Gates draws the line a ‘public shaming’

Microsoft chief Bill Gates made a strong argument last week that, while teachers should be evaluated in part on the value they add to their students’ test scores, those ratings shouldn’t be made public.

“Value-added ratings are one important piece of a complete personnel system,” Gates wrote in the New York Times. “But student test scores alone aren’t a sensitive enough measure to gauge effective teaching, nor are they diagnostic enough to identify areas of improvement. Teaching is multifaceted, complex work. A reliable evaluation system must incorporate other measures of effectiveness …”

This is interesting because Gates, through the education research and advocacy efforts of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has arguably done more than just about anyone to promote the belief that teachers should be evaluated on whether they improve student test scores. A majority of states, including Indiana, have latched onto the idea, adopting evaluation schemes that rely on test results.

But Gates, responding to a New York court decision, said it would be “a big mistake” to let just anyone know the results. “Developing a systematic way to help teachers get better is the most powerful idea in education today,” he wrote. “The surest way to weaken it is to twist it into a capricious exercise in public shaming.” 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.

Does Indiana’s grading system for schools leave some groups behind?

Arguably the best thing about the federal No Child Left Behind act was the way it focused attention on achievement gaps. Under NCLB, schools have been responsible for the performance of students who are poor, have disabilities, are from racial and ethnic groups, or aren’t proficient in English. They can’t hide low test scores for those subgroups behind overall averages.

Now Indiana and 10 other states are seeking waivers from NCLB’s requirements, and there’s reason for concern about whether the same level of accountability will continue for groups of students that have sometimes been left behind.

Indiana wants to use its proposed new A-to-F school grading system as a single accountability system for schools. If its waiver request is approved by the feds, no longer will schools face the confusing situation of being awarded letter grades by the state and having to worry about making “adequate yearly progress” under NCLB.

Under Indiana’s plan, instead of having to meet performance standards for each of the subgroups identified in NCLB, schools would focus on a “super subgroup” – the lowest-performing 25 percent of students.

The U.S. Department of Education suggested in a preliminary response that that may not be good enough. A letter from an assistant secretary of education, posted by the Associated Press, identified several “significant concerns” Continue reading

Note to Indiana lawmakers: stop monkeying around with ‘creation science’

It’s ironic that just as the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation was praising Indiana for having some of the best science education standards in the country, the Indiana Senate was debating legislation to authorize the teaching of “creation science.”

Fortunately, an amendment offered by Bloomington Democrat Vi Simpson made the legislation relatively harmless, at least for now. But who knows what may happen when it moves to the House for further consideration?

As introduced by Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, Senate Bill 89 would have let school boards mandate the teaching of “various theories concerning the origin of life, including creation science,” which claims to provide scientific support for the creation story in the book of Genesis.

According to Suzanne Eckes, an education law expert at the Indiana University School of Education, that would be an invitation to a lawsuit, and one the school would probably lose.

“The law is fairly settled in this area,” she said, pointing out that the U.S. Supreme Court has twice ruled that teaching creationism in public schools violates the First Amendment’s ban on the establishment of religion. The decisions were Epperson v. Arkansas in 1968 and Edwards v. Aguillard (from Louisiana) in 1987.

Kruse told Scott Elliott of the Indianapolis Star that the Supreme Court has changed since 1987 and it could rule differently today. Maybe, but as recently as 2005, federal courts ruled against teaching creationism in Selman v. Cobb (from Georgia) and Kitzmiller v. Dover (Pennsylvania).

And any school district that wants to put the courts to the test had better have deep pockets. Continue reading