Are Children Learning

How Indiana’s A-F rules created a two-tiered system that benefits innovation schools

PHOTO: Kelly Wilkinson / The Star
IPS School 79 has among the lowest per pupil funding in the district.

Cold Spring School and School 79 were standouts on the recent ISTEP test. At both schools, more kids passed the state exam than the average for Indianapolis Public Schools, and their students made solid gains over last year.

So why did Cold Spring earn an A from the state while School 79 received a C?

It’s largely because Indiana lawmakers decided to judge some schools by a more generous yardstick than others.

Most elementary and middle schools are graded based on two factors: how their students score on state tests, and how much their scores improved. New schools and schools that join the IPS innovation network can opt to be graded for three years based only on the second measure, known as growth.

Advocates say the two-tiered system makes sense because schools shouldn’t be held accountable for the low passing rates of students that they just began educating. But in practice, the policy benefits charter and innovation schools, which enjoy strong support from Republican lawmakers.

It raises the question of whether grades that were supposed to be easy for parents to understand are too distorted to be clear.

“When you start evaluating otherwise identical schools using different measures … that is not informative,” said Marcus Winters, a Boston University researcher who has found benefits to grading schools. “It’s hiding information.”

Because Cold Spring became an innovation school last year, it was graded based on growth alone. If it were graded using the same rules as School 79, it also would’ve received a C from the state. That’s a huge improvement over the F it received last year, but it’s not as remarkable as the A that appears on its report card.

Cold Spring is not unique. Six of the eight innovation schools graded received As from the state. But only one innovation school — Phalen Leadership Academy at School 93 — would’ve gotten that grade under the rules used for grading other schools.

At 18 traditional neighborhood and magnet schools in IPS, students made large enough gains on the state test that the schools would’ve received top marks if they were innovation schools. But instead, they were given Bs, Cs, Ds and even an F. (Years of repeated low letter grades can trigger state intervention or takeover.)

The disparities have led to backlash from education advocates who are skeptical of partnering with outside operators at innovation schools. IPS leaders began creating innovation schools three years ago as a way to turn around chronically struggling schools, give more freedom to successful principals and pull charter schools under the district umbrella. The schools are managed by outside nonprofit or charter partners, and their teachers are not part of the district union.

Education advocate and lawyer MaryAnn Schlegel Ruegger pointed out that this grading quirk can have cascading effects that stack the deck in favor of outsourcing of school management.

The favorable treatment on state grades (which translate into eligibility for state and federal grants and higher ratings on school and real estate marketing sites like Great Schools and Niche and Zillow, and bragging rights to parents on the new IPS/charter school combined enrollment assignment company Enroll Indy) is the incentive to convince more financially struggling school districts throughout the state to do the same thing,” she wrote on Facebook.

Jon Valant, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies school choice, said that the inconsistency seems troubling. But there are benefits to judging schools by growth because operators are not penalized for restarting schools that have chronically low passing rates.

“In principle, it’s growth that is the sort of true reflection of what schools are actually doing,” he said.

Many innovation schools are making real progress when it comes to student scores on state tests. But even schools that are not benefit from the system. For example, at one innovation school, Kindezi Academy at School 69, passing rates and student growth fell from 2016 to 2017, but the letter grade nonetheless rose from an F to a D. Because it became an innovation school last year, its low passing rate is no longer pulling the grade down.

The growth-only grading scheme was also used at two IPS schools that were considered new: Center for Inquiry at School 70, which received an A, and the now-closed Arlington Middle School, which nonetheless received an F.

The rule change for grading innovation schools had wide support when lawmakers approved it in 2016, including from IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee who said he wanted innovation schools to get “a fresh start.”

Rep. Bob Behning, the Indianapolis Republican who authored the innovation school legislation, said he thought innovation schools should have the same options that exist for other new schools.

“Innovation network schools generally are new schools or reconfigured schools, so it’s not just schools that have changed their names,” Behning said. “So we decided that it made sense because we allowed charters to have that same flexibility.”

But the rules don’t just apply to new or restarted schools — they apply to any school that joins the innovation network. As a result, even schools like Cold Spring and KIPP Indy, which were not restarted when they became innovation schools, are treated like they are brand new. Like Cold Spring, KIPP got an A under the growth-only model — after years of C and D grades.

