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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Public schools and investing in all our children

Everyone who cares about education should read this Indianapolis Star guest column by Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis professor Edward Curtis IV.

Headlined “Why we love our D-rated school,” it explains why Curtis sends his two elementary-age children to their neighborhood public school, regardless of test scores and school grades. The decision, he says, reflects his family’s deepest hopes for all children, not just their own.

“My choice is based not only on our family’s ethics, but also on calculated self-interest,” he writes. “We act out of our deepest values while also providing our kids with great opportunities by sending them to a multiracial, multireligious, multilanguage, working-class school.”

Curtis describes the joy that he sees when he visits the school’s classrooms and attends after-school activities. He celebrates that his children are learning by experience to live in a world that includes poor people, people of color, refugees and families that are learning to speak English.

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School grades still reflect student demographics

It was true five years ago and it’s still true today. The grades that Indiana assigns to schools say more about the students the schools serve than how effective the schools are.

A change in the grading system this year was a step in the right direction, but not a big enough step to make the grades fair or credible. Schools that get high grades are still more likely than not to serve few students from poor families. Those that get low grades are almost certainly high-poverty schools.

The idea that a simple A-to-F grade would provide meaningful information about something as complex as a public school was always silly. But basing grades primarily on standardized test scores, as Indiana has done, means the grades will be not only misleading but harmful to schools that struggle to improve.

Indiana changed its formula this year so that grades would be based equally on test-score performance and test-score growth. The result seems to be that a few affluent schools got Bs rather than As, and some schools with low tests scores may have bumped their grades to a D or a C via growth. But the overall trend still holds.

One way to look at this is divide Indiana’s public and charter schools into quartiles by the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Matthew Di Carlo of the Shanker Institute did this in 2012 to show the tight fit between school grades and poverty. I did the same thing in 2013 and 2014. Continue reading

No comparing school grades to previous years

Indiana school grades for 2015-16 were released this week, marking the first time the state has used a new grading system designed to count test-score growth as much as performance.

First, let’s note that comparing the new grades to grades from the previous year is meaningless. For one thing, we’re using a new system: It’s supposed to produce different results. Comparing the newly released grades to the previous year’s grades is comparing apples to oranges.

But more to the point, the previous year’s grades were largely bogus. They would have been a lot worse, but lawmakers passed “hold-harmless” legislation that said no school could get a lower grade in 2014-15 than it did in 2013-14.

Remember that Indiana adopted new, more rigorous academic standards in 2014-15, so the ISTEP exams got a lot tougher. Before the hold-harmless legislation passed, state officials said more than half of all schools could receive D’s or F’s. The Indiana Department of Education refused to make public the grades that schools actually would have received last year, even though the state public access counselor said it should.

So if you see that a certain school’s grade dropped from an A to a B this year … well, technically that may be correct. But there’s a good chance the school earned a D or F in 2014-15 but had its grade boosted by the legislature. Continue reading

Why public records should be made public

School grades are bogus, so why ask for more of them? That’s a reasonable question.

Why would a critic of the state’s system of grading schools on an A-to-F scale ask the Indiana Department of Education to provide data showing what grades the schools would have received for 2014-15 it if weren’t for “hold harmless” legislation approved by the General Assembly?

Why would I file a complaint with the Office of the Public Access Counselor when the department refused? And would I share the data with readers if I got my hands on it? Yes, absolutely. Here’s why:

Transparency matters

Public records belong to the public and, on principle, should be disclosed unless there’s a compelling reason to keep them secret. And in this case, there really isn’t. The preamble to the state Access to Public Records Act gets it just right:

“A fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government is that government is the servant of the people and not their master. Accordingly, it is the public policy of the state that all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and employees.” Continue reading

State education department opts for secrecy

The Indiana Department of Education still refuses to disclose data used to determine A-F grades for schools in 2014-15, despite receiving a letter from Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt that says the data should be made public.

I’ve requested the information twice, arguing it should be disclosed under the Access to Public Records Act. And the department has rejected my request twice, insisting the data falls under an exception for records that are speculative or expressions of opinion and are used for decision-making.

But I’m not asking for anything deliberative. I’m asking for numbers – the scores on a 4-point scale that were used to establish what grades schools would receive.

Remember that Indiana switched to new learning standards and a tougher ISTEP exam in 2014-15. Passing rates dropped dramatically. As a result, the General Assembly passed “hold harmless” legislation that said no school would get a lower grade than it received the previous year.

When the Department released grades in January, it didn’t indicate which schools were being held harmless and which actually earned the grades they received in 2014-15. And unlike in previous years, it didn’t include the scores on a 4-point scale that schools earned.

After the department turned down my first request for the data, I filed a complaint with the Office of the Public Access Counselor, the state agency tasked with advising government officials on the public records and public meetings laws. Britt initially sided with the department in an advisory opinion to my complaint, labeled 16-FC-34.

But on the advice of Steve Key, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association, I provided the counselor with additional information clarifying that I was seeking data, not deliberative material. In a June 2 follow-up letter, copied to the Department of Education, Britt said the data should be released: Continue reading

Same old story: Test scores reflect demographics

The Indiana Department of Education has refused to disclose what grades Indiana schools would have received in 2015 if it weren’t for “hold harmless” legislation approved by lawmakers – so I can’t do the analysis of how grades correlate with school poverty that I did in previous years.

The best I can come up with is to show how school wealth and poverty correlate with passing rates on the spring 2015 ISTEP exams. And as you’d probably expect, they match up pretty closely.

As when looking at grades, I divided school corporations into four quartiles on the basis of the percentage of students who qualified for free or reduced-price meals. Passing rates all around were much lower than in previous years – remember that Indiana students took a new, more difficult version of ISTEP in 2015 – but the pattern was fairly clear.

  • In the top quartile, the schools with the fewest poor students, passing rates for nearly all the schools ranged from 50 percent to 80 percent, with just a few outliers. The median figure – with half the values higher and half lower – was 61 percent.
  • In the second quartile, passing rates ranged from 43 percent to 68 percent. Most were between 50 percent and 60 percent. The median was 55 percent.
  • In the third quartile, passing rates ranged from 35 percent to 66 percent. The median was 50.5 percent.
  • In the bottom quartile, made up of the highest-poverty schools, passing rates ranged from 22 percent to 55 percent. The median was 44.3 percent.

A rough representation of the quartiles looks like this:

2015 rates of passing both math and E/LA ISTEP exams by school percentage free and reduced-price lunch

2015 rates of passing both math and E/LA ISTEP exams by school percentage free and reduced-price lunch

As expected, there’s considerable overlap between the groups – schools at the top of the bottom quartile are a lot like schools at the bottom of the third quartile, after all — but the groups line up along the test-score axis, poor schools at the left and affluent schools at the right.

There’s nothing new or surprising here, of course. It’s just another illustration of the well-known fact that test scores are largely an indication of socioeconomic status and only secondarily a reflection of school effectiveness.