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.

6 thoughts on “Indiana’s new grading system to challenge schools

  1. Hi Steve, Thanks for this. All these grading systems are unfair to educators and students, to my mind. It’s ludicrous to suggest that a letter grade can give useful information about a school.

    Also, just a quick word about “data driven instruction.” It is a by-product of our assessment-obsessed environment, but the term is an embarrassment, as it is clearly suggestive of the tail wagging the dog. I don’t want data-driven instruction for my children. I want teachers who are sensitive, creative, and who used ways of engaging children that are effective–but the kind of efficacy I’m interested in is the long-range kind. Do children learn that the world is interesting, that the adults in their lives respect them and can be trusted? Do they learn that they can communicate their ideas, test their ideas, and make changes in their environment? Do they want to master skills because the teachers create a meaningful context for learning? All these things are impossible to test with a bubble sheet, but you could call instruction that accomplishes them “evidence-based” as opposed to “data driven.”

    • Thanks, Jenny. These are great points, and I agree with everything you say. (“Data” and “driven” are both words that seem antithetical to positive values like “learning,” aren’t they?). At the same time, I want to be sure that someone is taking responsibility to make sure every child is learning the skills, language, etc., to communicate and test their ideas and engage the world with confidence. And one way or another, that hasn’t always happened for all kids. But yes, “evidence based,” that’s a good distinction.

  2. Okay, so let’s see it like it is….all the “data-driven” stuff is frustrating to me as a teacher. Like one of the respondents said, where’s the room for creativity? Where’s the room for helping these kids be, well, KIDS? I don’t teach my kids “things,” I teach them HOW to be. Period. Beyond that, why should I, as a teacher, be responsible for the performance of the kid who chooses to do NOTHING? Yes, I have 18+ year-old kids who share with me that they’re overwhelmed with school…it’s not for them…what’s the problem with them NOT graduating in 4 years…why should that count against us? Not everyone “gets it” with his or her “cohort.” What we REALLY need is honest consideration of the re-vamping of the SYSTEM. Not EVERY kid is going to need to know what’s in the standards, yet they are FORCED to learn it or not graduate. We, as a nation, need to reconsider how we do things educationally as a whole….if the traditional educational system isn’t working for the student, re-direct him, ENCOURAGE him to do a trade, FIND things he CAN do, but DO NOT blame me if I’ve given it my honest try and the “traditional” system we’ve set up doesn’t work for HIM.

    All-in-all most kids are good kids at heart, we just need to STOP ramming square pegs in round holes and think that EVERYONE can achieve an artificial “standard” and it’s the teacher’s fault if he doesn’t.

  3. The letter grade system is a political tool. It does a poor job of assessing schools in a meaningful way, but it provides an opportunity for politicians to tout accountability for schools and transparency for parents (though neither is achieved).

    Grading schools just confirms what we already know. The achievement gap between poor and rich kids is growing and shows no sign of diminishing.

    In the present climate of education reform, it’s considered a sign of weakness to acknowledge this.

    Next thing you’ll be asking for is to increase education spending.

  4. Pingback: New A to F rules: Tougher on poor schools? | Get On The Bus | The Indianapolis Star |

  5. Pingback: Legislature’s education oversight commission in action this week « School Matters

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