Indiana would eliminate A-to-F school grades from its accountability system for the federal Every Student Succeeds Act under a proposal from the Indiana Department of Education. Does that mean school grades would go the way of the one-room schoolhouse? Not yet; grades will still be part of the separate state accountability system. But the department’s proposal is a step in the right direction and away from this overly simplistic way of evaluating and labeling schools and school districts.
The proposal, an amendment to Indiana’s ESSA plan, is open for public comment until Dec. 21. Once it’s submitted by the state, hopefully in January, the U.S. Department of Education will have 90 days to decide whether to approve it.
The amendment would replace A-to-F grades for federal accountability with a system that places schools and districts in one of four categories: “exceeds expectations,” “meets expectations,” “approaches expectations” and “does not meet expectations.”
Like the current system, it would put the heaviest weight on student performance and growth on standardized tests. But it would increase the weight given to other indicators, such as high-school graduation rate, language proficiency of English learners and absenteeism. It would also consider progress schools are making in closing achievement gaps for subgroups – students of color, poor children, students with disabilities, etc. – addressing a flaw in Indiana’s current accountability system.
A key element of federal education law since 2002 has been the idea that K-12 schools should be held accountable not only for the performance of their entire student population but for subgroups of students – students of color, poor children, students with disabilities and so on.
But there’s debate over whether Indiana’s accountability system under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act is really doing that. The state tracks and reports the performance of subgroups at the school and district levels, but the results don’t have any impact on overall school grades.
An analysis from the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington, D.C., policy and advocacy organization, argues that Indiana and 11 other states are missing the boat by not including subgroups of students in their school grades or evaluations.
“Research has shown that simply reporting on performance doesn’t have the same impact as reporting and also holding schools accountable for those results,” said Anne Hyslop, an assistant director of the alliance. “We’re more likely to see improvement when there are consequences.” Continue reading
Those of us who advocate for public schools tend to blame outside forces when we lament the move to grading schools on an A-to-F scale. In Indiana, we may blame former Gov. Mitch Daniels, former state Superintendent Tony Bennett, state legislators, business groups and others.
But public schools and school districts have helped validate this questionable policy. When they brag about their own grades, they’re endorsing the system as a measure of school quality.
Some of what they’re doing is old-fashioned public relations. At a time when public education is under attack, schools and districts can point to high grades to defend their reputation. “See?” they’re saying. “Our schools aren’t ‘failing’ like some of those public schools you hear about.”
And as public schools compete for students with charter schools and private schools, they are likely trumpet any endorsement they get. After all, charter schools are doing it – for example, here and here and here.
Most Indiana schools earn A-to-F grades on a formula that gives equal weight to performance and growth on standardized tests. But schools in their first three years of operation – most of which are new charter schools and Indianapolis or Gary “innovation network” schools – can have their grades calculated on growth only, with no consideration of performance. Those schools have an advantage.
As Dylan Peers McCoy of Chalkbeat Indiana pointed out, it means you can’t use the grades to compare schools in a district like IPS. “Of the 11 out of 70 Indianapolis Public Schools campuses that received A marks from the state,” she wrote, “eight were graded based on growth alone.”
So why not grade all schools on growth only, not performance? It seems like that would make a lot of sense. In any given year, schools may not have a lot of control over where their students start out in their math and reading performance. What matters is, do schools help students grow?
There’s nothing more snooze-inducing than the adoption of state administrative rules. It features technical language, choreographed hearings, public comment periods, legalistic processes – and a sneaking suspicion that the people making the rules have already decided what will happen.
But rules can be important: case in point, the new school accountability rule that the Indiana State Board of Education is in the process of approving. It will set criteria for awarding A-to-F school grades and ultimately have a big influence on the reputations of schools and communities.
So it’s good that some of the people who will be most affected by the rule – teachers, school administrators and school board representatives – have been making clear what they think is wrong with the proposal the board is considering:
- They say a plan to put less emphasis on test-score growth and more on test-score performance will handicap high-poverty schools and provide an inaccurate picture of school effectiveness. The board’s proposal would cap math and language-arts growth points for elementary and middle schools and eliminate growth as a factor in high-school grades.
- They worry that adding accountability for science and social studies could lead to more emphasis on testing and test prep if it isn’t handled properly.
- They question details of the state’s move to a national college-admission exam, like the SAT or ACT, to measure of high-school performance. One official pointed out that students who aren’t college-bound may not take the test seriously, but schools will be judged on their scores.
- They ask how the accountability rule, including the requirement of SAT or ACT exams, will mesh with new high-school graduation pathways requirements that the board has adopted.
The Indiana Department of Education spent seven months holding community meetings, sitting down with teachers and school administrators and collecting public input for the state’s plan to implement the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.
Now the State Board of Education is poised to upend that work and reconfigure a key section of the ESSA plan, one that describes how Indiana will calculate A-to-F grades used for school accountability.
The board could give preliminary approval to its version of the accountability rule Wednesday. Then it would conduct one public hearing and set a time for written comment, after which it could approve the rule effective for the 2018-19 school year.
The proposed changes, posted late last week, came as a surprise to Indiana Department of Education staff and the educators who had been working with the department. DOE spokesman Adam Baker said educators bought into the ESSA plan because they were involved in creating it.
Hats off to the folks at the Indiana Coalition for Public Education-Monroe County for keeping a spotlight on the unfairness of Indiana’s A-to-F school grading system.
It’s unfair that schools in their first three years of operation are evaluated on test-score growth only, while other schools are graded on a mixture of growth and performance – the percentage of students who pass state tests. Those new schools are disproportionately charter schools, private schools or Indianapolis Public School “innovation” schools. The result is, their grades are inflated.
In response, the coalition’s Keri Miksza and Jenny Robinson have calculated the grades that public schools would receive if they were graded on growth only. They’ve been posting the results to Facebook and Twitter, using a format from a Washington Township (Indianapolis) parent council. A few examples:
- Monroe County Community Schools – Using growth, 15 schools would get A’s, one would get a B and one a C. Under the actual grading system, there were about as many B’s and C’s as A’s.
- Lawrence County — 10 schools would get A’s, four would get B’s and two would get D’s. Under the actual system, only one school got an A and most got C’s and D’s.
- Owen County — four schools would get A’s and one would get a B. In fact, all got B’s, C’s and D’s.
Even in much-derided Indianapolis Public Schools, a majority of schools would get A’s and B’s if graded only on growth. Using the existing grading system, nearly all get C’s, D’s and F’s. Results are similar for South Bend schools.