A-to-F school grades to continue

The Indiana State Board of Education is almost certain to continue the state’s unfortunate policy of using A-to-F grades to rate schools, judging by a framework that the board received this week.

The draft accountability framework was presented and briefly discussed at Tuesday’s board meeting. Board staff, who wrote the document, insisted it isn’t set in stone and that it will be up to the board – with input from stakeholders and the public – to decide how the system will work.

“We are trying to be transparent,” said Ron Sandlin, the board’s senior director of school performance. “The point of the framework is to spur conversations about these ideas.”

But the very first recommendation in the document is that A-to-F grades continue. The justification: “Issuing a fair and transparent summative rating ensures communities can quickly assess school performance and establishes effective incentives for schools.”

Note that the school grading system is being developed by the State Board of Education, with most of its members appointed by the governor. Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick, who heads the Indiana Department of Education, has favored a different approach to accountability.

Indiana started labeling schools with letter grades in 2011 and made the approach part of state law the following year. Indiana is one of 16 states that use letter grades for school accountability, according to the Education Commission of the States.

The draft framework does call for tweaking the grading metrics. That’ no surprise. The old system essentially collapsed under the weight of tougher state standards, new tests and the COVID-19 pandemic. Indiana’s 2019-20 school grades were meaningless, even more so than usual.

For schools serving students in grades K-8, the system relies primarily on standardized tests and gives equal weight to students’ performance and growth on the tests. The draft framework says Indiana should continue that general approach, but with some changes.

It would cap the grading points that schools receive for test-score growth, trying to balance a system in which growth points are awarded more generously than performance points. And it would adopt variable weighting of growth vs. performance, making allowance for student mobility. It suggests the board consider adding accountability factors for K-8 school grades, possibly including third-grade literacy, science and social studies test scores and attendance.

For high schools, the framework suggests more rigorous measures of “college and career readiness” and a fairer system of calculating graduation rates. Standardized test measures will have to change, because Indiana is dropping its 10th-grade math and English tests in favor of using the SAT for accountability.

Another issue is that Indiana has two school accountability systems: a state system that uses A-to-F grades and a federal system that complies with the Every Student Succeeds Action. That’s confusing, to say the least. The framework touches on the problem but doesn’t spell out how to fix it.

“Indiana should design a state accountability system that prioritizes Hoosier values and strive to use the same indicators for the state and federal models as is allowable under law,” it says.

OK, I’ll just say this: I’ve lived in Indiana for seven decades and I have no idea “Hoosier values” means; and I don’t think the state board could define the term either, especially when it comes to evaluating schools. Yet those words appear six times in a 14-page document.

There’s a lot more to the framework, and you can read the framework or a shorter summary on the State Board of Education website. You can suggest changes by email or through online surveys. Board staff want to finalize the framework by January; then the board will use it to write a new rule spelling out how school grades will work in the future.

I’m glad there will be changes, but I worry they will provide a fig leaf of legitimacy to cover a flawed enterprise. A-to-F grades are a horrible way to measure something as complex as school quality. And we have seen time after time that high grades go to schools serving affluent families and that, with few exceptions, schools serving low-income families and students of color get the D’s and F’s.

A-to-F grades reinforce the illusion that schools are “good” or “bad” based on the populations of students that they serve. That’s not accountability.

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