School grades still reflect student demographics

It was true five years ago and it’s still true today. The grades that Indiana assigns to schools say more about the students the schools serve than how effective the schools are.

A change in the grading system this year was a step in the right direction, but not a big enough step to make the grades fair or credible. Schools that get high grades are still more likely than not to serve few students from poor families. Those that get low grades are almost certainly high-poverty schools.

The idea that a simple A-to-F grade would provide meaningful information about something as complex as a public school was always silly. But basing grades primarily on standardized test scores, as Indiana has done, means the grades will be not only misleading but harmful to schools that struggle to improve.

Indiana changed its formula this year so that grades would be based equally on test-score performance and test-score growth. The result seems to be that a few affluent schools got Bs rather than As, and some schools with low tests scores may have bumped their grades to a D or a C via growth. But the overall trend still holds.

One way to look at this is divide Indiana’s public and charter schools into quartiles by the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Matthew Di Carlo of the Shanker Institute did this in 2012 to show the tight fit between school grades and poverty. I did the same thing in 2013 and 2014. Continue reading

Teacher bonus inequity shouldn’t be a surprise

State legislators suggest they’re shocked – shocked! – to learn the $40 million Teacher Performant Grant program they created is mostly rewarding teachers who work in wealthy school districts.

“The original concept was to recognize outstanding teachers, not just outstanding districts,” House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, told the Indianapolis Star. “When we drafted it we didn’t think the gap would be as large,” Sen. Ryan Mishler, R- Bremen, who helped create the program, told WFYI News.

Really? Because it was entirely predictable that this would happen.

Gov. Mike Pence proposed the program, and legislators approved the formula that spells out how the grants are distributed. The primary way that schools qualify for the grants is if at least 75 percent of their students pass the state’s ISTEP exams. If at least 90 percent of students pass, they get larger grants. If schools qualify, they get money for each student who passes a test.

We’ve known for a long time that passing rates on standardized tests are much higher in affluent schools than in schools that serve lots of poor students. For high-poverty Indiana schools, a 75 percent passing rate is something to dream about – especially since ISTEP got a lot tougher in 2014-15.

Schools can also qualify on the basis of graduation rates or year-to-year improvement in ISTEP passing rates. Using improvement is supposed to help equalize funding, but it doesn’t have much effect. Continue reading

No comparing school grades to previous years

Indiana school grades for 2015-16 were released this week, marking the first time the state has used a new grading system designed to count test-score growth as much as performance.

First, let’s note that comparing the new grades to grades from the previous year is meaningless. For one thing, we’re using a new system: It’s supposed to produce different results. Comparing the newly released grades to the previous year’s grades is comparing apples to oranges.

But more to the point, the previous year’s grades were largely bogus. They would have been a lot worse, but lawmakers passed “hold-harmless” legislation that said no school could get a lower grade in 2014-15 than it did in 2013-14.

Remember that Indiana adopted new, more rigorous academic standards in 2014-15, so the ISTEP exams got a lot tougher. Before the hold-harmless legislation passed, state officials said more than half of all schools could receive D’s or F’s. The Indiana Department of Education refused to make public the grades that schools actually would have received last year, even though the state public access counselor said it should.

So if you see that a certain school’s grade dropped from an A to a B this year … well, technically that may be correct. But there’s a good chance the school earned a D or F in 2014-15 but had its grade boosted by the legislature. Continue reading

Superintendent-elect starts strong with transition team

Against the crazy national political news, here’s an encouraging development in Indiana: Jennifer McCormick, the newly elected superintendent of public instruction, has picked a solid group of education professionals to help with her transition to office.

Jennifer McCormick

Jennifer McCormick

The team includes school administrators, policy experts, leaders of education organizations and others who are familiar with education issues in the state. Notably absent are the conservative ideologues and school-choice advocates who have been prominent in state school politics.

“The team’s commitment to Hoosier students will drive critical decision-making which will ultimately impact Indiana’s education system and ensure Indiana has one of the best departments of education in the nation,” McCormick said in a news release.

