‘Hold harmless’ shows flaws in school grades

The Indiana Senate and House have scrambled to approve “hold-harmless” legislation that, as Chalkbeat Indiana says, will render the state’s school letter grades essentially meaningless for two years.

Indiana Statehouse

Indiana Statehouse

A better approach would be to scrap the school grades altogether and get to work on a more fair and meaningful method for assessing school quality. But that might be too much to hope for.

The Senate and House voted unanimously for Senate Bill 2, which says the grades that schools receive for the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years can be no worse than their grades in 2017-18. Gov. Eric Holcomb called for hold-harmless in his State of the State speech, so he’s sure to sign the bill into law.

In practice, that means nearly every school in the state will get the same grades for three consecutive years, regardless of whether they improved or got worse.

Grades are based largely on state standardized tests. Indiana adopted its new ILEARN assessment in spring 2019, and test results plummeted. Only 37.1% of students in grades 3-8 scored proficient on ILEARN in both math and English/language arts last spring. In the previous year, over half the students in those grades passed the old ISTEP exam.

That means it’s highly unlikely that schools would improve their grades last year and this year, so most will be stuck with their 2017-18 grades.

The lower test scores meant that even some affluent schools were at risk of getting low grades. Legislators took notice. It’s one thing if urban and rural schools that serve large numbers of poor students look like they’re failing. But C and D schools in the high-end suburbs? Can’t have that.

The problem for lawmakers is that they apparently have no clear idea how to get out of the mess they’ve created. Their initial approach seemed to be to pray that test scores would improve significantly before school grading resumes in 2021. They won’t.

They could drop the A-to-F grading system and adopt the accountability system that the Indiana Department of Education created to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. That would have the added benefit of eliminating the confusion of having two state accountability measures.

But it seems unlikely. Sen. Eddie Melton, a Gary Democrat, filed legislation to have Indiana use the single ESSA accountability plan, but the Republicans who control the legislature chose not to consider it.

It’s worth noting that we’ve been through this movie before. In 2015, Indiana implemented more rigorous academic standards and an updated version of the ISTEP state exam to reflect them. Test scores declined. Grades would have too, except state officials agreed to “pause” accountability. Then they tweaked the grading system the following year.

In other words, over a six-year period, Indiana will have had exactly three years in which the grades awarded to schools were not “essentially meaningless.”

Maybe it’s time for a different approach.


1 thought on “‘Hold harmless’ shows flaws in school grades

  1. Pingback: Have standardized tests lost their luster? | School Matters

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s