Comment period wrapping up on A-to-F rule

There’s nothing more snooze-inducing than the adoption of state administrative rules. It features technical language, choreographed hearings, public comment periods, legalistic processes – and a sneaking suspicion that the people making the rules have already decided what will happen.

But rules can be important: case in point, the new school accountability rule that the Indiana State Board of Education is in the process of approving. It will set criteria for awarding A-to-F school grades and ultimately have a big influence on the reputations of schools and communities.

So it’s good that some of the people who will be most affected by the rule – teachers, school administrators and school board representatives – have been making clear what they think is wrong with the proposal the board is considering:

  • They say a plan to put less emphasis on test-score growth and more on test-score performance will handicap high-poverty schools and provide an inaccurate picture of school effectiveness. The board’s proposal would cap math and language-arts growth points for elementary and middle schools and eliminate growth as a factor in high-school grades.
  • They worry that adding accountability for science and social studies could lead to more emphasis on testing and test prep if it isn’t handled properly.
  • They question details of the state’s move to a national college-admission exam, like the SAT or ACT, to measure of high-school performance. One official pointed out that students who aren’t college-bound may not take the test seriously, but schools will be judged on their scores.
  • They ask how the accountability rule, including the requirement of SAT or ACT exams, will mesh with new high-school graduation pathways requirements that the board has adopted.

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State board pushing late changes in ESSA plan

The Indiana Department of Education spent seven months holding community meetings, sitting down with teachers and school administrators and collecting public input for the state’s plan to implement the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

Now the State Board of Education is poised to upend that work and reconfigure a key section of the ESSA plan, one that describes how Indiana will calculate A-to-F grades used for school accountability.

The board could give preliminary approval to its version of the accountability rule Wednesday. Then it would conduct one public hearing and set a time for written comment, after which it could approve the rule effective for the 2018-19 school year.

The proposed changes, posted late last week, came as a surprise to Indiana Department of Education staff and the educators who had been working with the department. DOE spokesman Adam Baker said educators bought into the ESSA plan because they were involved in creating it.

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Private schools that got voucher waivers were losing state funding

Four schools jumped to the front of the line when the Indiana legislature offered to waive accountability requirements for low-performing private schools that benefit from state-funded tuition vouchers.

And no wonder. Those four religious schools had seen their voucher funding drop by over $1.2 million in two years after being sanctioned for persistently low marks on the state’s A-to-F school grading system.

The law that legislators approved this spring says private schools can have the sanctions waived if a majority of their students demonstrated “academic improvement” in the preceding year. It doesn’t spell out what academic improvement means, leaving it to the State Board of Education to decide.

The board voted 6-2 last week to approve one-year waivers for the schools that requested them: Central Christian Academy, Trinity Lutheran and Turning Point School in Indianapolis and Lutheran South Unity School in Fort Wayne. As a result, the schools can resume adding voucher-funded students this fall.

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Selective outrage about testing

Indiana schools have finally received their preliminary 2015 ISTEP test results, and school officials aren’t happy. Superintendents, especially, are pushing back hard.

In media stories and statements to the public, they have called aspects of this year’s tests “not fair,” “a complete fiasco” and “almost unfathomable.” The setting of grades, they said, was arbitrary and invalid.

On the one hand, good for them. On the other, where were they when test scores and a similarly arbitrary process were being used to label other people’s schools as failing?

Were they pushing back against a state accountability system that was stacked against high-poverty schools? Or were administrators and school board members content with a system that delivered high grades and let them boast of running an A school corporation.

Yes, this year’s ISTEP exams were more difficult and stressful than in the past, with a new set of state standards and new tests to measure what students were learning. But the real issue seems to be the passing scores that the State Board of Education approved last month.

Under the new cut scores, the number of students who pass the tests is expected to drop by 20-25 percentage points. Lower tests scores will result in lower school grades. Continue reading

Glenda Ritz on NCLB waiver, accountability and literacy

Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz spoke recently to the Monroe County Democratic Women’s Caucus. (Men were allowed). Some highlights:

NCLB waiver

Ritz said the U.S. Department insists Indiana must test students on new “college and career ready” standards in 2015 to keep its waiver from the No Child Left Behind law. The new standards were just adopted by the State Board of Education, so teachers will have only about seven months to teach them before students are tested next spring.

Glenda Ritz

Glenda Ritz (Indiana Department of Education photo).

The superintendent said staff at her Department of Education are talking with officials in Gov. Mike Pence’s office about offering more flexibility in test-based school and teacher evaluations until everyone can get up to speed on the new standards.

“I’m concerned about the accountability,” she said. “We want to figure out how to lessen the impact.”

Giving up the NCLB waiver isn’t a good option, she said. Without the waiver, most schools would fail to achieve the 100 percent proficiency for all students required by the law. That means they would lose control of spending decisions for 20 percent of the federal dollars they receive.

School accountability

Ritz said she’s pleased with the work of a state Accountability System Review Panel, which includes 13 educators among its 17 members and was charged with creating new criteria for Indiana’s A-to-F school grading system.

