If Indiana wants to make changes to its A-F school grading system, new rules from the U.S. Department of Education announced today could make it much easier.
The question is: Does Indiana want to make a change? And what would an overhauled school rating system look like?
The new rules come with the Every Student Succeeds Act, passed last year by Congress as a replacement for No Child Left Behind. ESSA is designed to give states and local schools more control over education decisions.
Today’s announcements from federal officials about ESSA included two big changes. First, the law won’t go into full effect until the 2018-19 school year, which gives states more time to create their plans and transition. And second, the federal education department will no longer require a single rating, such as an A-F grade, for every school.
That could be a help to Jennifer McCormick, who earlier this month was elected state superintendent after defeating Glenda Ritz. McCormick said during the campaign she thought Indiana should consider more than a single A-F grade when considering school academic performance.
That’s also a position that Ritz has advocated for in her four years in office. But there are many unknowns about how, and even whether, changes will come.
The election of Donald Trump as president means a new administration will be in charge of interpreting and enforcing the ESSA law, so it’s possible some guidance from the federal government could change after he takes office in January.
And even if the flexibility to drop A-F grades remains, it would be up to the Indiana legislature to change state law if it wanted to follow McCormick’s advice that schools be labeled differently.
“There’s quite a bit of turmoil at the national level, as you might expect,” State Superintendent Glenda Ritz today told a committee of educators gathered to explore how Indiana accountability could change under ESSA. “I’d like to get some recommendations moving forward.”
Under the new rules, states actually don’t have to give schools specific ratings anymore. Now, they can do as little as categorizing schools based on how much support they need, something the law already requires they track.
For example, schools that fall in the bottom 5 percent based on state standardized test scores must be reported to the federal education department in a category indicating they need “comprehensive support.” Schools that need to improve the test performance of just some groups of students, like English language learners or those in special education, will be reported as needing “targeted support.” Under the education department’s categories, many Indiana schools that don’t fall into those two previous groups would simply be labeled as “other.”
Ritz said she wasn’t opposed to grouping schools “if it’s talking about support. That’s heading in a better direction at the federal level.”
But Indiana has its own laws, including the requirement that schools earn a single A-F grade, based mostly on test scores. There has been no signal yet from legislative leaders that they wish to change A-F grades.
A-F grade supporters say the grades are easy to understand for parents and community members looking to make decisions about their children’s education.
But while state law requires a single grade, it gives the Indiana State Board of Education and state superintendent the power to decide how the grade is calculated. The A-F model was overhauled during the past couple years to include more data that goes beyond test scores, such as measures of student participation in college entrance exams and advanced courses at the high school level.
Similar changes to add non-test-based measures, now required by the new federal law, are also in the works for A-F grades for elementary and middle schools.
Indiana Department of Education officials today proposed creating an index to combine data the state currently collects on discipline and chronic absenteeism, two areas Ritz says are “warning signs” that can indicate schools need more help. That could be one option of a measure to add to the A-F grade calculation.
Cari Whicker, an elementary school teacher on the committee who also is a state board member, said she knows that data is important to include, but sometimes those factors can be beyond a school’s control. She thinks a student survey, or a measure focused more on the quality of a school’s atmosphere or culture, could be a better tool.
“I can control the climate of a building,” Whicker said. “I’d like this to be one area where we be a little bit innovative and try something and ask kids.”
Part of the challenge of using a survey is that it would require the state to contract with an outside company, which takes time and costs more money than simply using data the state already collects.
This committee is set to have one more meeting in mid-December.