Indiana began awarding letter grades to schools this year based on the idea that it’s a clearer and more transparent way to hold schools accountable and inform parents and the public about how they are performing.
After all, the thinking went: Everyone knows what an A means? Everyone knows what an F means. But do we?
Watch just a little of the video of the Oct. 5 State Board of Education meeting, and you may wonder. Members spent nearly five hours discussing criteria for calculating grades, and they seemed no closer to consensus when they were done than when they started.
Or try reading a version of the proposed rule that the board is considering to create the new letter-grade metrics. You’ll find language like this: “Highest growth passing rate is the percentage point increase of identified passing students at the lowest performing high growth passing rate school within the top quartile of schools ranked from highest to lowest by the percentage point increase in passing percentage students.”
Department of Education staff tried to simplify the rule by giving it to the board in an easy-to-follow PowerPoint presentation. But it was still slow going – made slower by the board’s tendency to argue over philosophy and details every step of the way.
And state officials are working on a deadline. Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett indicated he’d like to have board approval of the rule before Indiana submits its application for federal waivers under the No Child Left Behind law, due Nov. 14.
Indiana’s old state school accountability system was straightforward, but arguably too simplistic. Schools were rated on the basis of the percentage of students who passed state exams. They could boost their ratings by improving the passing percentage from year to year. Indiana used to use descriptive ratings – from “exemplary progress” to “academic probation.” It switched to letter grades this year, following a trend that Florida started in 1999 and that other states, including Arizona and Louisiana, have embraced.
The proposed new system keeps the “base and bonus” approach, but the formula gets a lot more complex.
As in the old system, the base score for an elementary school or middle school depends on the percentage of students who pass ISTEP-Plus exams. Via a complex formula, schools can boost their grades if students do well on the Indiana Growth Model, a method for measuring individual test-score growth from year to year. Schools can also be penalized if their students don’t “grow” enough.
For high schools, it can get even more complicated. At least half the calculation of their grades will depend on standardized test scores – but Indiana currently gives standardized tests to high-school students only in two subjects, Algebra I and 10th-grade English. High-school grades also will depend on graduation rates and measures of “college and career readiness,” a category that includes the percentage of students who pass Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams, earn college credit or achieve career certifications.
As Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett said, the proposed system is an attempt to capture the nuances of what schools do and what they’re supposed to do – not just whether students can pass tests but whether they are growing academically and graduating from high school with the skills they need.
But the board clearly struggled with adopting a system that may be too complex for the general public to understand. “The parent has to understand this,” member David Shane said at one point. “The average person, the businessman, the social service worker out in the community, they have to understand this. I’m not sure I understand this.”