Indiana school grades for 2015-16 were released this week, marking the first time the state has used a new grading system designed to count test-score growth as much as performance.
First, let’s note that comparing the new grades to grades from the previous year is meaningless. For one thing, we’re using a new system: It’s supposed to produce different results. Comparing the newly released grades to the previous year’s grades is comparing apples to oranges.
But more to the point, the previous year’s grades were largely bogus. They would have been a lot worse, but lawmakers passed “hold-harmless” legislation that said no school could get a lower grade in 2014-15 than it did in 2013-14.
Remember that Indiana adopted new, more rigorous academic standards in 2014-15, so the ISTEP exams got a lot tougher. Before the hold-harmless legislation passed, state officials said more than half of all schools could receive D’s or F’s. The Indiana Department of Education refused to make public the grades that schools actually would have received last year, even though the state public access counselor said it should.
So if you see that a certain school’s grade dropped from an A to a B this year … well, technically that may be correct. But there’s a good chance the school earned a D or F in 2014-15 but had its grade boosted by the legislature.
Grades reflect poverty
For elementary and middle schools, the new system is supposed to give equal weight to how students perform on standardized tests and how much they grow in their test performance. If we’re going to use tests to grade schools — a dubious proposition but one we’re stuck with — giving equal weight to growth and performance seems like a step in the right direction.
The old grading system, which relied largely on the percentage of students who passed standardized tests, perpetuated the myth that affluent schools are “good” and schools serving poor kids are “bad.”
A quick glance at the 2015-16 grades, however, suggests there’s still a strong correlation between grades and family income. Nearly all schools in Hamilton County — one of the lowest-poverty areas in the country — get A’s and B’s. And of the 89 Indiana schools that got F’s, over half were in the urban districts of Indianapolis Public Schools, Gary and South Bend.
Public vs. private
The breakdown of grades according to school type looks something like this:
Charter schools, on average, are more likely to be in urban areas and to serve poor and minority students; so it’s not surprising they have a few more D’s and F’s. It’s also no surprise that private schools get high grades. They charge tuition, can set admission standards and generally serve a different demographic than public schools.
But here’s an interesting detail: One in five “independent” private schools — most of which are Christian schools that are not Catholic or Lutheran — got an F. That’s four times the “failure” rate of regular public schools.