Do A-to-F grades leave some students behind?

A key element of federal education law since 2002 has been the idea that K-12 schools should be held accountable not only for the performance of their entire student population but for subgroups of students – students of color, poor children, students with disabilities and so on.

But there’s debate over whether Indiana’s accountability system under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act is really doing that. The state tracks and reports the performance of subgroups at the school and district levels, but the results don’t have any impact on overall school grades.

An analysis from the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington, D.C., policy and advocacy organization, argues that Indiana and 11 other states are missing the boat by not including subgroups of students in their school grades or evaluations.

“Research has shown that simply reporting on performance doesn’t have the same impact as reporting and also holding schools accountable for those results,” said Anne Hyslop, an assistant director of the alliance. “We’re more likely to see improvement when there are consequences.”

Indiana school grades for the 2017-18 school year were released last month. Schools and school districts were awarded two primary grades, one for the accountability system created by state law and the other under Indiana’s plan to comply with the federal ESSA law.

With ESSA, Indiana’s federal grades now include “sub-grades” for the performance of subgroups, but those got zero attention in media reports. Another drawback is that many Indiana schools don’t have enough students of color or poor students – at least 20 in tested grades — to be reliably evaluated. As a result, only about 500 of the state’s more than 1,800 public and charter schools received grades for African-American students. About one-third received grades for Hispanic students. Most did get grades for students from low-income families and students in special education, however.

If you’re a parent in Indiana, you may know if your child’s school got an A, B, C or whatever, but it’s unlikely you’ll know how it was graded for subgroups. But if subgroup performance influenced overall school grades, you might know. If, for example, your school with an “A reputation” got a C because of low test scores for its black students, you might wonder how it could improve.

The idea that schools should be accountable for the performance of subgroups is a throwback to the No Child Left Behind Act, the federal law that preceded ESSA. Under No Child Left Behind, schools could have their grades lowered if subgroups failed to make what was called adequate yearly progress on tests.

It was an idealistic feature, intended to keep schools from hiding a failure to serve poor, minority and special-needs students behind the performance of a higher-achieving majority. And whatever you think of No Child Left Behind, Hyslop said, the focus on subgroups brought welcome attention to whether black, brown and poor children were well served by schools. ESSA carries that on – or tries to.

“When you ignore subgroups, you’re sending a signal that the performance of those students isn’t especially important,” Hyslop said.

Indiana isn’t exactly ignoring subgroups; it’s reporting their performance and handing out grades as a result. But it leaves it to us as the public to search out those grades and say what we think of them.

Here is are downloadable spreadsheets with subgroup grades sorted by school corporation and sorted from highest to lowest. Click on the tabs at the bottom to see results for all students and for black, Hispanic, white, free-and-reduced lunch (FRL), English-learning and special-needs students.

If you’ve read about the overall grades that your local schools received, you should look at these too.

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