Bill doesn’t shield all schools equally from A-F grade consequences

A bill speeding through the legislature that would give schools relief from last year’s drop in ISTEP scores won’t offer much protection for the state’s most struggling schools.

As state education officials prepare to release A-F school letter grades for the 2014-15 school year, Senate Bill 200 would shield most schools from serious consequences by barring officials from assigning grades that are lower than the previous year.

That means schools that received B’s in 2014 won’t get C’s or D’s or F’s in 2015 even if their ISTEP scores dropped dramatically.

But schools that were already struggling with F-grades could receive another F, putting them in danger of state penalties.

State law currently mandates that schools that receive six F-grades in a row become eligible for sanctions, including state takeover. That usually means schools are turned over to a private management company and converted into charter schools, and teachers could be fired.

At today’s House Education Committee meeting, the Senate Bill 200 passed 13-0, but lawmakers raised questions about the fairness of maintaining tough consequences for schools “on the cusp” of state takeover.

Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, called for language that would protect the F-schools as well as higher performing ones.

“If you want to talk about fairness … we ought to apply that,” Smith said. “I think it’s doable, and it’s fair.”

Because of a variety of problems scoring last year’s ISTEP test, the state has delayed the release of the 2015 grades. The score drops also mean fewer schools are projected to earn A’s, and more are expected to earn D’s and F’s.

When the grades are published, three schools could receive their sixth F. That includes two in Evansville and one in Gary, said Samantha Hart, a spokeswoman for state Superintendent Glenda Ritz.

Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, who authored the bill, and committee Chairman Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, said they were sympathetic to the F-schools but aren’t willing to let them off the hook after so many years of failing scores.

“I totally understand,” Kruse told Smith. “But I’m trying to keep this bill as simple as possible and easy to understand.”

The three schools have actually had more time to turn their scores around than schools will be given beginning with 2016 grades. Lawmakers last year shortened the states’s accountability timeline so that schools that receive their first F for the 2015-16 school year could face consequences after four years instead of six. If schools already have consecutive F-grades going into 2016, they are still on the six-year track.

John O’Neal, representing the Indiana State Teachers Association, said the law shouldn’t get to pick and choose which schools win and which schools lose.

“If we are truly going to hold schools harmless, It needs to apply the same in every case,” O’Neal said.

But Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, said this isn’t the state “picking on schools.”

“Nobody wants to see any harm done to anybody, but … we’re talking about schools that are going on their sixth year of F’s, of failing,” Lucas said. “I don’t want us to lose sight of that. We are trying to help schools. That is a long time for a school to be failing so many people.”

The committee voted down an amendment from Smith that would have removed 2015 F-grades from the accountability timeline. The vote was 9-4 along party lines.

The bill is expected to go before the full House and to be signed by the governor sometime next week.