State board pushing late changes in ESSA plan

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.

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More on growth-only grading of schools

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.

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Why not grade all schools by growth?

What if we graded every Indiana school by growth, not by performance? And why shouldn’t we? Under state law, growth-only grades are considered appropriate for schools in their first three years of operation. And for Indianapolis Public Schools “innovation network schools” that reopened under new leadership. Why shouldn’t other schools get the same treatment?

In fact I’ve argued previously that growth should be the sole metric for using test scores to evaluate schools. Using performance – the percentage of students who pass state tests – produces entirely predictable results: Low-poverty schools are “good,” high-poverty schools are “bad.”

If we’re going to grade schools, it makes more sense to grade them on whether students improve over a year’s time, not on the education level of the students’ parents or real estate values in their neighborhoods.

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A with an asterisk

Some Indiana schools, many of them charter schools or Indianapolis Public Schools “innovation network” schools, got a break on the A-to-F grades the State Board of Education approved Wednesday.

That’s because the schools are new or newly reopened. And Indiana lets schools that have been open no more than three years calculate their grades on their students’ test-score growth from the previous year, ignoring their test-score performance.

For most schools, grades are calculated on a formula that weights performance and growth equally. The growth measurement awards points for how students fare on a “growth to proficiency” table. Schools with low test scores but high growth can raise their marks, but typically by just a letter grade or two.

But schools that are graded solely on growth are more likely to receive A’s, even if their test scores are low. And in some cases, that’s what happened.

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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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