Proposal would move away from school grades

Indiana would eliminate A-to-F school grades from its accountability system for the federal Every Student Succeeds Act under a proposal from the Indiana Department of Education. Does that mean school grades would go the way of the one-room schoolhouse? Not yet; grades will still be part of the separate state accountability system. But the department’s proposal is a step in the right direction and away from this overly simplistic way of evaluating and labeling schools and school districts.

Indiana StatehouseThe proposal, an amendment to Indiana’s ESSA plan, is open for public comment until Dec. 21. Once it’s submitted by the state, hopefully in January, the U.S. Department of Education will have 90 days to decide whether to approve it.

The amendment would replace A-to-F grades for federal accountability with a system that places schools and districts in one of four categories: “exceeds expectations,” “meets expectations,” “approaches expectations” and “does not meet expectations.”

Like the current system, it would put the heaviest weight on student performance and growth on standardized tests. But it would increase the weight given to other indicators, such as high-school graduation rate, language proficiency of English learners and absenteeism. It would also consider progress schools are making in closing achievement gaps for subgroups – students of color, poor children, students with disabilities, etc. – addressing a flaw in Indiana’s current accountability system.

Department of Education spokesman Adam Baker said the goal is to make accountability less confusing, more meaningful and better aligned with Indiana’s policy goals, such as improving literacy, increasing access to science and technology opportunities and better preparing graduates for college and careers.

The fact that Indiana has two accountability systems, the federal ESSA system and the state system established by Indiana laws and rules, meant schools and districts received two letter grades for 2018. That created confusion about which grade was “real” and more valid.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick’s legislative agenda calls for “a transparent, single accountability system for Hoosier families.” But truly aligning the state and federal systems would require big changes. For example, Indiana law mandates grading schools from A to F.

Rep. Bob Behning, who chairs the Indiana House Education Committee, said lawmakers are unlikely to redesign the state accountability system to align with the federal system. Given the supposed flexibility that ESSA offers states, they would prefer to see the feds defer to the state on accountability.

“It’s clear, I think, when I speak with colleagues, that the state system is the preferred metric to focus on,” he said.

Behning pointed to another area where state and federal systems conflict. ESSA puts accountability in the hands of the Department of Education, overseen by McCormick, the elected state superintendent. State law puts the State Board of Education – with seven members appointed by the governor and two by legislative leaders – in the driver’s seat.

But one way or another, Behning said, there’s likely to be legislation in the 2019 legislative session that addresses parameters for evaluating or grading schools. That’s an issue to watch at the Statehouse.

“There’s no question there will be some discussion this session on accountability,” he said.

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