“I’m all about a fair, transparent, strong accountability system,” she said.

Ritz said she doesn’t like using letter grades to label schools, but the grades are now required by state law. She worries, however, that a diploma from a high school that gets an F from the state will be worth less to employers than a degree from an A school.

“Students in these schools are getting less credit, and that’s just not right to me,” she said. Continue reading

Indiana school grades align with poverty

Indiana’s A-to-F school grades may say a little about whether schools are effective, but they appear to say a lot more about how many poor children attend the schools.

The 2013 grades, approved recently by the Indiana State Board of Education, track pretty closely with the percentage of children who qualify for free and reduced-price school lunches. The fewer poor kids, the higher the grades, and vice versa.

This is no surprise. Matthew Di Carlo of the Shanker Institute showed it was the case with his analysis of Indiana’s 2012 school grades. And a look at the 2013 grades shows not much has changed.

Like Di Carlo, I divided Indiana schools into four equal-sized groups according to their percentage of free and reduced-price lunch (FRL) students, then looked at the number of As, Bs, etc., in each group. (He used only elementary and middle schools; this analysis includes all schools with grades and FRL data).

A few highlights:

  • Among low-poverty schools, nearly three-fourths got As and almost nine of 10 got As or Bs.
  • Low-poverty schools were three-and-a-half times as likely to get an A as high-poverty schools.
  • Barely 2 percent of low-poverty schools got Ds and Fs; among high-poverty schools, 42 percent got Ds and Fs.
  • Low-poverty schools were nearly 40 times more likely to get an A or B than a D or F; high-poverty schools were more likely to get a D or F than an A or B.
  • 79 percent of all Fs went to schools in the high-poverty group.

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Indiana’s new grading system to challenge schools

The curve just got tougher for Indiana elementary and middle schools with the State Board of Education’s approval Wednesday of new criteria for the state’s A-to-F grading system.

We know this because the Indiana Department of Education recently made available a spreadsheet of estimated grades that schools would have received in 2011 if the new criteria had been in place at that time. It suggests that many schools are likely see their ratings drop.

Under the old grading system, after years of improvement, almost half the elementary and middle schools in the state earned As in 2011; under the new system, fewer than a quarter would have had As. Just 20 percent received Ds and Fs under the old system; under the new system, 26 percent would have received Ds and Fs.

The Department of Education warned that the estimated grades shouldn’t be used for accountability purposes or to predict how schools will do in 2012. But the information suggests schools will have to adapt to a new set of expectations.

Exemplary schools – or not

Take, for example, the five Indianapolis elementary schools that the Indianapolis Star profiled in an excellent front-page feature Sunday.

The schools – IPS Schools No. 79 and 90, Clinton Young Elementary in Perry Township, Sunny Heights Elementary in Warren Township and the Christel House charter academy – are succeeding despite the usual challenges of urban education, including large numbers of poor and minority students and many who are learning to speak English. They all earned As under the old criteria in 2011.

As Scott Elliott reported, the schools are doing the things that good schools do. They make productive use of every minute of the day. They conduct frequent assessments and use data to guide instruction. The principals are strong leaders and who recruit and support effective teachers.

But if the state’s new grading rules had been in place, only two of them – the two in IPS – would have received an A in 2011. Christel House, which earned As for five consecutive years under the old system, would have received a B. Clinton Young and Sunny Heights would have received Cs.

Another example: Today’s Star tells about two schools in Lawrence Township, both of which got Cs last year. If the new criteria had been in place, one would have earned an A and the other an F.

This will take more study, but it appears the new grading system for elementary and middle schools favors affluent suburban schools while making it harder for urban schools serving low-income neighborhoods to get high grades. (There are striking exceptions such as IPS Schools No. 79 and 90).

So what’s the lesson? For one thing, maybe we shouldn’t put absolute faith in letter grades handed down by the state. For another, ensuring that students learn in schools beset by hard-core poverty is hard but essential work. We should celebrate schools that succeed, even if our measures of success are shaky, and encourage those that are taking steps to get better.

Charter schools bomb

One of the most striking results of applying the new A-to-F criteria to 2010-11 school performance is this: Indiana charter schools look really bad.

Of the nearly 100 elementary and middle-grades charter schools in the state, only one would have earned an A: Columbus International School. The highly touted Christel House and Charles Tindley Accelerated academies both would have received Bs for their elementary and middle grades.

Hoosier Academy and Connections Academy, the state’s two online charter schools, both get Fs in the exercise. So does Indianapolis Metropolitan High School, celebrated by the Star as a model for success and the recipient of a $2.2 million School Improvement Grant. Indianapolis’ KIPP College Preparatory School, part of the well regarded KIPP network of no-excuses charter schools, gets a D.

It would be tempting to say the results prove that charter schools are overrated. But what they most likely show is that many charter schools in Indiana serve predominantly poor and minority children in urban areas, and schools like that may struggle under the new grading system.