Afflicting the afflicted

Indiana lawmakers are rushing to prevent schools from getting lower accountability grades as a result of this year’s big drop in ISTEP scores. But in their haste, they are making a serious mistake.

Senate Bill 200, which they are about to pass, says schools’ grades for 2014-15 can’t be any lower than their 2013-14 grades. The new grades are set to be issued this month by the State Board of Education.

Here’s the problem. The legislation doesn’t do anything for schools that got an F in 2013-14 and that didn’t improve in 2014-15. And improving was a long shot because passing rates for ISTEP, the major component in school grades, declined by over 20 percentage points statewide.

Indiana schools that get successive Fs face increasingly severe state sanctions. Schools that reach six Fs in a row – and apparently there are three that could this year – face state takeover.

This doesn’t make any sense. The only reason for SB 200 in the first place is that the spring 2015 ISTEP tests were so difficult that it would be unfair to base grades on those results. But if that’s the case for schools that got an A, B, C or D in 2013-14, it should be just as true for schools that got an F.

Journalists like to say their job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. With SB 200, the legislature is turning that adage on its head. And that’s just wrong. Continue reading

Board faces weighty decision on rewarding test-score growth

Like it or not, the Indiana State Board of Education will be picking winners and losers in the A-to-F grades sweepstakes when it adopts a table early next year for awarding points for student test-score growth.

Under a new accountability system that the board adopted early this year, growth is supposed to count the same as performance – the percentage of students who pass the tests – in calculating school grades. And growth points will be awarded according to where students fall on a Growth to Proficiency Table.

The question for the board is what that table will look like. Will it award more growth points to students who passed the tests the previous year than to those who didn’t? Or will it award the same points to high-scoring and low-scoring students who show comparable growth on the current year’s tests?

According to discussion at last week’s state board meeting, staff from the board and the Indiana Department of Education will present up to four tables for members to consider in January. The board will give preliminary approval to the option it favors, touching off a 30-day public comment period.

Department of Education staff will then let local school officials know how their schools are likely to be affected. And when the comment period ends, the board will adopt the table of its choice at its next meeting, probably in March or April 2016.

Continue reading

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

Big changes likely in Indiana school grades

Over half of all Indiana schools could get Ds or Fs from the state next year if the State Board of Education approves recommended cut scores for the 2015 ISTEP+ exams.

That’s according to data provided by the Indiana State Department of Education, which charted the likely distribution of school grades if fewer students pass the exams.

Daniel Altman, spokesman for the department, cautioned that the figures aren’t exact but represent best estimates compiled by staff from the data that were available. But even if they are close, the grading changes are bound to get attention.

Under cut scores that go to the State Board of Education for approval Wednesday, it’s expected that the overall passing rate on ISTEP+ exams will drop by 16 percent in English/language arts and by 24 percent in mathematics. That’s mostly the result of more rigorous expectations for passing.

In 2014, over half of Indiana schools were awarded As in the state’s accountability system and only 12.8 percent got Ds and Fs. Those figures will flip this year if the DOE estimates are accurate.

  • With a 15 percent drop in performance, one-third of schools would get As or Bs and 40 percent would get Ds or Fs.
  • With a 20 percent drop in performance, 19.5 percent of schools would get As or Bs and 55 percent would get Ds or Fs.
  • With a 25 percent drop in performance, barely 10 percent of schools would get As or Bs and two-thirds would get Ds or Fs.

The chart below details how many and what percentage of schools could expect each letter grade with hypothetical drops in ISTEP+ passing rates of 15 percent, 20 percent and 25 percent, the approximate range we’re expecting. Again, these are estimates.

DOE-chart---2

Source: Indiana Department of Education

Over time, we can expect scores to improve as schools and teachers adapt to the standards and the new tests. Also, a new grade calculation formula will take effect in 2016; it’s supposed to put more weight on student academic growth and not as much on test scores.

But for this year, don’t be surprised to hear about an alarming number of “failing” schools.

Decision on test results state board’s hands

Indiana State Board of Education members were skeptical when Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz warned in July that schools could expect a big drop in ISTEP+ passing rates as a result of the new standards and new tests that took effect last year. At the time, Ritz was trying to persuade board members to “pause” the state’s A-F accountability system because the tougher test was likely to result in lower grades.

“I guess I’m trying to figure out why there will be such a different result when we did not make the dramatic change in our standards that other states did,” board member Gordon Hendry said.

“I just think we’d be saying we don’t have enough faith in our teachers that they can get students where they need to be,” added board member Lee Ann Kwiatkowski.

Now the results are in and they are worse than expected. The new ISTEP+ cut scores that the state board will be asked to approve Wednesday will result in huge drops in overall passing rates – by 16 percentage points in English/language arts and 24 points in math.

We don’t yet know exactly what that means for school grades, but it’s a safe bet there will be a lot fewer A schools and lot more schools getting Fs. Continue reading

New school grading system produces little change

The new school grading system that Indiana will adopt in 2016 is supposed to give more weight to student growth on standardized tests and less to straight-up test performance, making it more likely that high-poverty schools can earn high grades.

But that may not happen. In a comparison of the grades that schools received in 2014 with the grades that they would have received if the new system had been in effect, there’s not much difference.

A majority of schools would have received the same grade under the new system as under the old. Almost no schools would have seen their scores rise or fall by more than one letter grade.

The Indiana Department of Education calculated grades that schools would have received, based on their 2014 test scores, if the proposed new system had been in place. The department provided the grades in spreadsheet format in response to a public records request. Continue reading

Indiana moving ahead on school grading changes

Indiana education officials appear to have turned the corner on creating a new system for awarding A-to-F grades to schools. But some key decisions still need to be made.

The State Board of Education voted 8-1 this month to approve the new grading system rule, which now must be approved by the state attorney general and then the governor. Board members made two significant changes from the proposal they had discussed at earlier meetings.

  • Student growth on test scores will count the same as student proficiency on test scores. That’s what a state panel on accountability had recommended; but the board had leaned toward weighting the factors 60-40 in favor of proficiency.
  • Schools won’t be awarded an A unless they show reasonable performance or growth by “subgroups” of students: racial and ethnic groups, students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, special needs students and English language learners.

Still to be decided is exactly how the state will award points for student growth. In a new approach, points will be awarded on the basis of a “growth to proficiency table,” and several versions are being considered.

The change that says schools can’t get an A unless their subgroups do reasonably well was apparently something the U.S. Department of Education wanted. It’s a throwback to the old system that lowered grades for schools that didn’t make “adequate yearly progress,” which included progress by all the subgroups. Many schools hated the rule, and it went away when the feds gave Indiana a waiver from the No Child Left Behind law.

Continue reading