State panel recommends changes on A to F grades for schools

A panel of educators, policymakers and business leaders recommended Wednesday that Indiana change how it evaluates school test score growth in a way that might result in fewer A grades, but also fewer D’s and F’s.

The recommendations came from a 17-member committee appointed by State Superintendent Glenda Ritz, Gov. Mike Pence and legislative leaders. The group’s proposal, which will be considered by the Indiana State Board of Education on Oct. 15, likely wouldn’t go into effect before 2016.

Under the plan, student test score growth would be gauged by looking at how students ranked compared to their peers on past tests to establish a baseline. Then students would be expected to improve their scores each year.

“We had to have a starting point,” Ritz said. “We used all that information to determine the baseline of where the new model will begin.”

But the proposal, which passed the committee 10-4, drew objections from a few dissenters who felt growth should instead be measured against the passing score rather than peer scores. In that scenario, students who had not passed could earn bonus points based on how much growth they made toward a passing score. Those who passed could get bonuses for how much they exceeded the passing score.

“Where is the measure of proficiency in the growth model?” said Indiana Chamber of Commerce Vice President Derek Redelman, a committee member who voted against the proposal. “It’s not there.”

Claire Fiddian-Green, co-director of Pence’s Center for Education and Career Innovation, said that method proved to offer little reward for growth because schools that scored well tended on that sort of growth also tended to have high passing rates. The proposed method, she said, was a better measure of growth.

Still, Fiddian-Green voted against the plan for other reasons: she wanted an outside review of the system first and more specifics for how student scores would be judged over time.

Under the current rules, where test score growth is treated as a bonus, about 44 percent of schools were rated A last year while 18 percent were D or F. Under the proposal, which rewards schools equally for the percent who passed ISTEP and for the percent who earned growth bonuses, the Indiana Department of Education estimated 33 percent of schools would have earned an A last year while 7 percent would have received a D or F.

Before 2012, Indiana’s grading system was heavily based on the percent of students who passed. Critics said that unfairly hurt schools with large numbers of children who came to them far below grade level, often because of high poverty and fewer learning opportunities available before kindergarten or first grade.

Even when those schools got kids to make major gains on tests they sometimes still fell short of earning a passing score. By ignoring growth, some schools that were making great strides earned the same grades as schools where few kids were making much test progress.

So then-Superintendent Tony Bennett worked to revise the A to F system to add a growth measure to give schools extra credit when students made gains on state tests, even if they were far above or far below a passing score.

But Bennett’s system was almost universally disliked. When hearings were held in 2012 after he proposed it, a parade of speakers from across the political and educational spectrum testified against Bennett’s plan.

The major complaints surrounded the use of a growth measure that was based on a similar model used in Colorado. It judged student growth by comparing each student with peers that met a similar demographic profile. Some opponents argued the measure was so difficult to understand schools could not even calculate their own scores. Others argued it was an unreliable gauge of student academic improvement.

Last year, lawmakers ordered an overhaul of the growth measure so it rewards growth toward a standard, such as a passing score or advanced score, instead of growth as compared to other students. The A to F panel is one of the legislatively-ordered steps to a new system.

If the state board gives its blessing, that would start a year-long process of formal rule-making, including public input on the plan, before it could be put into practice.