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.

Grading schools: Does complexity defeat the purpose?

Indiana began awarding letter grades to schools this year based on the idea that it’s a clearer and more transparent way to hold schools accountable and inform parents and the public about how they are performing.

After all, the thinking went: Everyone knows what an A means? Everyone knows what an F means. But do we?

Watch just a little of the video of the Oct. 5 State Board of Education meeting, and you may wonder. Members spent nearly five hours discussing criteria for calculating grades, and they seemed no closer to consensus when they were done than when they started.

Or try reading a version of the proposed rule that the board is considering to create the new letter-grade metrics. You’ll find language like this: “Highest growth passing rate is the percentage point increase of identified passing students at the lowest performing high growth passing rate school within the top quartile of schools ranked from highest to lowest by the percentage point increase in passing percentage students.”

Department of Education staff tried to simplify the rule by giving it to the board in an easy-to-follow PowerPoint presentation. But it was still slow going – made slower by the board’s tendency to argue over philosophy and details every step of the way.

And state officials are working on a deadline. Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett indicated he’d like to have board approval of the rule before Indiana submits its application for federal waivers under the No Child Left Behind law, due Nov. 14. Continue reading

School accountability results send mixed messages

Whatever you may think about state and federal school accountability regimes, you have to feel good for Highland Park and Templeton elementary schools.

The Bloomington schools, where 60 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, got a double dose of good news with the accountability data released today by the Indiana Department of Education. They both 1) made adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act; and 2) received an exemplary rating, the highest possible, under Indiana’s Public Law 221 system.

Hats off, also, to Fairview Elementary School, which came close to making AYP despite having by far the highest concentration of poverty of any school in Monroe County – more than 90 percent of its students qualify by family income for free or reduced-price lunches.

And to the Monroe County Community School Corp., which made AYP as a corporation for the first time since 2006.

That said, the state’s release of both the federal and state accountability data at the same time makes for confusing results.

The state and federal accountability systems use such different methodologies that it’s possible for a school to be rated as great by one and not so good by the other. Continue reading