Indiana’s grading curve runs uphill for high-poverty schools

NOTE: This post was written before Glenda Ritz upset Tony Bennett in last week’s election for Indiana superintendent of public instruction. Ritz has been critical of the state’s school-grading system. As superintendent, she can’t change the law that requires the rating of schools or the rule that sets the grading rubric. She argues that she can influence how the system is implemented.

The school grades that the Indiana Department of Education released recently may tell us a little about which schools are effective. But they also reinforce a false and ugly stereotype: “Good” schools enroll students from families that are well off financially; schools that serve poor kids are likely to be “bad.”

This would be obvious to anyone who scanned the results. In Indiana’s wealthiest school districts, most if not all the schools get As. Most of the schools with Fs are clustered in urban districts with high poverty, especially Indianapolis, Gary, Hammond, Evansville and South Bend.

Matt DiCarlo shows what’s going on in this post at Shanker Blog. He breaks down the Indiana data and demonstrates clearly that there’s a high likelihood low-poverty schools will get good grades and high-poverty schools will fare poorly with the grading metrics that Indiana adopted this year.

The problem, DiCarlo explains, is that Indiana’s system relies heavily on absolute performance – the percentage of students who pass ISTEP-Plus exams in math and English. And those percentages are highly correlated with family demographics. Schools can improve their grades a bit if many of their students show “high growth” on the tests from year to year. But with a few striking exceptions, most high-poverty schools are starting in too big a hole to dig out.

The bias, DiCarlo writes, “is a feature of the system, not a bug – any rating scheme that relies heavily on absolute performance will generate ratings that are strongly associated with student characteristics like poverty. It’s just a matter of degree.”

DiCarlo writes that, for a school where fewer than 70 percent of students pass ISTEP, it’s mathematically impossible to get an A, no matter how much students improve. And an awful lot of high-poverty schools are in that category. Conversely, a school where more than 70 percent of students pass ISTEP can’t get an F even if it tries. And most low-poverty schools are in that situation.

His post includes a graph that illustrates the bias. The approach is straightforward. Focusing only on elementary and middle schools, he divides them into four quartiles, or equal-sized groups, based on the percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. So you’ve got the 25 percent of schools with the highest poverty, the 25 percent with the lowest poverty, and two groups in between.

Then he compares school grades for schools in each of the four quartiles. The results are striking:

— Almost 85 percent of low-poverty schools got an A or B, and 97 percent got an A, B or C.

— Fewer than one-fourth of high-poverty schools got an A or B; more than half got a D or F.

— A high-poverty school was about 20 times more likely than a low-poverty school to get a D or F.

Keep in mind that, in this analysis, “low-poverty” means simply the 25 percent of schools with the lowest percentage of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch. The quartile includes schools in wealthy suburban areas; but it also includes schools with what we tend to think of as average demographics. Similarly, “high poverty” means simply the 25 percent of schools with the highest percentage of students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunches. That includes a lot of IPS and Gary schools, but also quite a few schools in rural areas and small cities.

If we looked at the state’s wealthiest schools and compared them with the poorest urban schools, the differences in scores would be even more staggering.

Does this mean the grades are worthless? Certainly not, if you accept that scores on standardized math and English tests are an acceptable measure of whether students are learning what they should. Arguably, high-poverty schools that earn As, Bs and even Cs should be celebrated, and perhaps emulated. Low-poverty schools that don’t get an A or B … well, maybe someone should check on them. And for schools in the middle, maybe we can look closely at the data and draw some conclusions about why they earned a B, C or D.

But there’s a down side as well. Schools and districts that serve few poor kids can be complacent, assuming state accountability doesn’t apply to them. And many high-poverty schools will be wrongly stigmatized and labeled as failing by a system that’s stacked against them.

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7 thoughts on “Indiana’s grading curve runs uphill for high-poverty schools

  1. Thanks for sharing this. I suspected this would be the case and it’s good that someone has done the math to confirm the suspicion.

    • That does seem to be the implication, doesn’t it? Offensive, but so is the idea that students are “bad” because their test scores are low, and that their “badness” will rub off on good students.

  2. It continues segregation by socio economic class which is really the bottom line in all this so called “reform” . Communities & public school systems really should fight back against this by equalizing class as much as possible through redrawn attendance lines. Rich, poor, middle class kids going to school together? What a concept?

  3. Pingback: Indiana school vouchers: House proposes, Senate disposes | School Matters

  4. Pingback: Schools may be the wrong place to fight inequality | School Matters

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