Big changes likely in Indiana school grades

Over half of all Indiana schools could get Ds or Fs from the state next year if the State Board of Education approves recommended cut scores for the 2015 ISTEP+ exams.

That’s according to data provided by the Indiana State Department of Education, which charted the likely distribution of school grades if fewer students pass the exams.

Daniel Altman, spokesman for the department, cautioned that the figures aren’t exact but represent best estimates compiled by staff from the data that were available. But even if they are close, the grading changes are bound to get attention.

Under cut scores that go to the State Board of Education for approval Wednesday, it’s expected that the overall passing rate on ISTEP+ exams will drop by 16 percent in English/language arts and by 24 percent in mathematics. That’s mostly the result of more rigorous expectations for passing.

In 2014, over half of Indiana schools were awarded As in the state’s accountability system and only 12.8 percent got Ds and Fs. Those figures will flip this year if the DOE estimates are accurate.

  • With a 15 percent drop in performance, one-third of schools would get As or Bs and 40 percent would get Ds or Fs.
  • With a 20 percent drop in performance, 19.5 percent of schools would get As or Bs and 55 percent would get Ds or Fs.
  • With a 25 percent drop in performance, barely 10 percent of schools would get As or Bs and two-thirds would get Ds or Fs.

The chart below details how many and what percentage of schools could expect each letter grade with hypothetical drops in ISTEP+ passing rates of 15 percent, 20 percent and 25 percent, the approximate range we’re expecting. Again, these are estimates.


Source: Indiana Department of Education

Over time, we can expect scores to improve as schools and teachers adapt to the standards and the new tests. Also, a new grade calculation formula will take effect in 2016; it’s supposed to put more weight on student academic growth and not as much on test scores.

But for this year, don’t be surprised to hear about an alarming number of “failing” schools.

Decision on test results state board’s hands

Indiana State Board of Education members were skeptical when Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz warned in July that schools could expect a big drop in ISTEP+ passing rates as a result of the new standards and new tests that took effect last year. At the time, Ritz was trying to persuade board members to “pause” the state’s A-F accountability system because the tougher test was likely to result in lower grades.

“I guess I’m trying to figure out why there will be such a different result when we did not make the dramatic change in our standards that other states did,” board member Gordon Hendry said.

“I just think we’d be saying we don’t have enough faith in our teachers that they can get students where they need to be,” added board member Lee Ann Kwiatkowski.

Now the results are in and they are worse than expected. The new ISTEP+ cut scores that the state board will be asked to approve Wednesday will result in huge drops in overall passing rates – by 16 percentage points in English/language arts and 24 points in math.

We don’t yet know exactly what that means for school grades, but it’s a safe bet there will be a lot fewer A schools and lot more schools getting Fs. Continue reading

Why Title I funds were cut for Indiana charter schools

Indiana charter school operators were alarmed to learn that many of the schools were slated for unexpected cuts in their 2015-16 allocations under the federal Title I program. What happened?

Michelle McKeown of the Indiana Charter School Board says the glitch appears to result from the way the Indiana Department of Education determined school free and reduced-price lunch counts for purposes of allocating the funds. And it is tied to the participation by some high-poverty school districts in the new Community Eligibility program, in which all students get free school lunches.

McKeown makes a persuasive case that the education department calculated Title I funding using Community Eligibility data for school districts but used different data for charter schools.

“This is the only explanation that makes sense to me,” McKeown, the interim executive director of the charter school board, told me. “I think it’s very clear they used different sets of data.”

It’s worth noting that, even with the cuts, some charter schools still get more Title I money per student than the local districts. And some charter schools got increases. But the situation has political resonance because Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, who heads the state education department, is lukewarm on charter schools. Some of her critics seemed to suspect treachery.

Daniel Altman, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education, declined to comment on McKeown’s conclusions but said the department used the same formula to allocate Title I funding that has been used for over a decade. He said some schools had errors in data they submitted, which can have an effect on the allocations.

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Seattle teachers bargain for students; Indiana teachers can’t

Congratulations to Seattle’s teachers. After a five-day strike, they won a contract that increases teacher pay by 9.5 percent over three years. Just as significantly, the deal includes benefits for students: guaranteed recess and the creation of panels to address racial disparities in discipline and learning.

It would be nice to think Indiana teachers and school boards might follow that example and bargain for contract provisions that help children. But they can’t. It’s against the law.

Thanks to school reform laws that the state legislature approved in 2011, teacher collective bargaining in Indiana can deal with salary, wages and fringe benefits – and nothing else.

Then-Gov. Mitch Daniels led the fight to limit collective bargaining, ridiculing teacher contracts for focusing on trivia. Unions go too far, he said, “when they dictate the color of the teachers’ lounge, who can monitor recess, or on what days the principal is allowed to hold a staff meeting.”

