School turnaround five years later

It’s been five years since the Indiana State Board of Education took charge of five chronically underperforming urban public schools and handed them over to charter-school operators that were supposed to turn them around. How has that worked out?

Not very well, to judge by Indiana’s A-to-F grading system. Since the takeover, the schools have received two Ds and 18 Fs.

That’s a far cry from what Indiana education officials and the charter operators suggested would happen back in 2012. Scott Elliott, then with the Indianapolis Star, wrote at the time that he was “a bit surprised” the turnaround operators wanted four years to raise the schools’ grades to A or B.

In four years, they didn’t come close. Five years could still bring a different story — school grades for the 2016-17 school year won’t be calculated until this fall — but it doesn’t seem likely.

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Board members favor counting test scores more than growth

Indiana education officials took a step forward by deciding in 2015 to count growth as equal to proficiency when using test scores to calculate school A-to-F school grades. Now it sounds like members of the State Board of Education want to turn back the clock.

At least five of the 11 members said last week that they favor giving more weight to proficiency – the number of students who pass state-mandated tests – than to year-to-year growth.

“I think we reached some consensus on some core values. Proficiency is more important than growth,” board member David Freitas said, according a story in to the Indianapolis Star.

“Growth, to me, is much less important than proficiency,” added B.J. Watts, another board member. Members Tony Walker, Byron Ernest and Kathleen Mote agreed, according to the Star.

Freitas and Watts made the same argument but didn’t prevail when the board approved the current A-to-F formula. Mote and Ernest weren’t on the board in at the time. Walker missed the meeting.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick favors keeping the equal weight for growth and proficiency, said Adam Baker, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education. But she would probably agree to a formula that gave a little more weight to proficiency than to growth, he said.

Until 2014-15, Indiana relied heavily on test-score proficiency in determining grades; growth wasn’t a factor. The result was what you’d expect: Low-poverty schools reliably were rewarded with As. High-poverty schools struggled to avoid getting Fs. Schools with poor students were labeled as failing schools. Continue reading

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