State education department opts for secrecy

The Indiana Department of Education still refuses to disclose data used to determine A-F grades for schools in 2014-15, despite receiving a letter from Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt that says the data should be made public.

I’ve requested the information twice, arguing it should be disclosed under the Access to Public Records Act. And the department has rejected my request twice, insisting the data falls under an exception for records that are speculative or expressions of opinion and are used for decision-making.

But I’m not asking for anything deliberative. I’m asking for numbers – the scores on a 4-point scale that were used to establish what grades schools would receive.

Remember that Indiana switched to new learning standards and a tougher ISTEP exam in 2014-15. Passing rates dropped dramatically. As a result, the General Assembly passed “hold harmless” legislation that said no school would get a lower grade than it received the previous year.

When the Department released grades in January, it didn’t indicate which schools were being held harmless and which actually earned the grades they received in 2014-15. And unlike in previous years, it didn’t include the scores on a 4-point scale that schools earned.

After the department turned down my first request for the data, I filed a complaint with the Office of the Public Access Counselor, the state agency tasked with advising government officials on the public records and public meetings laws. Britt initially sided with the department in an advisory opinion to my complaint, labeled 16-FC-34.

But on the advice of Steve Key, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association, I provided the counselor with additional information clarifying that I was seeking data, not deliberative material. In a June 2 follow-up letter, copied to the Department of Education, Britt said the data should be released: Continue reading

Ritz hits the mark with pre-K proposal

Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz hit the nail on the head with her call for expanding state-funded pre-kindergarten programs to all Indiana school districts.

Part of the Vision 2020 initiative that Ritz unveiled this week, the universal pre-K proposal makes sense educationally and politically. And it puts pressure on Republican Gov. Mike Pence to come up with a more ambitious plan than anything he has supported to date.

Ritz, a Democrat, should also get credit for putting “equity in student access to resources and support” at the top of her Vision 2020 priorities list. It’s not yet clear exactly what that encompasses, but Ritz suggested it will include closing the “digital divide” between rich and poor schools, ending racial disparities in school discipline and providing fair funding for schools. All are all worthy goals.

The superintendent’s pre-kindergarten initiative, framed as a legislative agenda approaching next year’s budget session of the Indiana General Assembly, pledges to “make high quality pre-K available within the boundaries of every school corporation in the state of Indiana by 2020.”

There’s consensus among Indiana’s education and business leaders that access to strong pre-kindergarten programs is important. There’s also widespread support for the idea from academic experts – check out the website of Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, who is on an all-out crusade to persuade policymakers of the economic and social benefits of high-quality pre-K.

But Indiana lags far behind the rest of the country. Continue reading

Schools should do the right thing for transgender students

Four weeks have passed since the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice issued guidance for schools regrading transgender students and the use of restrooms and locker rooms, and I’m still trying to figure out why opponents consider this such a big deal.

The truth is, no one is likely to notice if transgender men use men’s restrooms and transgender women use women’s restrooms. They’ve probably been doing it for years, and no one has objected. The same should be true for transgender boys and girls.

Not to get too graphic, but most people involved in this issue will be doing their business in restroom stalls, which provide a measure of privacy. Transgender boys won’t be using urinals, right? And neither will transgender girls.

Some critics have suggested it will be awkward to have transgender students taking group showers in locker rooms that they share with students who have different genitalia. But honestly, are there any schools where students still shower after gym class? I thought kids quit doing that years ago.

The most visceral response comes from people who insist that letting students use facilities that align with their gender identity will put young children at risk. The idea seems to be that transgender women may actually be men who are faking it – possibly child molesters who will put on dresses in order to use women’s bathrooms and prey on little girls.

Never mind that there have been no reports of transgender women doing anything like this. If a male child molester decided to try that trick, he would be violating all sorts of serious laws. A state statute that says he must use a men’s restroom wouldn’t be much of a deterrent.

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Same old story: Test scores reflect demographics

The Indiana Department of Education has refused to disclose what grades Indiana schools would have received in 2015 if it weren’t for “hold harmless” legislation approved by lawmakers – so I can’t do the analysis of how grades correlate with school poverty that I did in previous years.

The best I can come up with is to show how school wealth and poverty correlate with passing rates on the spring 2015 ISTEP exams. And as you’d probably expect, they match up pretty closely.

