education adopted earlier this year for grading schools on an A-to-F scale.

Of course, the state board had a public hearing back in January, before it adopted the A-to-F rules. What’s the difference? For one thing, several of the legislators who sit on the Select Committee are likely to actually attend Friday’s meeting.

At the January hearing, the Indy Star’s Scott Elliott reported, only one state board member was present, and state Superintendent Tony Bennett wasn’t there either. Apparently it’s standard procedures for board members to skip rule hearings and rely on staff to tell them what they missed. Even so, when the board is fundamentally remaking the state’s accountability system for schools, you would think members could show up and listen to what the public says.

Pretty much every person and group that weighed in at the January hearing – from the Indiana Urban Schools Association to the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, from public school superintendents to charter-school advocates – urged the board to hold off on adopting the grading metrics. Continue reading

Legislature’s education oversight commission in action this week

The first meeting of Indiana’s Select Commission on Education takes place Tuesday. On the agenda: a review of the state’s new A-to-F grading system for schools and how it was developed by the Indiana Department of Education.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett is scheduled to speak, along with several of his top aides. Also on hand for the Department of Education will be Damian Betebenner of the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment. He is the primary architect of the Colorado Growth Model for gauging student improvement on standardized tests, the basis for the Indiana Growth Model.

Lawmakers created the Select Commission because of a sense that the Department of Education and the State Board of Education were adopting policies without due deference to the legislature and the laws it enacted. Members include everyone on the House and Senate education committees – a majority of whom are, like Bennett, Republicans.

Readers of this blog may assume that Bennett and the Republican legislators are on the same page. In the 2011 legislative session, for example, Bennett relied on partisan votes to push through his package of charter schools, vouchers, teacher evaluation and merit pay, and limits on collective bargaining.

But that’s not necessarily the case.

Some of the most vocal critics of the state’s new A-to-F grading rubrics have been operators of charter schools, some of whom have close political ties to Republican officials. For example, Christel DeHaan, founder of Christel House Academy in Indianapolis, has given $2.3 million to Indiana political campaigns since 1998, with the biggest gifts going to Republicans.

As School Matters reported, the new A-to-F grading system could reflect poorly on charter schools; only one of the almost 100 Indiana charters would have earned an A, had the system been in place last year. Continue reading

Indiana’s revised NCLB waiver request gives more attention to subgroups

Indiana appears to have made significant changes in its application for a waiver from No Child Left Behind act requirements in order to get the U.S. Department of Education to approve the request.

In particular, it added a lot of language spelling out that, no, it won’t walk away from holding schools accountable for subgroups of students that weren’t supposed to be left behind: racial and ethnic minorities, economically disadvantaged students, special-needs students and English learners.

The state’s original waiver application, filed hurriedly in November, wasn’t at all clear about this. But the revised request, posted on the USDOE webpage, says schools will be expected to raise the performance of all subgroups to keep them on track to meeting state goals.

It’s not obvious how this will work. The traditional No Child Left Behind subgroups aren’t referenced in the new A-to-F school grading criteria approved last week by the State Board of Education. Instead the grading system relies on two “super subgroups,” the bottom 25 percent of students at each school and the top 75 percent. Schools get bonus points if either group shows “high growth” on test scores.

But the Indiana NCLB waiver document says schools will also be graded on the performance of each of the traditional subgroups. This is arguably a good thing – making it harder for schools to ignore achievement gaps if their overall scores are decent. But again, it remains to be seen how it will work.

Another question about the state’s NCLB waiver is: What happens to the sanctions that have been imposed on schools that receive federal Title I funding and failed repeatedly to make “adequate yearly progress” under the law? Continue reading

Indiana’s new grading system to challenge schools

The curve just got tougher for Indiana elementary and middle schools with the State Board of Education’s approval Wednesday of new criteria for the state’s A-to-F grading system.

We know this because the Indiana Department of Education recently made available a spreadsheet of estimated grades that schools would have received in 2011 if the new criteria had been in place at that time. It suggests that many schools are likely see their ratings drop.

