Indiana moving forward on letter-grade criteria for schools

Schools are complex institutions, serving diverse constituencies and charged with a wide range of objectives. So it’s no wonder Indiana education officials are finding it a challenge to develop an A-to-F grading system that fairly evaluates schools – and that people can understand.

The State Board of Education last week approved a proposed rule that sets out the new grading standards, which are designed to replace both Indiana’s old Public Law 221 accountability system and the “adequate yearly progress” standard in the federal No Child Left Behind law.

For elementary and middle schools, the new system is fairly straightforward. Schools get basic scores for the percentage of their students who pass state math and English tests. From there, they can gain bonus points or be penalized, depending on students’ test-score “growth” from year to year and other factors. Add up the points and you get a grade.

Jonathan Plucker, director of the Center for Evaluation & Education Policy at Indiana University, had a hand in developing the new K-8 grading system. He said it meets three of his major criteria: 1) the letter grades are easy to calculate and explain; 2) the underlying statistical metrics are sound; and 3) it’s possible for schools to improve their grades by focusing on performance.

“So my take-away from this experience is that the K-8 model is better than what we have currently,” Plucker told School Matters by email.

He is less familiar with details of the model for high schools, and it’s there that the state seems to be struggling to get things right.

Under the model that the board approved last week, high schools will be graded on passing rates on state tests, graduation rates, and a category called college and career readiness, which includes AP and IB test results and completion of college credits and career/ technical certifications. The college and career readiness part will be phased in over several years, which means that most of the weighting will initially be on test scores and graduation rates.

Test-based accountability is a problem for high schools, however, because Indiana has standardized tests for only two high-school level courses — English 10 and Algebra I – which are taken each year by a small minority of students. But attempts to add other factors to the grading formula have been criticized for making the system too complicated.

“In systems such as these, accuracy usually equals complexity, which equals ‘hard to explain to people,’” Plucker said. “It’s a very troubling paradox.”

The Board of Education’s vote last week sends the proposed grading rule to the State Budget Agency for a cost-benefit analysis. Then the board will conduct a public hearing on the rule, possibly in January, with final adoption likely in February or March.