The Indiana State Board of Education took a step toward fairness when it decided test-score growth should count as much as test-score performance for calculating school grades. But we’re not there yet. The new A-to-F grading system will still favor affluent schools. Like the old system, it will label some schools as failing largely because of how many poor children they serve.
The board wrapped up work on the new system Friday when it approved a “growth to proficiency table” that specifies how many points students will earn for various levels of growth. The board rejected an earlier proposal that favored high-scoring students and approved a more equitable approach.
A chart copied from a staff presentation to the board tells us a whole lot about grading schools on test scores. It shows that, when it comes to performance – the percentage of students who score “proficient” on state exams – there’s a huge gap in Indiana between black and white students, between poor and non-poor students, and between special-needs and general-education students.
The proficiency gap between white and black students is 26 percentage points in English/language arts and 32 points in math. The gap between students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and those who don’t is about 25 percentage points. That’s cause for serious concern.
But for test-score growth as measured on the growth to proficiency table, the gaps are much smaller: typically less than 10 points on a 100-point scale.
Even with growth counted as equal to performance in the new grade calculation formula, however, high-poverty schools will struggle to earn good grades, thanks to that big gap in performance.
A presentation at the state board’s March meeting showed the distribution of grades that schools would have received had the new formula been in place in 2015. Eighty-six percent of the lowest-poverty schools would have received an A or B. But among the highest-poverty schools, only 19 percent would have received an A or B and 59 percent would have received a D or F.
The Indiana Urban Schools Association urged the state board Friday to hold off on approving the growth to proficiency table, arguing that the system will have a “disparate impact on students based on their race, socio-economic status and/or disability.” That’s a legitimate concern, but the disparate impact seems to result more from test-score performance than from the system used to measure growth.
If we calculate school grades only on growth – using points earned via the growth to proficiency table — black students and poor students would, on average, be earning As or Bs for their schools.
And why shouldn’t we? If test scores are going to be our basis for evaluating schools, what matters is whether schools are helping students improve. Growth, not performance.
I once heard a superintendent who had worked in both wealthy and poor school districts say that, in the former, many students “were born on third base and thought they’d hit a triple.” We’re encouraging that illusion when we grade schools by the number of students who pass tests.