Ritz's plan for A-to-F grade 'pause' met by state board doubts

Even with five new members promising better cooperation, the Indiana State Board of Education still wants to check state Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s work.

A skeptical state board voted today to ask Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller to certify that 12 options proposed by the Indiana Department of Education, some of which would “pause” potential A-to-F school grade consequences, are legal.

For her part, Ritz readily agreed and joined with a yes vote of her own. Ritz said she was pleased by the discussion and happy to get input from Zoeller’s office on legal questions.

“I want to have it right,” Ritz said. “If it’s not, we need to know now.”

Ritz’s team argued that some schools should get a break if their A-to-F grades fall because of lower student test scores on the overhauled ISTEP exam that students just completed during March and May. The test this year was upgraded to match new, tougher standards that the state adopted last year, which are aimed at ensuring all students graduate high school ready for college or careers.

Other states that have made similar changes to raise expectations through new standards and tests — Ritz’s lieutenants cited New York and Kentucky — have seen big drops in the percentage of students who pass the first year the change is made.

Lower test scores could cause lower A-to-F grades across the board for Indiana schools. For some, that could put them at greater risk for state takeover or other serious sanctions designed to improve them. Those changes could include major moves like replacing principals and teachers.

Ritz and education department staff said they also worried about simple embarrassment or public misunderstanding. Parents and others in each school community could see lower grades assigned to their schools but might not understand that the drop is part of a statewide trend driven by test changes.

“The assessment is much more rigorous,” Ritz said. “We have to take that into account.”

The U.S. Department of Education has pushed states to adopt tougher standards and more rigorous tests over the past five years. Most states have agreed to do so in exchange for waivers from some of the sanctions of the 2002 federal No Child Left Behind law. But just this year, federal officials began offering states flexibility to delay some consequences of lower test scores for schools under their state systems when they change standards.

Even before that offer was made, Ritz has pushed for various reasons to delay sanctions for poor test scores over the past three years. Each time, an increasingly impatient state board has cut the debate short, pledging to keep unchanged the system of rewards and penalties.

But with support from the U.S. Department of Education, Ritz said this time the board should give the idea full consideration.

The option Ritz endorsed among the 12 choices presented would treat schools with improving grades differently than those who saw grades go down in 2014-15. Those with better grades would be assigned their new, higher grades. Those with falling grades would not get the lower marks. Instead, they could keep the grades they earned last year.

Ritz emphasized that sanctions would continue. Schools with low grades could still face takeover or other state actions if their grades don’t improve. She said that was the fairest way to treat schools during a transition to a new test.

“Accountability would march on,” Ritz said. “It does not take anything away from the accountability or consequences.”

But state board members had doubts.

Sarah O’Brien, elected the state board’s first vice chairwoman earlier in the meeting, said the conversation should wait until grades are assigned. The board should not simply assume grades will go down, she said.

“I feel it’s a premature decision for us to be making,” she said.

Ritz said she wasn’t asking for a decision, just to start the discussion about what to do if grades do drop dramatically. But board members Lee Ann Kwiatkowski and Gordon Hendry agreed with O’Brien.

Hendry also said it seemed unfair to him that schools with better grades could get the reward of reporting that improvement but parents in schools with lower grades might not know their schools’ grades actually dropped.

“That doesn’t seem to be a fair way to approach it,” he said.

Board member B.J. Watts asked for assurance that all of the options Ritz presented were legal. The options were presented on a grid showing which ones would need changes in state law or approval from the U.S. Department of Education compared to those the board could make on its own.

When an attorney for the state board advised getting an outside opinion, the entire board endorsed the idea of getting Zoeller’s OK that Ritz’s legal analysis is right.

Department officials said they expect ISTEP scores this year to come out in November and A-to-F grades to follow in December.