As when looking at grades, I divided school corporations into four quartiles on the basis of the percentage of students who qualified for free or reduced-price meals. Passing rates all around were much lower than in previous years – remember that Indiana students took a new, more difficult version of ISTEP in 2015 – but the pattern was fairly clear.

  • In the top quartile, the schools with the fewest poor students, passing rates for nearly all the schools ranged from 50 percent to 80 percent, with just a few outliers. The median figure – with half the values higher and half lower – was 61 percent.
  • In the second quartile, passing rates ranged from 43 percent to 68 percent. Most were between 50 percent and 60 percent. The median was 55 percent.
  • In the third quartile, passing rates ranged from 35 percent to 66 percent. The median was 50.5 percent.
  • In the bottom quartile, made up of the highest-poverty schools, passing rates ranged from 22 percent to 55 percent. The median was 44.3 percent.

A rough representation of the quartiles looks like this:

2015 rates of passing both math and E/LA ISTEP exams by school percentage free and reduced-price lunch

2015 rates of passing both math and E/LA ISTEP exams by school percentage free and reduced-price lunch

As expected, there’s considerable overlap between the groups – schools at the top of the bottom quartile are a lot like schools at the bottom of the third quartile, after all — but the groups line up along the test-score axis, poor schools at the left and affluent schools at the right.

There’s nothing new or surprising here, of course. It’s just another illustration of the well-known fact that test scores are largely an indication of socioeconomic status and only secondarily a reflection of school effectiveness.

Schools push back against plan to cut free-lunch eligibility

School officials say the Community Eligibility Program for providing students with free lunch and breakfast has been a resounding success. It has reduced paperwork, provided more students with healthy meals and kept more money in the hands of families.

But legislation introduced by Indiana Congressman Todd Rokita would cut back on the program, eliminating the option for over 18,000 schools and hundreds of thousands of children nationwide, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

In Indiana, at least 120 schools serving 58,000 students – nearly half the schools and students that currently participate – could be bounced out of the program.

Community Eligibility was created by a 2010 reauthorization of the federal school nutrition law and became available to schools nationwide in 2014-15. It enables high-poverty schools and school districts to offer free meals to all their students without forcing families to show they meet income requirements.

The law says schools and districts are eligible if at least 40 percent of their students are directly certified as eligible for free school meals; that typically means their families participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) or the students are homeless or in foster care.

Under Rokita’s proposal, that threshold would rise to 60 percent.

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Indiana teacher grants comfort the comfortable

You hear a lot about the idea that teachers should be rewarded with higher pay for agreeing to work in the most challenging school districts, the ones with the highest percentages of poor children.

We do things differently in Indiana. Under the state’s Teacher Performance Grant program, created by the legislature and included in state law, we are rewarding teachers in low-poverty schools.

It probably wasn’t intentional, but it’s worked out that way. The grants are awarded to school corporations according to a formula that includes the passing rate on ISTEP exams, high school graduation rates and year-to-year improvement on both.

In practice, the more affluent schools – which tend to have higher test scores and graduation rates – get the bigger grants. The school corporations decide how to divvy up the money among teachers who are rated highly effective or effective.

The Indiana Department of Education informed schools of this year’s calculated performance grants in February. Based on a little sorting, here are some trends: Continue reading

More confusion on Title I allocations

The fallout continues from the Indiana Department of Education’s allocation of federal Title I funds for 2015-16, and nowhere near all the questions have been answered.

In the latest development, the department announced Monday that it is asking the U.S. Department of Education for a waiver from restrictions on how some schools can spend the money. This is a belated attempt to help schools – most of them charter schools – that got a smaller-than-expected Title I planning allocation last year and a big bump when allocations were adjusted this spring.

The announcement says the department is asking for the waiver. But then it also asks the public for input on whether it should ask for the waiver, by May 16. So that’s a little confusing.

According to the department, Title I funds that are allocated for 2015-16 but aren’t spent by the end of the school year can be carried over and used during the following year. Typically, schools aren’t supposed to carry over more than 15 percent of their total allocation.

They can get permission to carry over more than 15 percent, but no more than once every three years. It’s that once-in-three-years limit that the state is asking the feds to waive, if I’m reading the announcement correctly.

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