Indiana’s new A-F grade system: It’s not just about pass or fail anymore

For the first time this year, Indiana schools will no longer be judged primarily on a single, end-of-year ISTEP snapshot of success or failure.

Going forward, the state’s A-F letter grade school rating system will place more importance on how students improve on ISTEP from year to year, rather than just how many are able to pass.

The change represents a major shift in the way schools are measured.

“We’re using a whole new system,” said state Superintendent Glenda Ritz.

With the state increasingly demanding that students meet higher standards to better prepare for college or careers by the end of high school, the new system will take a “totally different look” at how well students are advancing from one year to the next, Ritz said. “We’re … making sure that our kids are moving up to a more rigorous benchmark.”

Finalized last spring, the 2016 A-F letter grade system was designed to better factor in elements of school achievement that go beyond test scores. For years, schools have complained that A-F grades are too focused on standardized tests and don’t fairly represent the performance of their students and teachers. Now, test scores and student test score growth will be counted equally in all calculations, and other factors, such as graduation rates for high schools, will be filtered into the grade.

The U.S. Department of Education has pushed for these kinds of changes, and the new Every Student Succeeds Act, which goes into effect next year, encourages states to prioritize student growth over simply measuring how many students pass or fail. If schools can’t show that certain kids are improving on tests each year — such as English-language learners and students with special needs — the best they can get is a B.

The new grading system goes into effect this year, meaning the grades schools receive for the 2015-16 school year will be based on the new model. The 2014-15 grades, which the state is still awaiting because of ISTEP scoring delays and pending legislation, will be the last round calculated using the old model.

When the new model is in place, experts say it will change the way parents and communities think about which schools are the most effective.

Cynthia Roach, testing director for the Indiana State Board of Education said parents should expect to see fewer As — but also fewer Fs.

The predictions shown to the state board in 2014 suggest that most schools will fall in the B, C and D range, she said.

“It’s logical that the majority of the schools are average,” Roach said.

New model sees broad support among policymakers

If most schools are classified as average going forward, that means many could see lower grades than they have in the past.

That’s bound to anger parents and educators at historically A-grade schools, but state education leaders welcome a change that they say will provide a more accurate picture of how kids and schools are really doing on state exams.

Both Ritz and Gov. Mike Pence supported the change to the growth-based system. It was one of the few examples of cooperation between the two, who have clashed over the direction of education policy in Indiana since both were elected in 2012.

The new system was crafted by a panel that was charged by the legislature with devising a way to measure how well students improve from one year to the next. It’s a fairer approach, some say, for schools where many kids are still struggling to pass state tests.

Now, in addition to ISTEP scores, known as “performance scores,” students will also get a “growth score.”

The Education Department will calculate letter grades using three main factors. One is already familiar — schools’ ISTEP passing rates. The second will be the growth factor, which measures how much a students improved or declined from one year to the next.

The third factor is a new measure only for high schools that combines graduation rate, the number of students earning college credits and workplace credentials while still in high school and the number of students passing Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams.

Exam passing rates and graduation rates were used to grade schools under the old model, but now those rates will play a larger role in deciding most high schools’ grades at 60 percent for schools that qualify to use the factor. Schools with higher percentages of kids graduating, passing exams and earning certifications or credits would likely get higher scores.

In cases where the standard grading formula doesn’t apply to a specific school, the new grading system is designed to be adapted accordingly. For example, if a new high school has not yet graduated any seniors, test scores would play a larger role in that school’s grade.

Schools, however, will not have be able to influence ahead of time how their grades are determined.

“You get what you qualify for,” Roach said.

For now, elementary school grades will be largely based on test scores in some way, but new requirements of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaces the No Child Left Behind Act  in 2017, would require states to eventually use other factors, such as reading scores, attendance or school climate, for all grade levels.

Shifting to focus on ‘growth’

The big change for Indiana schools for now will be the growth factor.

Once results from the 2016 ISTEP are calculated, the state will use a chart, called a “growth table,” to determine how many “growth points” a student has earned. Points are awarded based on a student’s score from the previous year and whether their new scores improved, stayed the same or declined.

The exact method for how growth points will be determined is still in the works.

A draft proposal that was shared with the state board of education last year raised concerns among some educators. They were unhappy that the current plan would let students whose scores got worse still earn growth points, but those who went from failing to an above-average score couldn’t earn the maximum number of points.

State officials said the final numbers on the growth table are likely to change as the board gets a chance to weigh in, state staff present their final recommendations and more public comment is received.

The state board will review different versions of growth tables in February and then ask the public for comment.

Once points from test scores, growth and high school factors like graduation rate are combined and averaged over the number of students in a school, the results are weighted based on the school’s specific formula. Then the school’s final point total is determined.

Grades are assigned using a 100-point scale, similar to how a teacher might grade a test. Ninety to 100 points are an A, 80 to 89.9 points a B, and so on. The old model had just a four-point range, which made it hard to show nuance in the scores.

Transitioning from old to new

The Indiana State Board of Education and Ritz’s department both agree on the merits of the new model — a rare moment of unity in a season of frequent disagreements over Indiana’s testing and accountability.

A shared goal was to add nuance to a system that has often been decried as punitive and overly reliant on test scores.

State board spokesman Marc Lotter said the new growth table, for example, could give teachers a better idea of how much students would need to improve each year to be recognized as high achievers.

“On the surface you could say that’s more confusing, but I would tell you on the back side, that’s … much more fair, and it reflects what teachers and administrators definitely wanted,” Lotter said.

This new model, too, gives schools credit not just for students whose scores get better each year, but also for students who continue to pass the exam, considered one year of “expected growth.” The old A-F model couldn’t measure that, Roach said.

“If you have kids who are passing and you are chugging them along, we’re going to give you points,” Roach said.

Roach said she couldn’t release any examples of how schools’ grades might fare under the new grading system, but she said schools and districts will be able to see where they stand on the new model before the state board is expected to vote on the final table in March.

Educators on the original A-F panel were a big part of the push toward equally weighing growth and ISTEP passing rates and factoring in new high school components, said Ritz’s spokeswoman Samantha Hart.

“The desire there was to make something that was more reflective of the teaching that’s going on in our schools,” Hart said. “And while it may have more measures or layers … it’s more fair and transparent for an educator or a parent to understand how their school is actually doing.”