State board aims to reduce the fear of state takeover for 3 schools

Three Indiana schools that were in danger of being taken over by the state can breathe a little easier.

The schools — West Side Leadership Academy in Gary and Caze Elementary and Washington Middle Schools in Evansville — have received F-grades from the state for five years in a row and face the possibility of getting a dreaded sixth F next week when the Indiana State Board of Education hands out school accountability grades at its January meeting.

Normally, schools that receive six Fs in a row face serious consequences which could include state takeover, under which the schools can be handed over to be run independently by management companies, usually charter school networks — a process that can result in teachers losing their jobs.

But board member Steve Yager earlier this week proposed a resolution that would cut those schools a break given the dramatic drop in standardized test scores that hit nearly every school in Indiana last year after the state imposed new, more difficult standards.

“The board will continue current intervention activities that are currently going on there and have the support of so many in the community and the local school districts,” said state board spokesman Marc Lotter.

Yager said the board plans to maintains existing partnerships at the schools. Lotter said many board members have noticed that the three schools have shown progress, which prompted Yager’s move.

“This resolution, if approved by the board, continues that partnership for another year while also asking districts to provide updates to the board on their plans to help students succeed at those schools,” Yager said.

Across the state, the student passing rate on the state’s 2015 ISTEP standardized exam fell by about 22 percentage points to 53.5 percent for both English and math.

The score drops meant that, if nothing changed, fewer schools were projected to earn A’s, and more are expected to earn D’s and F’s.

But the legislature has protected most Indiana schools from the consequences of bad grades with legislation — Senate Bill 200 — that  Gov. Mike Pence signed into law yesterday. The law will shield schools from the pain of poor test scores by barring the board from giving schools lower grades for the 2014-15 school year than they received the year before.

But the law did not include any provisions to protect schools like West Side Leadership, Caze and Washington that received F grades in 2014. Those schools could receive another F, moving them further along in the state pipeline toward consequences.

Some lawmakers, such as Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, saw that as unfair treatment for schools that were already struggling.

The bill’s author, Sen. Dennis Kruse, wasn’t open to amending the bill, but Yager’s resolution, which he plans to present on Tuesday and which is expected to receive support from the board, could be seen as an effort to extend the “hold harmless” provision to F-rated schools as well.

Rep. Bob Behning, the bill’s sponsor in the House, said Thursday during the House session that Yager’s resolution should address any worries lawmakers might still have about schools with more than one consecutive F-grade.

“There were a lot of questions about what was going to happen if any of those schools were to enter a sixth year,” state board spokesman Marc Lotter said. “I think this addresses that state board understands that there is great work going on, and they want to see that work continue.”

Going forward, consistently failing schools won’t have as much time to turn things around before facing state intervention. A law passed last year shortened the state’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.

Also in 2016, the state will begin using a new A-F grading system based around whether students improve on ISTEP from year to year, not solely on an end-of-year test score snapshot.