New A-to-F grading system clears hurdle after stumble

For a few minutes this morning, the latest dispute between state Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s Indiana Department of Education and Gov. Mike Pence’s Center for Education and Career Innovation looked like it might temporarily derail a process that was expected to finish off a year-old effort to overhaul Indiana’s much-maligned A-to-F school grading system.

A 5-5 tie vote by the Indiana State Board of Education (the 11-member group was one short as board member Dan Elsener was absent) meant the education department’s proposal for how to grade schools with students both in high school and in lower grades was rejected.

But the board quickly reconsidered and, ultimately, it voted again. The second time, board members approved the plan.

In other words, the distrust and tension that has plagued board meetings for more than a year, and which helped prompt Pence to announce in December a plan to dissolve CECI by next month, was again evident. Some board members who initially voted no said it was only to protest what they said was poor communication from Ritz’s team.

At one point, Assistant State Superintendent Danielle Shockey and CECI’s chief assessment officer, Cynthia Roach, debated about what day information was shared between the two departments in a whispered conversation behind the podium that nevertheless was noticeable for its finger-pointing intensity.

But ultimately, the board gave its blessing to the rules, which are aimed at reworking the way student test score growth is factored into school grades. In simulations using current test scores, the proposed changes would have helped more schools earn higher grades. But at times the rule changes were intensely debated by a panel of state officials and educators who worked on the plan beginning in 2013.

Today’s approval mattered because it launched a months-long process by which the department will pubish the proposed rules and invite feedback, including public input meetings. The board’s goal is to have the new rules in place so they can be used for the grades that come out next fall based on the current school year. That might not have happened with even a month’s delay.

Ritz said the proposal is a clear improvement over the current system. School report cards, she said, will show separate results describing how many students passed and the gains students made over the prior year.

“The most exciting part to me is we are going to see growth and proficiency separately,” she said. “They’re going to know what it is they need to do. If a school has low performance and they have good growth, then they’re headed in a good direction and know they need to do more of what they are doing to bring up their achievement level.”

Today’s debate began over a very specific question: how should schools with students both in high school and in lower grades calculate measures such as graduation rate and college readiness into their grades?

Ritz’s team recommended those factors count based on the size of the group of students within a school who are in high school — those who are preparing to move on to college and jobs.

The other option was to count those factors as a flat 60 percent of the final grade for all such combined schools.

The issue was touchy because oddly configured schools have caused confusion and disagreements over how their grades are calculated in the past, going all the way back to a blazing 2012 controversy about how Ritz’s predecessor, Tony Bennett, assigned a grade for a charter school that critics said amounted to favoritism.

Several board members balked that they had not been presented the proposal sooner and said that’s why they were voting no.

But after the tie vote, board members realized they had a problem: a delay could jeopardize a tight timeline to complete the rule-making process in time to use the new system next year. They quickly decided to revisit the issue, calling forward staff from the department and CECI to explain their viewpoints on the proposal in detail.

Satisfied, a majority of the board voted to reconsider and then pass the plan, which sent the A-to-F grading proposal on for public feedback. A final vote could come this summer.