Under the old grading system, after years of improvement, almost half the elementary and middle schools in the state earned As in 2011; under the new system, fewer than a quarter would have had As. Just 20 percent received Ds and Fs under the old system; under the new system, 26 percent would have received Ds and Fs.

The Department of Education warned that the estimated grades shouldn’t be used for accountability purposes or to predict how schools will do in 2012. But the information suggests schools will have to adapt to a new set of expectations.

Exemplary schools – or not

Take, for example, the five Indianapolis elementary schools that the Indianapolis Star profiled in an excellent front-page feature Sunday.

The schools – IPS Schools No. 79 and 90, Clinton Young Elementary in Perry Township, Sunny Heights Elementary in Warren Township and the Christel House charter academy – are succeeding despite the usual challenges of urban education, including large numbers of poor and minority students and many who are learning to speak English. They all earned As under the old criteria in 2011.

As Scott Elliott reported, the schools are doing the things that good schools do. They make productive use of every minute of the day. They conduct frequent assessments and use data to guide instruction. The principals are strong leaders and who recruit and support effective teachers.

But if the state’s new grading rules had been in place, only two of them – the two in IPS – would have received an A in 2011. Christel House, which earned As for five consecutive years under the old system, would have received a B. Clinton Young and Sunny Heights would have received Cs.

Another example: Today’s Star tells about two schools in Lawrence Township, both of which got Cs last year. If the new criteria had been in place, one would have earned an A and the other an F.

This will take more study, but it appears the new grading system for elementary and middle schools favors affluent suburban schools while making it harder for urban schools serving low-income neighborhoods to get high grades. (There are striking exceptions such as IPS Schools No. 79 and 90).

So what’s the lesson? For one thing, maybe we shouldn’t put absolute faith in letter grades handed down by the state. For another, ensuring that students learn in schools beset by hard-core poverty is hard but essential work. We should celebrate schools that succeed, even if our measures of success are shaky, and encourage those that are taking steps to get better.

Charter schools bomb

One of the most striking results of applying the new A-to-F criteria to 2010-11 school performance is this: Indiana charter schools look really bad.

Of the nearly 100 elementary and middle-grades charter schools in the state, only one would have earned an A: Columbus International School. The highly touted Christel House and Charles Tindley Accelerated academies both would have received Bs for their elementary and middle grades.

Hoosier Academy and Connections Academy, the state’s two online charter schools, both get Fs in the exercise. So does Indianapolis Metropolitan High School, celebrated by the Star as a model for success and the recipient of a $2.2 million School Improvement Grant. Indianapolis’ KIPP College Preparatory School, part of the well regarded KIPP network of no-excuses charter schools, gets a D.

It would be tempting to say the results prove that charter schools are overrated. But what they most likely show is that many charter schools in Indiana serve predominantly poor and minority children in urban areas, and schools like that may struggle under the new grading system.

Not everyone is sold on proposed Indiana school grading changes

Look for some push-back Tuesday morning when the State Board of Education conducts a public hearing on its plan to change the way letter grades are calculated for Indiana schools. It’s the only chance people will have to comment in person on the change, and critics are determined to make the most of it.

Vic Smith, a retired educator who helped start the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, has written detailed criticism of the proposed grading system, and he’s urging parents and public-school supporters to show up and make themselves heard.

Officials with Bartholomew Consolidated Schools in Columbus are also upset about the plan to change how schools are evaluated. In a guest column in Sunday’s Indianapolis Star, Bartholomew school board member Jill Shedd argued that the system focuses too narrowly on reading and math, ignoring much of what schools do for students.

Smith argues that the rule is flawed because it relies on statistical quotas to determine whether schools should get credit for improvement.

Using the state’s “growth model” for measuring year-to-year student gains on test scores, the DOE will arbitrarily determine that one-third of students show high growth, one-third show normal growth, and one-third show low growth. Schools can earn bonus points if a high percentage of their students show high growth; they can be penalized if too many students show low growth.

But growth is measured by how students perform compared to their peers, not whether they improve their ability to meet academic standards. “We might have a great year when everybody learns, but we’ll still have 34 percent with low growth,” Smith said Wednesday at a Bloomington forum on public education. Continue reading