Continue reading

DeVos money big in Indiana politics

News stories about Betsy DeVos, selected by President-elect Donald Trump to be the next U.S. secretary of education, often say she’s not well known outside of Michigan. But you can bet Indiana Republican legislators know who she is. DeVos money has been key to building the state’s GOP super-majority.

Betsy DeVos chairs the American Federation for Children, which promotes private school vouchers and deregulation of charter schools. According to campaign finance reports, she and her husband and their adult children have given the group’s political action committee over $1.4 million since 2010.

The American Federation for Children PAC also has had big contributions from for-profit charter school companies, hedge fund managers and the Walton family, majority owners of Walmart.

The federation funds school choice initiatives in several states. In Indiana, its on-the-ground affiliate is Hoosiers for Quality Education, formerly Hoosiers for Economic Growth. American Federation for Children has given the advocacy organization $1.2 million since 2010, according to campaign reports.

Hoosiers for Quality Education in turn helped fund the campaigns of Republican candidates for Indiana superintendent of public instruction: It gave $90,000 to Tony Bennett’s losing campaign in 2012 and $130,000 to Jennifer McCormick’s successful campaign this year. But the bulk of the $3 million it has spent on Indiana campaigns since 2008 has gone to GOP candidates for the state House and Senate. Typically, the money is targeted to contests that could be competitive.

Fred Klipsch, the founder of Hoosiers for Quality Education, boasted at an American Federation for Children-sponsored policy summit in 2012 that the group and its allies had spent $4.4 million to push an agenda of vouchers, expanded charter schools and other reforms through the state legislature. Continue reading

School choice group bankrolled campaign

I still hope Jennifer McCormick turns out to be a good superintendent of public instruction, one who looks out for students, teachers and public schools. But my optimism takes a hit when I look at her campaign finance reports for this year’s election.

McCormick got a big surge of late cash — $100,000 in October – from Hoosiers for Quality Education, the pro-voucher and anti-union organization started by Carmel businessman Fred Klipsch. In 2016, the group gave the Republican candidate $130,000, more than one-third of all she raised.

Hoosiers for Quality Education, despite its name, isn’t a grass-roots organization of Indiana folks advocating for better schools. Its funding comes from a handful of big donors, many of them out of state. They include Red Apple Development, a sister company of Florida-based Charter Schools USA, and K-12 Management, a for-profit that runs online charter schools.

Over the years, much of the group’s money has come from the American Federation for Children, a group headed by the Michigan Republican activist Betsy DeVos, reportedly a leading contender to be named secretary of education by President-elect Donald Trump.

The American Federation for Children PAC restocked its coffers this year with over a half million dollars from DeVos and her husband Dick, an Amway heir, and $300,000 from Alice and Jim Walton, two of the siblings who own over half of Walmart. It got $100,000 from Tennessee GOP rainmaker James Haslam. Continue reading

Scores drop when students move to private, magnet schools

Students who leave neighborhood public schools for private or magnet schools tend to fall behind academically in the year after they transfer, according to a new study of school choice in Indianapolis.

Students who move to charter schools don’t fall behind, but neither do they move ahead. Their performance is about the same as if they had stayed in their neighborhood school, the study finds.

The authors of the study, Mark Berends at the University of Notre Dame and R. Joseph Waddington of the University of Kentucky, say the findings don’t discredit the potential benefits of school choice, but they raise questions about the conditions under which choice might be a strategy for improving academic achievement.

“It’s sort of a cautionary tale, that school choice is not a panacea,” said Berends, a professor of sociology and director of Notre Dame’s Center for Research on Educational Opportunity.

The study, “School Choice in Indianapolis:  Effects of Charter, Magnet, Private, and Traditional Public Schools,” has been accepted for publication and posted by the journal Education Finance and Policy.

Berends and Waddington analyzed several years of ISTEP test math and English/language arts scores for Indianapolis students in grades 3-8. The students attended neighborhood and magnet schools in public school districts as well as charter schools and private schools in the city. Magnet schools are public schools organized around themes, such as international engagement, foreign language immersion and Montessori education; students typically apply for admission to the schools.

Continue reading