No doubt some contracts were loaded with red tape. When there’s no money on the table, sometimes you bargain for other things. But the idea that teachers would only bargain for side benefits that are bad for kids – pushed implicitly by Daniels and some legislators – doesn’t add up. As an Indiana State Teachers Association lobbyist told lawmakers in 2011, teachers’ working conditions tend to be students’ learning conditions.

The Seattle contract, which teachers and other school employees approved Sunday, also includes changes in school-day and teacher-evaluation rules and creation of a district-union committee to study ways to reduce the impact of excessive testing. The vote was strongly in favor of the deal despite concerns that teacher pay falls short in a city with one of the highest costs of living in the country.

Some experts say the agreement, with its focus on what’s good for students, is a harbinger of things to come. “Teachers are positioning themselves to be about much more than raising their own pay,” University of Illinois professor Bob Bruno told the Associated Press.

But if student-focused bargaining becomes a trend, Indiana will be left behind.


Are charter schools public? Washington court says no

This month’s Washington Supreme Court ruling on charter schools should at the very least spark discussion of whether charter schools are public schools.

In a 6-3 decision, the court said they aren’t. It reasoned that the lack of local control and accountability means charters don’t qualify as “common schools” in the language of the state constitution.

The court found that “if a school is not controlled by a public body, then it should not have access to public funds,” writes Wayne Au, a plaintiff on the case. “The logic is simple and compelling, and opponents of public school privatization in this country need to spread that message far and wide.”

Charter supporters insist, of course, that charter schools are public schools. The argument goes something like this: Charter schools receive public funds and don’t charge tuition. They enroll all students for whom there’s room. And charter school laws are enacted by elected legislators.

But in Indiana, over 300 private schools get public funding in the form of vouchers, often enough to cover the full cost of tuition. No one argues that they are now public schools. And charter schools may be open to all, but they tend to attract students whose parents are savvy enough to apply and enter enrollment lotteries and have the means to provide their children with transportation.

The big difference, though, is public control. Continue reading

Grading pause an easy call? Not in Indiana

Glenda Ritz called a meeting of the State Board of Education in February 2015 to suggest pausing Indiana’s A-to-F school accountability system to let teachers and students adapt to new standards.

But board members would have none it. They deleted the state superintendent of public instruction’s proposal from the agenda without even acknowledging it – then questioned why she called the meeting.

Glenda Ritz (Department of Education photo)

Glenda Ritz (Department of Education photo)

Gov. Mike Pence also acted as if pausing accountability were some kind of radical idea. “We grade students every day in Indiana,” he said. “We should be willing to grade schools once every year.”

Never mind that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had invited states to request the delay under waivers from strict requirements of the No Child Left Behind law. The rationale was that school ratings would suffer as states rolled out new tests aligned with the Common Core standards. Indiana dumped Common Core but adopted new standards that, educators say, are quite similar.

Ritz made her proposal again in the summer, arguing schools should get a pass on having their grades drop as a result of tougher tests. This time the board didn’t refuse to talk, but members suggested that only the legislature had the authority to pause accountability.

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Why Indiana has charter schools and Kentucky doesn’t

Indiana has one of the most active charter school programs in the nation while Kentucky has no charter schools, not even a law that allows them. How did that come about?

Sociologist Joe Johnston attributes the divergence to perceptions of public schools in the state’s biggest cities: negative for Indianapolis and generally positive for Louisville. And he traces those perceptions back to district boundary decisions made 40 years ago.

“It’s become so common to think of urban schools as failing, as these places that can’t possibly succeed,” he told me. “It’s interesting that, when you change the boundaries and have a different sort of school district, people can rally around that.”

Johnston, an assistant professor at Gonzaga University, conducted research on the history of charter school debates in Indiana and Kentucky as a graduate student at Indiana University, where he received a doctorate in May. He presented his study Saturday in Chicago at the 110th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.

Indiana adopted a charter school law in 2001 and has seen a rapid spread of charter schools. The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools ranks it as one of the most charter-friendly states in the country. But Kentucky, which is contiguous with and politically and demographically similar to Indiana, is one of a handful of states without charter schools.

To understand how that came about, Johnston conducted a detailed comparison of education policy development in the two states from 2002-12. He analyzed 2,200 newspaper articles, gubernatorial and mayoral speeches and school reform group documents.

In Indiana, he shows, the push for charter schools was intimately tied to the argument that Indianapolis Public Schools were failing. This squares with what I saw as a reporter covering the Statehouse during the charter debates. Just like elsewhere across the country, charter schools were sold as an alternative to failing urban schools – specifically IPS.

But in Kentucky, there wasn’t the same sentiment that public schools in Louisville were under-performing; there was nothing like the hand-wringing and finger-pointing directed at IPS. While Indiana and other states rushed to create charter school programs, Kentucky held out.

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