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.


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

More students in A and B schools? It’s already happening

Gov. Mike Pence wants to see 100,000 more Indiana students enrolled in schools that earn grades of A or B by 2020. But guess what. Given recent trends, public schools are likely to surpass that goal way ahead of schedule

With no help from the policies the governor is promoting.

There were a little over 600,000 students in A and B public schools in 2012, the first year for the current grading system. By this year the number had jumped to over 750,000. Schools have made more progress in two years than Pence thinks they should be making in the next six.

Unveiling his 2015 legislative agenda last week, the governor lamented the fact that 100,000 of Indiana’s K-12 students attend schools with grades of D or F. That’s about 10 percent of students in public schools.

“My philosophy of executive leadership is pretty simple,” he said. “It’s to set big goals and offer solutions on how to achieve them, but also to stay open to other ideas that emerge in the legislative process or in conversations with Hoosiers.”

Let’s hope he means the part about staying open to other ideas. Because the solutions he proposes — expanding charter schools and increasing spending for Indiana’s private-school voucher program – seem irrelevant at best and counterproductive at worst. Continue reading

Detail still missing from Indiana grade-change story

John Grew and William Sheldrake provide the most complete account to date on how the Indiana Department of Education struggled to implement A-to-F school grading last year. They also offer solid recommendations as the state moves to a new system in 2014.

But their report doesn’t put to rest one question: When and why did former state Superintendent Tony Bennett and his staff remove a “ceiling” on the grade points that schools could earn for math or English test-score improvement, a move that ended up raising grades for 165 schools? Did they make the change to boost the grade for Christel House Academy, a favored Indianapolis charter school? Or was it a broad policy decision that officials just forgot to make public.

The Grew-Sheldrake report says former DOE officials claim the decision was made before the State Board of Education adopted the A-to-F rule in February 2012.

“According to DOE management staff, the removal of the growth caps was indicated by the language of the final approved rule, but erroneously not implemented in the computer programming of the model,” the report says. “This mistake was found in the final weeks prior to the embargoed release of the grades’ data to the schools on September 19, 2012.”

It appears to be true that the ceiling was not included in the language of the rule. But here are three reasons to suspect the decision may not have happened the way DOE management staff say.

First, an FAQ page explaining the point ceiling remains on the Internet (See items No. 11 and 29). According to the page’s document information, it was created in March 2012, a month after the SBE approved the rule. Continue reading