moving forward

State board OKs new A-F grade plan that ‘will affect every school in Indiana’

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
The state board met for its January meeting on Wednesday.

Student test scores would play a bigger role in determining school A-F grades under new draft rules approved by the Indiana State Board of Education, despite concerns from some board members and educators from across the state.

The rules, approved 7-4, are only proposals at this point. Next they go into a formal rulemaking process that begins with opportunities for public comment. After revisions, the state board will vote on final A-F grading rules so it can go into effect for 2018-19. The vote would probably be this summer.

Steve Baker, principal at Bluffton High School, said he was frustrated and disappointed that the board didn’t vet some of the changes with educators or have a public discussion before working them into the draft that would begin rulemaking.

“Not one educator I talked with knew about this,” Baker said. “Yet this plan will affect every school in Indiana.”

State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, who is a member of the board, voted in favor of the changes. But the rules are far from final, she said, and she doesn’t necessarily agree with them in their current form.

“Do I think it’s going to change? Yes,” McCormick said “I think it’s a good thing for people to know what the board’s thinking.”

The changes come as Indiana works to create a plan comply with new federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The vote followed a contentious conversation that took hours. Initially, board member Gordon Hendry suggested the board table their vote until they could discuss the grading changes further. Last week, educators and some board members were caught unaware by some of the grade formula changes, which hadn’t received a discussion in public.

“Some of the language didn’t receive the proper discussion before being crafted,” Hendry said. “The cart was a little bit before the horse, and there should have been, in my opinion, a full board discussion before pen was put to paper.”

Chad Ranney, an attorney for the board, said some board members asked him about making some changes in the A-F model. When he saw the number of changes coming through, Ranney said he decided to solicit feedback from the entire board.

It’s not clear which board member saw what email when, particularly over the winter holidays, but some did not offer input and were surprised when they learned the new rules would be up for a vote in January without additional discussion.

Ultimately, a majority of board members wanted to stick with the new proposed rules, arguing that they had plenty of time to weigh in.

The proposed formula would give more weight to the number of students who pass tests and stop measuring how much high school students improve their test scores. Also, two new measures would be added: “Well-rounded” for elementary and middle schools and “on-track” for high schools.

The “well-rounded” piece is calculated based on state science and social studies tests given once in elementary and middle school. The “on-track” measure would be calculated based on whether high school students, by the end of their freshman year, have received at least 10 course credits and have received no more than one F in either English, math, science or social studies. For high schools, improvement in test scores would be removed entirely in 2023, as would the “college and career-readiness” measure.

double take

Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Students work on assignments at Indianapolis Public Schools Center For Inquiry at School 27.

Imagine a scenario where Indiana schools get not just one A-F grade each year, but two.

One grade would determine whether a school can be taken over by the state. The other would comply with federal law asking states to track student test progress and how federal aid is spent. Both would count, but each would reflect different measures of achievement and bring different consequences.

This could be Indiana’s future if a state board-approved plan moves ahead at the same time the state is working on a conflicting plan to comply with a new federal law.

If it sounds complicated, that’s because it probably would be, said state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. Originally, A-F grades were intended to be an easy way for parents and community members to understand how their school is doing.

“It’s extremely confusing to have multiple accountability systems with multiple consequences,” McCormick told board members last week. “All along our message has been to get as much alignment as we can.”

Indiana would not be the first state to consider dual accountability systems — Colorado operated separate systems for years under No Child Left Behind and is now doing so again. Virginia, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have also had two models in years past. But this move would be a big departure from Indiana’s efforts over the past several years to simplify accountability, and education officials warn it could create more problems than it would solve.

Dale Chu, an education consultant who previously worked in Indiana under state Superintendent Tony Bennett, said it’s actually not common for states to have multiple systems, and doing so for political reasons, rather than what helps students and families, is concerning.

“We all know how confusing accountability systems can be when you just have one,” Chu said. “To create a bifurcated system, I don’t see how you gain additional clarity … I would certainly hope that if that’s the direction the state is going to move in, they are very thoughtful and intentional about it.”

The changes come as Indiana works to create a plan to comply with a new federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. McCormick’s education department has been working to align the federal system with Indiana’s grading system, and is struggling to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, most notably in the area of graduation requirements and diplomas.

At the same time the Indiana State Board of Education is negotiating this alignment, it is also revamping the A-F grade system.

A new grading proposal approved by the state board last week would put more emphasis on student test scores than the A-F system that now unifies state and federal requirements. Those new rules would include extra categories for grading schools, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan.

While that proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

Officials were already expecting to issue two sets of A-F grades to schools in 2018 — one state grade, and one federal — as the state continued to work all of Indiana’s unresolved education issues into the new federal plan. Figuring out how to ensure state graduation rates don’t plummet because of other federal rule changes dictating  which diplomas count and incorporating the new high school graduation requirements, for example, will take time — and legislation — to fix.

Read: Indiana has a curious plan to sidestep federal rules — give schools two A-F grades next year.

But ultimately, officials said, if some of the state board-approved changes make it into final policy, and Indiana’s federal plan doesn’t change to accommodate it, the state and federal accountability systems could remain at odds with each other — meaning schools would continue to get two grades after 2018.

The original intent was to have all Indiana’s state grading system line up with federal requirements before the plan was sent to federal officials in September. Then, once the federal government gave feedback, the state A-F revamp could continue.

But just this past fall, after the federal plan had been submitted, some members of the state board began adding in additional measures, some of which reflect their personal interests in how schools should be rated.

