The Indiana Department of Education released federal accountability ratings for schools recently, and there’s both good news and bad news when it comes to looking to these ratings to evaluate schools.
The good news: Unlike the more familiar state accountability system, the federal system doesn’t rely on overly simplistic A-to-F grades. Instead, schools receive ratings of Exceeds Expectations, Meets Expectations, Approaches Expectations or Does Not Meet Expectations. Those are more meaningful designations than letter grades. They’re more like the evaluations you’re likely to see on student report cards, at least in the early grades.
Overall, 4.8% of schools exceeded expectations, 47.9% met expectations, 34.2% approached expectations and 11.3% did not meet expectations.
Indiana has two accountability systems because the state system, enshrined in state law, doesn’t comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, state Department of Education spokesman Adam Baker said. Last year, schools got two letter grades. Indiana adopted the expectations-based federal ratings this year to reduce confusion. Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick wants the General Assembly to change the state accountability law so the systems align.
The bad news: These federal evaluations are complex, and I’m not sure they provide the general public with much of a sense of how schools are doing.
The ratings are based on a formula that considers student performance and growth on standardized tests, high-school graduation rates, reducing chronic absenteeism, and progress for English learners. There’s also a “closing gaps” factor that focuses on the lowest-scoring students.
More bad news: As with the state A-to-F grades – maybe even more than the A-to-F grades – the federal ratings may tell us more about the socioeconomic status of students than whether the schools are effective at helping their students learn.
For example, at schools that exceeded expectations, the overall rate of students who qualified by family income for free and reduced-price school meals was 17.6%, compared to the state average of about 48%. At schools that did not meet expectations, the free-and-reduced meal rate was 74.2%. The correlation between poverty and federal ratings held for charter schools as it did for public schools.
The formula for determining the ratings gives as much weight to student growth as to student performance on the ILEARN and ISTEP standardized tests, but there’s not much difference between the two metrics. Schools that didn’t meet expectations for performance, for the most part, didn’t meet expectations for growth, either.
This may be a function of the formula used to calculate growth. Schools get points for growth only if students improve their test scores enough to be on track to become “proficient” in four years.
And “proficiency” is a high bar. On the 2019 ILEARN assessment, only 37.1% of Hoosier students in grades 3-8 were proficient in both the math and English/language arts sections of the test. For some high-poverty schools, proficiency rates were in the single digits. Many students who were below proficiency would have to do a lot of growing to reach their achievement targets in four years.
Baker, the Indiana Department of Education spokesman, said the system is designed to provide “actionable/useful data to schools on how students are doing in relation to achieving proficiency.” That makes sense; of course, we want all students to move in the direction of being proficient.
But I’m not yet persuaded that the results tell us much about whether schools are doing an effective job. Or maybe we should call them something other than accountability ratings.