Indiana schools have finally received their preliminary 2015 ISTEP test results, and school officials aren’t happy. Superintendents, especially, are pushing back hard.
In media stories and statements to the public, they have called aspects of this year’s tests “not fair,” “a complete fiasco” and “almost unfathomable.” The setting of grades, they said, was arbitrary and invalid.
On the one hand, good for them. On the other, where were they when test scores and a similarly arbitrary process were being used to label other people’s schools as failing?
Were they pushing back against a state accountability system that was stacked against high-poverty schools? Or were administrators and school board members content with a system that delivered high grades and let them boast of running an A school corporation.
Yes, this year’s ISTEP exams were more difficult and stressful than in the past, with a new set of state standards and new tests to measure what students were learning. But the real issue seems to be the passing scores that the State Board of Education approved last month.
Under the new cut scores, the number of students who pass the tests is expected to drop by 20-25 percentage points. Lower tests scores will result in lower school grades.
“Schools all over the state that have been known for strong academic performance will be saddled with school grades of D and F under this system,” the five superintendents of Greene County schools said in a public letter to the community. “Our schools certainly have been high performing in the past.”
School board members worry that their districts and communities will get a bad reputation if their previously high-achieving schools receive grades of C, D or F.
Yet over 220 Indiana schools were labeled with D and F grades in 2014 on the basis of test scores that were arguably no fairer or less arbitrary than the current ones. Many of those schools and their teachers and students worked hard to raise their test scores in 2015, only to have their legs knocked out from under them by the new, more stringent system. Maybe they improved dramatically. Probably we will never know.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz has been arguing for a “pause” in school accountability in which schools would get credit this year for either their 2014 or 2015 calculated grade, whichever is higher. That’s the wrong approach. No real damage is done if a former A school gets a C this year.
Instead, the legislature should “pause” the law that says a school that gets multiple, consecutive grades of F can be taken over by the state. When the law was passed, no one anticipated a situation when nearly 40 percent of the state’s schools would get an F, as may well happen this year.