Deferring all tough issues, state board approves new A to F grading scale

At its most contentious meeting yet, the Indiana State Board of Education today did manage to pass one piece of business: a new scale for the state’s A to F school grades. But amid tensions that ultimately left Superintendent Glenda Ritz storming out before the meeting ended, board members left nearly all the important details about how the grades will be calculated undecided.

Among the questions left unanswered are whether Indiana will follow Common Common Core standards, how students will be tested and how student test score growth will be measured.

Board members said they wanted a narrow vote aimed at fulfilling a law passed earlier this year that required new A to F rules by Nov. 14.

“We have the beginning framework for a model,” board member Brad Oliver said before the vote. “I would be comfortable affirming that if there is a path for us to take a collective deep breath and do what legislature wanted us to do.”

The one no vote to the resolution, which board members approved 9 to 1, came from Andrea Neal. She called the legislature’s November deadline “unreasonable,” arguing that a separate debate, about what academic standards Indiana will follow, should be completed before A to F rules are created.

“How can we approve an accountability framework before we know to what standards students will be held accountable?” Neal asked.

The board’s decision came after a lengthy discussion of recommendations by a panel formed to suggest revisions to the A to F grading system devised by Ritz’s predecessor Tony Bennett. Co-chaired by Ritz and appointed by her, Gov. Mike Pence and legislative leaders, the panel provided a framework for how a new A to F system could work, but few specifics for how the grades would actually be calculated.

Even so, the board today was unable to reach a consensus on accepting the recommendations.

Among the sticky issues — the panel’s recommendations would allow for the creation of new state tests in math and English at grades 1, 2, 9 and 11, grades that aren’t tested now. Some state board members balked at that idea. Ritz said today what grades are tested is dependent on what test Indiana chooses for the future. Grades could be added or subtracted depending on whether the state creates its own test or uses a Common Core-linked test built by a consortium of other states.

Another tough issue is test score growth.

For example, the proposal would change the concept for how growth is measured. Under the current system, student test scores are compared to demographically similar peers to determine if they made more or less growth than their peers. The new system will measure growth by how much progress students make toward a series of score benchmarks, even beyond a passing score.

But the mechanics of how the new growth measure are not yet ready, which the A to F panel noted in its recommendations. When data analysis by the Indiana Department of Education is complete, the panel proposed reconvening to shape the specifics needed to make clear rules for how schools earn A to F grades.

The one attribute of the new grading system the board quickly agreed on is a new 100-point scale. When schools earn 90 points or more they will get an A. The bottom of the scale is 60 for a D. The current scale works more like a grade point average, with 4 points as the maximum and 3.5 points or more earning an A.

Points in the new system will be earned by a variety of factors that have not been settled yet, such as state test passing rates and growth but also new factors like evidence that students are “college and career ready.”

The expectation is the A to F panel’s work will be extended so state data can be used to test the results as the model that will spit out each school’s numerical score is crafted.

The board’s resolution included a provision that Ritz objected to, but ultimately agreed to support. The resolution tasked staff from Pence’s education team to “collaborate with technical experts” to confirm the work of the A to F panel.