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

State education department opts for secrecy

The Indiana Department of Education still refuses to disclose data used to determine A-F grades for schools in 2014-15, despite receiving a letter from Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt that says the data should be made public.

I’ve requested the information twice, arguing it should be disclosed under the Access to Public Records Act. And the department has rejected my request twice, insisting the data falls under an exception for records that are speculative or expressions of opinion and are used for decision-making.

But I’m not asking for anything deliberative. I’m asking for numbers – the scores on a 4-point scale that were used to establish what grades schools would receive.

Remember that Indiana switched to new learning standards and a tougher ISTEP exam in 2014-15. Passing rates dropped dramatically. As a result, the General Assembly passed “hold harmless” legislation that said no school would get a lower grade than it received the previous year.

When the Department released grades in January, it didn’t indicate which schools were being held harmless and which actually earned the grades they received in 2014-15. And unlike in previous years, it didn’t include the scores on a 4-point scale that schools earned.

After the department turned down my first request for the data, I filed a complaint with the Office of the Public Access Counselor, the state agency tasked with advising government officials on the public records and public meetings laws. Britt initially sided with the department in an advisory opinion to my complaint, labeled 16-FC-34.

But on the advice of Steve Key, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association, I provided the counselor with additional information clarifying that I was seeking data, not deliberative material. In a June 2 follow-up letter, copied to the Department of Education, Britt said the data should be released: Continue reading

Same old story: Test scores reflect demographics

The Indiana Department of Education has refused to disclose what grades Indiana schools would have received in 2015 if it weren’t for “hold harmless” legislation approved by lawmakers – so I can’t do the analysis of how grades correlate with school poverty that I did in previous years.

The best I can come up with is to show how school wealth and poverty correlate with passing rates on the spring 2015 ISTEP exams. And as you’d probably expect, they match up pretty closely.

As when looking at grades, I divided school corporations into four quartiles on the basis of the percentage of students who qualified for free or reduced-price meals. Passing rates all around were much lower than in previous years – remember that Indiana students took a new, more difficult version of ISTEP in 2015 – but the pattern was fairly clear.

  • In the top quartile, the schools with the fewest poor students, passing rates for nearly all the schools ranged from 50 percent to 80 percent, with just a few outliers. The median figure – with half the values higher and half lower – was 61 percent.
  • In the second quartile, passing rates ranged from 43 percent to 68 percent. Most were between 50 percent and 60 percent. The median was 55 percent.
  • In the third quartile, passing rates ranged from 35 percent to 66 percent. The median was 50.5 percent.
  • In the bottom quartile, made up of the highest-poverty schools, passing rates ranged from 22 percent to 55 percent. The median was 44.3 percent.

A rough representation of the quartiles looks like this:

2015 rates of passing both math and E/LA ISTEP exams by school percentage free and reduced-price lunch

2015 rates of passing both math and E/LA ISTEP exams by school percentage free and reduced-price lunch

As expected, there’s considerable overlap between the groups – schools at the top of the bottom quartile are a lot like schools at the bottom of the third quartile, after all — but the groups line up along the test-score axis, poor schools at the left and affluent schools at the right.

There’s nothing new or surprising here, of course. It’s just another illustration of the well-known fact that test scores are largely an indication of socioeconomic status and only secondarily a reflection of school effectiveness.

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.


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.

Continue reading

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