If we’re grading schools, why not just use growth?

The Indiana State Board of Education took a step toward fairness when it decided test-score growth should count as much as test-score performance for calculating school grades. But we’re not there yet. The new A-to-F grading system will still favor affluent schools. Like the old system, it will label some schools as failing largely because of how many poor children they serve.

The board wrapped up work on the new system Friday when it approved a “growth to proficiency table” that specifies how many points students will earn for various levels of growth. The board rejected an earlier proposal that favored high-scoring students and approved a more equitable approach.

A chart copied from a staff presentation to the board tells us a whole lot about grading schools on test scores. It shows that, when it comes to performance – the percentage of students who score “proficient” on state exams – there’s a huge gap in Indiana between black and white students, between poor and non-poor students, and between special-needs and general-education students.

Growth_Model_Summary_Presentation-12---cropped

Source: State Board of Education

The proficiency gap between white and black students is 26 percentage points in English/language arts and 32 points in math. The gap between students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and those who don’t is about 25 percentage points. That’s cause for serious concern.

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Good news on school grading

Conflict and problems get most of our attention in Indiana school policy, and God knows there is enough of both. But we should also pay attention when policy makers get something right. And that’s the case with changes being made in the school grading system.

The state is shifting to a system that’s supposed to count student growth on test scores as much as it counts performance, a fairer approach if you’re going to grade schools — which we are. Indiana is also moving to a new method of measuring growth, relying on where student scores fall on what’s called a Growth to Proficiency Table.

The proposed table that staff presented to the board last year gave schools more grading points for students who passed the ISTEP exam and showed growth than for students who didn’t pass but showed comparable growth, tilting the formula in favor of high performing schools. That table was just for illustration purposes, officials said.

But the two options that state board and department staff will present at this Wednesday’s board meeting both get rid of that flaw. They award at least as many points for students who don’t pass the test and show high growth as for students who pass and show high growth. That’s an appropriate approach and staff members Cynthia Roach of the State Board of Education and Maggie Paino of DOE deserve credit for  it.

The state board could give preliminary approval to one of the options Wednesday and final approval in April, putting the new grading system into place for 2016 grades. Using test results from 2105, the new approach would award As to about 23 percent of schools, Bs to 32 percent, Cs to 27 percent, Ds to 12 percent and FS to 6 percent.

Here is the presentation for this week’s board meeting: http://www.in.gov/sboe/files/8a_Growth_Table_Recommendations_PowerPoint.pdf

State education department won’t disclose school grade data

The Indiana Department of Education is refusing to release data used to determine school grades for 2015, arguing it falls under an exception in the public-records law that says state agencies don’t have to disclose information that is “deliberative” and used for decision-making.

But an attorney and advocate for open government says the department is wrong to conceal the information, which would show how much grades might have been affected by the new, more difficult version of the ISTEP exam that students first took last spring.

“I think they’re misconstruing the deliberative information exception,” said Stephen Key, executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association. The exception is intended to protect records that are opinion or speculation, he said, and the school-grade information is neither.

As has been extensively reported, Indiana switched to new learning standards and a harder-to-pass version of ISTEP in 2014-15. Passing rates plummeted and many schools expected to see their grades drop. In response, the General Assembly rushed through legislation to “hold schools harmless” if their grades got worse. Each school would get the higher of the grade it earned in 2014 or 2015.

When the Department of Education released the grades last month, it reported only the grades that schools were awarded, not the grades they actually earned. I emailed the department’s press office to ask for copies of the grades that schools would have received based on their 2015 test scores. As an alternative, I said, the department could provide the scores that schools earned on a 4-point scale, the basis for calculating the grades. These scores were made public in 2013 and 2014.

At the suggestion of the department’s press secretary, I filed a request for the data under the Indiana Access to Public Records Act. Continue reading

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.

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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

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.