New exam brings lower proficiency for English learners

Indiana educators expected English learners to struggle with a new language proficiency assessment given in spring 2017. But they were surprised students struggled as much as they did.

“We knew there would be a higher standard,” said Emily Schwartz Keirns, ELL manager for Fort Wayne Community Schools. “What we didn’t anticipate was that the difference would be as dramatic as it was.”

Dramatic is the word. In 2016, 23 percent of the Fort Wayne district’s ELL students scored proficient on the previous version of the exam, which is called WIDA ACCESS. In 2017, the number fell to 1.7 percent.

That mirrored statewide results: 26.2 percent of Indiana’s ELL students were proficient in 2016, but only 2.3 percent were proficient this year.

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Will Indiana schools reject grades?

Fort Wayne Community Schools took a bold step in deciding not to recognize school grades awarded under the A-to-F system created by former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett. But will others follow the lead of Indiana’s largest school district?

There seems to be considerable agreement the grading system is flawed. But almost 900 Indiana schools were awarded an A last year. Those schools have a pretty strong incentive to think the system got it right, at least where they are concerned.

And Bennett’s adjustments to the grading system had the effect of raising grades for more than 160 schools, as NPR State Impact Indiana showed last week. Does that make it less likely that some teachers, parents and elected representatives will shun the system?

A-to-F was looking shaky this summer as a result of the widespread computer disruptions of the state tests that are the main inputs for school grades. Richard Hill, a testing expert hired by the Department of Education, found the disruptions didn’t hurt students’ overall test scores. But individual students may have been affected, Hill conceded. And school officials will say that a handful of scores can make the difference between an A and a B – or between a D and an F.

Then came the revelation that Bennett, as state superintendent, altered the grading system last fall in a way that boosted a charter school run by a campaign donor from a C to an A. Maybe getting an A wasn’t such a badge of honor.

Indiana political leaders aren’t ready to jump ship, however. Continue reading