Indiana sees a big jump in A-rated schools

More than half of Indiana’s schools were rated an A this year, a majority for the first time this decade.

Data released today by the Indiana Department of Education, and approved with changes by the Indiana State Board of Education after a month-long delay, showed 53 percent of more than 2,100 graded schools were rated A — a jump of eight percentage points over last year. Fewer schools earned a D or F.

The question is what drove the improvements?

(Find your school’s grade here.)

Glenda Ritz’s spokesman said she should get a big chunk of credit for instituting a statewide system of outreach coordinators to support local efforts to improve low-scoring schools.

“We think these numbers show the work they have been doing has been obviously significant and we are coming back with a good result in the very first year,” Daniel Altman said.

But Ritz’s critics think just the opposite: that some of the very policies she campaigned against when she defeated Tony Bennett in 2012 have pushed schools to get serious about helping students pass tests so they can avoid the consequences of failure.

“My theory as to why the grades are up is very simple: teachers, superintendents and principals are responding to the environment of transparency, accountability and choice,” said Robert Enlow, CEO of the Friedman Foundation, which advocates nationally for private school tuition vouchers and charter schools.

The state board adjusted grades for several schools, so the percentages of schools in each grading category will change slightly. But the overall picture held steady, showing better grades overall for the state.

While hailing the hard work of teachers and students, Indiana State Teachers Association President Teresa Meredith rejected the validity of grading schools.

“It’s not a good system,” she said. “Letter grades are not a good way to judge schools, period. Nobody likes an F. No teacher gets excitement from giving an F. Nobody wants their building to be labeled an F. It’s the wrong message to students you are trying to build up.”

But Tosha Salyers, spokeswoman for the Institute for Quality Education, said its the averse reaction to low grades that encourages schools to push harder to improve. Understandable letter grades, she said, combined with new, tough consequences like state takeover for persistently failing schools, have propelled Indiana students to do better, and not just on tests. Measures like graduation rates and the number of students taking advanced classes are up, too.

“The intent of school accountability policy is to set strong metrics for performance at the state level and then get out of the way,” she said. “With the proper policies in place, local administrators and teachers will rise to high expectations.”

This is the last year for the system of grading schools that was put in place in 2012. The Indiana legislature mandated changes to the system earlier this year. State board members are scheduled to discuss revisions to the system that aims to refine how student test score gains are calculated into the grades later today.

IPS sees gains

Indianapolis Public Schools was an example of a district that saw a shift toward better grades. The district has been among the state’s most troubled with a majority of schools earning a D or F.

That’s still true: 54 percent of IPS schools rated a D or F this year, according to the data released today. But that was down from 59 percent last year.

At the lowest end of the scale, IPS saw the most progress. While more than a quarter of the district’s schools rated an F (28 percent), that’s a big improvement from more than a third of schools last year (36 percent), the data showed.

Meanwhile, IPS saw 13 schools earn A grades, three more than last year. Overall 30 percent of the district’s 75 rated schools earned an A or B, up from 25 percent last year, according to the data.

“We’re pleased to learn a third of our schools improved by one or more letter grades compared to the 2013 report card,” Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said in a statement. “We anticipate continued success at these schools and look forward to higher grades as they continue to thrive.”

The data showed the district’s big winners were School 34 (F to B), School 58 (F to C) and Key Learning Community High School (F to C). Also, going D to B were School 46, School 70 and School 96. New IPS A schools include School 54, School 57, School 109, Cold Spring School and School 99. Both Cold Spring School and School 99 went from C to A.

Charter schools up, too

Statewide, the group 66 charter schools that earned ratings saw a big 10-point jump in the percent of schools with A and B grades and fewer with a D or F, according to the data release.

Taken together, the state’s charter schools had combined performance was comparable to a large urban school district. In fact, the data showed an identical percentage of charter schools and IPS schools earned an A or B: 30 percent. Charters did slightly better at avoiding a D or F: less than half (49 percent) fell in those categories while IPS had 54 percent rated that low.

One factor helping charter schools look better: low-scoring charter schools have been closing.

Ball State University, for example, did not renew charters for 11 schools the past two years, which led five with low test scores to close down. Two converted to private schools and one merged into a sister charter school. Three others remain open after finding new sponsors.

About half as many charter schools sponsored by Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard have also closed, moved toward consolidation or found new management.

Those closures removed several low scoring schools from the state’s graded charter schools.

Half of Ballard’s charter schools — excluding schools that serve special student populations, such as dropouts or those in special education — earned an A or B. Another 40 percent were rated D or F, fewer than the statewide charter school percentage or IPS’s percentage.

The schools that are low performing are being held accountable at the same time we are expanding and replicating high performing schools,” Deputy Mayor Jason Kloth said.

Few low rated in townships

In Marion County, townships had the best performing public schools.

Just 13 percent of of township schools are rated a D or F, the data showed, including just one F-rated school this year: Wayne Township’s Achieve Virtual Education Academy. Last year, six township schools were rated F.

But townships saw a big jump in A rated schools to 45 percent, up from 27 percent last year. Overall two-thirds of Indianapolis township schools were rated an A or B, up from just over half last year.