If schools don’t make sure all students are getting higher scores on state tests starting in 2016, they might find they can’t earn an “A” accountability grade — ever.

Following a painstaking, and at times acrimonious, debate about final revisions to Indiana’s A-to-F school grading rules, The Indiana State Board of Education voted on a change that will equally balance each school’s passing rate with student gains over the prior year to determine the grade.

That is expected to make it harder for schools to earn an A grade, but so will another change. Schools will be required to show any group of vulnerable children that score below the rest of the school — such as ethnic minorities, children in special education and English language learners — is catching up, or the highest grade they can earn is a B.

The changes passed 8-1, with board member and teacher Andrea Neal voting no.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz said she was pleased to see the new accountability system move forward.

“We are going to have a fair, transparent accountaiblity system,” Ritz said. “The great thing about the system is that it’s going to separate, totally, performance and growth.”

The decision didn’t come, however, without a lengthy, contentious debate about board procedures.

Board member Brad Oliver stopped Ritz’s presentation on the A-to-F rules to complain that the board had not had time to review late changes to some of the rule language made by the Indiana Department of Education this week. Since the public did not have the opportunity to comment on those changes, Oliver said he feared they could violate the intricate process for creating rules spelled out in state law.

“It does not feel transparent at this late hour,” Oliver said. “Whether they are right or wrong is irrelevant. The point is that there is a process for going before the board.”

But Ritz said the changes didn’t affect the overall policy — they mostly fixed typos and clarified language and terminology.

“My department needs clarification on the rules before we adopt the rules,” Ritz said. “I think you will see the are very simple word changes that give clarity to what we need to do.”

For more than an hour, Ritz and other board members debated back and forth about whether the revised rules should be given a vote or a prior version considered instead. Brian Murphy, an attorney for the state board, ultimately suggested a solution: once the rules finalized on April 29 were passed and signed by the governor, the state board could submit the education department’s latest proposed changes to the Legislative Services Agency. The agency, he said, can approve small changes as long as they don’t change the meaning of the rules.

This seemed to satisfy Ritz and most of the rest of the board, leading to the successful vote.

“I’m feeling pretty confident right now with the changes that I know that we wanted to see from the department,” Ritz said afterward. “I’m excited that we came to a conclusion about how we were going to do that.”

An A could be harder to get come 2016

A’s will be harder for schools to earn because of a new emphasis on vulnerable student groups by the U.S. Department of Education. Ritz said last year’s revised “waiver” agreement between Indiana and federal officials, which released the state from some sanctions of the No Child Left Behind Act, included a new requirement that could block some otherwise high-scoring schools from receiving A grades.

Federal officials wanted assurance that Indiana would require schools to show test score gains, even by a small margin over the prior year, for those students who have traditionally scored lower than the schoolwide average. If they can’t, the best score they can get is a B.

But Cynthia Roach, the state board’s testing and accountability director, said there is a lot of flexibility around what improvement means.

“So long as (schools) are showing any improvement in growth or performance in any category, we will consider that as moving toward closing the gaps,” she said.

The new model, which will be used for the first time after spring 2016 state tests, will also change to count test passing rates as half of a school’s grade and student test score improvement as the other half. Previously, the board considered weighting passing rates more — at 60 percent. The state’s current model doesn’t significantly factor in growth to determine a school’s grade.

Public comment drove that change, Roach said.

“The public comments that we received were sort of overwhelmingly pushing for more weight to be given to growth,” she said.

For high schools, a “college- and career-readiness” score and five-year graduation rate would account for 60 percent of the score. Another 20 percent of the A-to-F calculation would be based on test score gains over the prior year and 20 percent on the number of students who pass. Elementary and middle school measures will be based solely on ISTEP test scores.

Measuring student improvement

The new A-to-F rules were developed by a 17-member panel of state officials and educators appointed by State Superintendent Glenda Ritz and Gov. Mike Pence that began working in 2013.

The panel was originally charged with overhauling the A-to-F system — moving away from comparing students to their peers and toward looking at student test growth compared to a specific standard.

One option the state has considered for calculating student growth would be based on an “observed growth table” that would be revised each year based on that year’s test scores. The table uses percentiles to judge how much a student’s score has improved and awards growth “points” based on that improvement.

A draft version of how the table might work was shared with the board, although with the caution from staff that the final numbers on the table were likely to change:

So how would it work?

There are three possible outcomes — a student could do worse from one year to the next, the same or better. Each outcome brings with it a certain number of growth points.

During public forums, educators and community members were unhappy with how growth points were originally presented. The example said a student jumping from “do not pass” to a score in the highest percentile couldn’t earn the maximum number of growth points. A student making that much improvement should get the highest reward, they argued.

Similarly, there was concern with the example chart that a student who was “pass plus” one year but passed with a lower score than the year before could still earn growth points for a worse overall score.

State board testing director Cynthia Roach said the growth points were not at all final, and the chart as a whole could change extensively as the state works through concerns. Lotter said it would be finalized along with cut scores in the fall of 2016.