The two-tiered system could be short-lived. Behning said he anticipates that the grading system will change in several ways as the state overhauls the way it evaluates schools under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

“I think the differences between the combined letter grade and the growth-only (grade) will hopefully be mitigated in the new model, so it won’t have such stark differences,” Behning said. “The goal wasn’t just to give them a pass and not to have to hold them to the same level of accountability.”

Here is the full list of the grades new and innovation schools in Indianapolis Public Schools would have received if they were graded based on growth and proficiency.

you got data

Can Colorado do a better job of sharing school report cards with parents? Data advocates say yes.

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Just as the Colorado State Board of Education is expected to approve the latest round of school quality ratings, a national organization is calling on all states to do a better job of providing this kind of information to parents and taxpayers.

The Data Quality Campaign last week released a report highlighting states that are providing more and clearer data on its schools. Colorado, once known as a leader in collecting and sharing school data, was not among the all-star list.

The Washington-based nonprofit, which advocates for school data transparency across the nation, is suggesting states use plain language, disaggregate more data and communicate specific education priorities to parents and the public.

The campaign and other supporters of making school data more public believe the information can empower school leaders, teachers and parents to make better decisions for students.

“Colorado has long been a leader in making sure there is robust data,” said Brennan Parton, the Data Quality Campaign’s director of policy and advocacy. “But if you want the normal mom, community member, or policy maker to understand the data, maybe the goal shouldn’t be comprehensive and complex but meaningful and useful.”

State education department officials acknowledged they could do a better job of making data more accessible to parents, but said in a statement this week that they do not consider its annual “school performance framework” to be a report card for schools.

“We look at the SPF as more of a technical report for schools and districts to understand where the school plan types and district accreditation ratings come from,” Alyssa Pearson, the education department’s associate commissioner for school accountability and performance, said in an email.

The ratings, which are largely based off of student performance on state English and math tests, are used in part to help the state education department target financial resources to schools that aren’t making the grade. All schools are also required to submit improvement plans based on the department’s rating.

The department posts the ratings online, as do schools. But the reports are not sent directly to parents.

Instead, the department suggests that its school dashboard tool is a better resource to understand the status of a nearby public school, although Pearson acknowledged that it is not the most parent-friendly website.

“This tool is very useful for improvement planning purposes and deeper understanding of individual schools and districts — both in terms of demographics, as well as academic performance,” Pearson said. “We are also working on refreshing and possibly redesigning other tools that we have had on the website for reporting, including creating a more user-friendly parent-reporting template.”

Trezevant fallout

Memphis orders a deeper probe into high school grade changes

The firm hired to assess the pervasiveness of grade changes in Memphis high schools has begun a deeper probe into those schools with the highest number of cases.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the firm plans to “search for documentation and figure out what happened” at those schools, noting that not all grade changes — changing a failing grade to passing — are malfeasant.

Still, Hopson promised to root out any wrongdoing found.

“Equally important is figuring out whether people are still around changing grades improperly, and creating different internal controls to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” he told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

Dixon Hughes Goodman, an accounting firm from North Carolina, was hired over the summer as grade tampering was confirmed at Trezevant High School. The firm’s report found the average number of times high schools changed a failing final grade to passing was 53. Ten high schools were highlighted in the report as having 199 or more grade changes between July 2012 and October 2016.

Source: Dixon Hughes Goodman

The report was one of several released Tuesday by the Shelby County Schools board following an investigation instigated by allegations in a resignation letter from former Trezevant Principal Ronnie Mackin.

The firm’s analysis concluded that “additional investigation around grade changes is warranted,” prompting Shelby County Schools to extend the firm’s contract to dig deeper.

The investigations have already cost the school system about $500,000, said Rodney Moore, the district’s general counsel. It is unclear how much the contract extension for Dixon Hughes Goodman will cost, but board chairwoman Shante Avant said it is less than $100,000, the threshold for board approval.

Hopson said there’s not a timeline for when the school audits will be complete. He said the district is already thinking through how to better follow-up on grade changes.

“For a long time, we really put a lot of faith and trust in schools and school-based personnel,” he said. “I don’t regret that because the majority do what they’re supposed to do every day… (but) we probably need to do a better job to follow up to verify when grade changes happen.”

Avant said the board will determine what policies should be enacted to prevent further grade tampering based on the outcome of the investigation.

“The board is conscious that although we know there’s been some irregularities, we do want to focus on moving forward and where resources can be better used and how we’re implementing policies and strategies so that this won’t happen again,” she said.

Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.