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.
What if we graded every Indiana school by growth, not by performance? And why shouldn’t we? Under state law, growth-only grades are considered appropriate for schools in their first three years of operation. And for Indianapolis Public Schools “innovation network schools” that reopened under new leadership. Why shouldn’t other schools get the same treatment?
In fact I’ve argued previously that growth should be the sole metric for using test scores to evaluate schools. Using performance – the percentage of students who pass state tests – produces entirely predictable results: Low-poverty schools are “good,” high-poverty schools are “bad.”
If we’re going to grade schools, it makes more sense to grade them on whether students improve over a year’s time, not on the education level of the students’ parents or real estate values in their neighborhoods.
Last week School Matters pointed out that Indiana school grades align with poverty: the more poor kids at a school, the higher the chance of a low grade. But there are many schools in the state that do quite well despite serving lots of students who are poor.
One in five high-poverty schools – where two-thirds or more of students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches – earned an A. More than one-third got an A or a B. These overachieving schools are found across the state. They are big and small, urban and rural. And almost none of them are charter schools.
It’s not just that charter schools got worse overall grades than traditional public schools. That’s not surprising, because many charters enroll disproportionate numbers of kids from low-income families. But even adjusting for poverty, charter schools fared worse.
Thirty-five percent of the state’s high-poverty schools – a total of 162 schools – received grades of A or B. But only three of those 162 were charter schools. Among all charter schools, 21.5 percent got an A or B, and most of those are not high-poverty charters.
It could be argued that, because many charter schools are located in and serve students from inner-city neighborhoods, it’s not fair to compare them to high-poverty schools across the state.
But even compared with other urban public schools, charter schools don’t do so well. Continue reading
John Grew and William Sheldrake provide the most complete account to date on how the Indiana Department of Education struggled to implement A-to-F school grading last year. They also offer solid recommendations as the state moves to a new system in 2014.
But their report doesn’t put to rest one question: When and why did former state Superintendent Tony Bennett and his staff remove a “ceiling” on the grade points that schools could earn for math or English test-score improvement, a move that ended up raising grades for 165 schools? Did they make the change to boost the grade for Christel House Academy, a favored Indianapolis charter school? Or was it a broad policy decision that officials just forgot to make public.
The Grew-Sheldrake report says former DOE officials claim the decision was made before the State Board of Education adopted the A-to-F rule in February 2012.
“According to DOE management staff, the removal of the growth caps was indicated by the language of the final approved rule, but erroneously not implemented in the computer programming of the model,” the report says. “This mistake was found in the final weeks prior to the embargoed release of the grades’ data to the schools on September 19, 2012.”
It appears to be true that the ceiling was not included in the language of the rule. But here are three reasons to suspect the decision may not have happened the way DOE management staff say.
First, an FAQ page explaining the point ceiling remains on the Internet (See items No. 11 and 29). According to the page’s document information, it was created in March 2012, a month after the SBE approved the rule. Continue reading
It was widely reported last week that Tony Bennett boosted the grade for Christel House Academy by finding a way to disregard scores on high-school-level algebra and English assessments. But that only got the school’s grade from a C to a B. How did it get to an A?
Here’s the answer, thanks to Cynthia Roach, director of assessment for Indianapolis Public Schools: Indiana Department of Education staff also removed a “ceiling” that had been used in calculating grades.
This is a pretty big deal. The change improved final grades not only for Christel House but for more than 140 others schools. Some school officials may have been aware of the new approach, but I can’t find evidence that DOE officials discussed it as a policy matter with the State Board of Education or shared it with the public.
Indiana’s grading system gives schools 4 points for an A, 3 points for a B, 2 for a C and so on. Elementary-middle schools get a base grade for the percentage of students who pass ISTEP exams in math and English/language arts. Additionally, they get up to 2 bonus points if a high percentage of certain students show “high growth.” Sub-grades for math and English/language arts are averaged to produce the school’s overall grade.
The state initially put a ceiling of 4 points (an A) on the math or English sub-grade for any school; in other words, a school couldn’t get extra credit for high scores and high growth in the same subject. State board members said this would keep schools from getting an A if they didn’t excel in both math and English. You can see an explanation and the rationale for the ceiling in items No. 11 and 29 from an old FAQ document for the state’s grading metrics. But those items were deleted from the current version of the FAQ.
The ceiling was still in place last summer, according to information provided to school officials at the time. And it was still there when Jon Gubera, the DOE’s chief accountability officer, emailed Bennett with the bad news that Christel House had earned a C. The school’s elementary-middle students earned 3.5 points for their math passing rate and got 1 point for growth, a total math sub-grade of 4.5 But Gubera capped the math score at 4.
Once the ceiling was lifted, however, Christel House had just enough points to meet Bennett’s expectation that the school get an A. Continue reading
Arguably the best thing about the federal No Child Left Behind act was the way it focused attention on achievement gaps. Under NCLB, schools have been responsible for the performance of students who are poor, have disabilities, are from racial and ethnic groups, or aren’t proficient in English. They can’t hide low test scores for those subgroups behind overall averages.
Now Indiana and 10 other states are seeking waivers from NCLB’s requirements, and there’s reason for concern about whether the same level of accountability will continue for groups of students that have sometimes been left behind.
Indiana wants to use its proposed new A-to-F school grading system as a single accountability system for schools. If its waiver request is approved by the feds, no longer will schools face the confusing situation of being awarded letter grades by the state and having to worry about making “adequate yearly progress” under NCLB.
Under Indiana’s plan, instead of having to meet performance standards for each of the subgroups identified in NCLB, schools would focus on a “super subgroup” – the lowest-performing 25 percent of students.
The U.S. Department of Education suggested in a preliminary response that that may not be good enough. A letter from an assistant secretary of education, posted by the Associated Press, identified several “significant concerns” Continue reading