School grades still reflect student demographics

It was true five years ago and it’s still true today. The grades that Indiana assigns to schools say more about the students the schools serve than how effective the schools are.

A change in the grading system this year was a step in the right direction, but not a big enough step to make the grades fair or credible. Schools that get high grades are still more likely than not to serve few students from poor families. Those that get low grades are almost certainly high-poverty schools.

The idea that a simple A-to-F grade would provide meaningful information about something as complex as a public school was always silly. But basing grades primarily on standardized test scores, as Indiana has done, means the grades will be not only misleading but harmful to schools that struggle to improve.

Indiana changed its formula this year so that grades would be based equally on test-score performance and test-score growth. The result seems to be that a few affluent schools got Bs rather than As, and some schools with low tests scores may have bumped their grades to a D or a C via growth. But the overall trend still holds.

One way to look at this is divide Indiana’s public and charter schools into quartiles by the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Matthew Di Carlo of the Shanker Institute did this in 2012 to show the tight fit between school grades and poverty. I did the same thing in 2013 and 2014.

In 2014-15, Indiana adopted new, tougher academic standards and a new ISTEP exam that produced much lower passing rates for most schools. This year it added the new grading system.

But it’s still the case that the lowest-poverty schools tend to get the best grades and the highest-poverty schools are more likely to get low grades, as this chart illustrates:


Among the lowest-poverty schools, 42 percent get As and 45 percent get Bs. Among the highest-poverty schools, only 7 percent get As and 19 percent get Bs. Those are pretty stark differences.

The discrepancies are even more glaring at the other end of the grading scale. Schools in the top two quartiles – those where, it turns out, fewer than half of all students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch – are extremely unlikely to get an F or even a D. And nearly all the schools that got Fs are in the lowest quartile, those with the largest concentrations of poor students.

A high-poverty school is 20 times as likely to get a D or an F as a low-poverty schools.

Another way to look at this is group schools by the grades they received. In schools that got an A, fewer than 30 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch. In schools that got an F, 80 percent of students qualified for lunch subsidies. (That’s if you toss out Indiana’s online charter schools, which enroll thousands of students, routinely get Fs and don’t report high poverty levels).


Five years after Indiana started labeling schools with letter grades, it’s clear the system isn’t serving its intended purpose of recognizing schools that are effective at helping students learn. State legislators, who convene in January, should reconsider the entire approach.



3 thoughts on “School grades still reflect student demographics

  1. Pingback: Board members favor counting test scores more than growth | School Matters

  2. Pingback: Why not grade all schools on growth only? | School Matters

  3. Pingback: A-to-F school grades to continue | School Matters

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