Those measures were added after board members had multiple chances to discuss the federal plan with the education department, conversations that were held in an attempt to ward off such changes this late in the game. Yet even last week at the state board’s monthly meeting, where the new grading changes were approved, some board members didn’t seem to realize until after the vote that the A-F systems would not match up.

David Freitas, a state board member, said he didn’t see the conflicting A-F grade rules as a problem. The board can make Indiana’s state A-F system whatever it wants, he said, and there will be plenty of time to iron out specifics as the rulemaking process unfolds over the next several months.

“We’re not banned from having two different systems,” Freitas said. “But we need to consider the implications and consequences of that.”

Read more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.

Every Student Succeeds Act

Proposed A-F grading rules would make test scores even more important in Indiana

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students at IPS School 39 work on an assignment earlier this fall.

Indiana state officials are again suggesting changes to the state’s A-F grading formula that would place even more importance on passing tests, and many were unaware about what was coming.

The proposed formula would factor in more strongly the number of students who pass tests and remove the measure of test score improvement for high schools, which educators have said they think is valuable. The changes come as Indiana works to create a plan comply with new federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Scot Croner, superintendent of the northern Indiana Wa-Nee School District, said he doesn’t understand why educators — particularly the 15-member committee that helped the state draft its plan — weren’t involved in the discussion.

“It just seems like a lot of behind-the-scenes and not very transparent,” said Croner, who helped with part of the original plan’s development. “That’s unfortunate. It screams of politics.”

Read: Indiana has a curious plan to sidestep federal rules — give schools two A-F grades next year.

The state board is set to meet to consider the proposed A-F grade changes on Wednesday. If the board approves them, they will be posted for public comment.

In Indiana’s initial draft of its state plan, A-F grades were composed of four or five main parts. A school’s formula could look something like this (the percentages would change depending on the school’s population and the data available):

Elementary/middle school:

  • Test proficiency: 42.5 percent
  • Test score growth: 42.5 percent
  • Chronic Absenteeism: 5 percent
  • English Language Proficiency: 10 percent

High school:

  • Test proficiency: 15 percent
  • Test score growth: 15 percent
  • Graduation Rate: 30 percent
  • College & Career Readiness: 30 percent
  • English Language Proficiency: 10 percent

Adam Baker, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education, said the department was not aware of many of the changes the state board had proposed and was also disappointed that educators were not included.

“The concerns we are hearing from the field is the lack of transparency,” Baker said. “We’ve always believed in order to make good policy, you must have the involvement of practitioners. And given we were extremely transparent during the creation of our approach to meet ESSA requirements, those in the field expected the same.”

The education department and the state board of education have been separate since 2013. Generally, the education department deals with state and federal agencies and executes policy — the state board is tasked with creating or approving it.

When then-Gov. Mike Pence split off the state board from the department of education as part of his “innovative” Center for Education and Career Innovation, then-state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, a Democrat who headed the department and frequently butted heads with him, said it was a political ploy to take away her power. The board has 11 members.

The education department is in charge of the state’s plan to comply with new federal law, and state board members had several chances over the summer to give input and suggest changes before the plan was submitted to the federal government in August.

But even some state board members were unaware that new rules were being drafted. Steve Yager, a board member and former superintendent from Fort Wayne, said he was not part of the small group of four that made the rules, and he only became aware a week ago that they’d be up for a vote this month.

“In my two-and-a-half years on the board, this has never happened,” Yager said. “So I see it as a change in process or protocol or practice, and there are members of the board who are concerned about it.”

The new formulas could look something like this:

Elementary/middle school:

  • Test proficiency: 42.5 percent
  • Test score growth: 42.5 percent
  • Chronic Absenteeism: 5 percent
  • English Language Proficiency: 5 percent
  • Well-rounded (science and social studies test): 5 percent

High school (before the 2022-23 school year):

  • Test proficiency: 25 percent
  • Graduation Rate: 30 percent
  • College & Career Readiness: 30 percent
  • English Language Proficiency: 5 percent
  • On-track: 10 percent

High school (after the 2022-23 school year):

  • Test proficiency: 30 percent
  • Graduation Rate: 50 percent
  • English Language Proficiency: 5 percent
  • On-track: 15 percent

Indiana’s A-F grades aim to rate schools based on whether students are learning. Although grades are based primarily on how many students pass — which many educators feel are unreliable after several years of changes in the tests — tests still bring consequences. After four years of consecutive Fs, the state can replace staff, bring in charter managers or close schools.

The changes proposed by state board staff members add two new pieces to state grades: A “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools and an “on-track” measure for high schools.

The “well-rounded” piece is calculated based on state science and social studies tests given once in elementary and middle school. The “on-track” measure would be calculated based on whether high school students, by the end of their freshman year, have received at least 10 course credits and have received no more than one F in English, math, science or social studies.

For high schools, test score growth would be taken out entirely in 2023, as would the “college and career-readiness” measure. That piece was based on the number of students taking advanced courses or earning work-related certificates.

During recent A-F grade discussions, educators have stressed the importance of including measures that capture how much students improve, not just how they do at one moment in time. The board has gone back and forth on how to balance those factors. In this new proposal, growth for K-8 schools is also capped — previously, schools could earn extra points if they helped struggling students improve significantly.

Josh Gillespie, spokesman for the state board, said the test improvement piece was removed because of recommendations that Indiana move to using the SAT or ACT as its high school test. That change would mean growth could not properly be calculated as students went from an eighth-grade state-created exam to a national college entrance exam.

Read more of Indiana’s ESSA coverage here.

This story has been updated with the correct weights for high school graduation rate and high school test proficiency after 2023.