Changes to A-F grading system move forward despite equity concerns

Three key proposals dealing with school A-F accountability grades, new science standards, and the future of state tests got speedy approval from the Indiana State Board of Education today.

The board unanimously approved a proposal to determine how student test score improvement will factor into school A-F grades. It also signed off on new science standards that prioritize research skills over rote memorization and appointed its representative to the state’s future testing committee.

But the votes, which followed months of discussions on each issue, came with some controversy, particularly around the new A-F school grading system, which will be used for the first time this year.

The new A-F grade model will place more importance on how students improve on ISTEP from year to year, rather than just how many are able to pass. 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.

“We’ve moved from what we really considered was a flawed system to a new system that’s going to measure individual student growth,” said state Superintendent Glenda Ritz.

But some educators still aren’t comfortable with the growth proposal, in which the state will use a chart, called a “growth table,” to determine how many “growth points” a student earns based on changes in ISTEP scores. Points are awarded based on an evaluation of whether a student’s score improved, fell or did not change from the previous year.

Under the proposed table adopted unanimously by board members last month, students who make one year of growth and pass the test receive 100 “growth points,” while students who make one year of growth but don’t pass receive 75 points.

The Indiana Urban Schools Association, which includes the backing of all 11 public school districts in Marion County, said the proposal is discriminatory and violates state law because it uses percentiles to establish a baseline for determining how much students improve from one year to the next. Indiana law says “peer-to-peer” comparisons are not allowed when grading schools.

“We believe this model affects our ability to provide a quality education to all students and could result in having a disparate impact on students based on their race, socio-economic status and/or disability,” the association wrote in a letter to the state board.

Cynthia Roach, the testing and accountability director for the state board, said the growth proposal was properly vetted by legal staff and the attorney general. She also said that she doesn’t see how the proposal disproportionately targets certain groups of students because a test calculation of growth grades showed all subgroups of students — black, white, special needs, those with paid and free meals — earned As and Bs. For the “performance grade” based on a snapshot of ISTEP scores, wealthy and white students got Cs, and students who are poor, black or have special needs got Fs.

“We know there is a disparity in our state,” Roach said. “But what you should see is much lower differences in growth than what you see in performance. The growth piece is moving toward closing those gaps.”

Board member Cari Whicker said that although the new way of measuring growth seems complicated, it’s a more accurate representation of how students show improvement, and it gives them plenty of wiggle room even if scores fluctuate by a few points each year.

“Simplicity is not the goal,” Whicker said. “The goal is to be more fair.”

The board also unanimously approved new state science standards, which stress investigative and research skills that kids need to learn at every grade level as they explore physical science, earth and space science, life science and engineering.

This shift to emphasizing research skills in science class rather than specific knowledge is common in recent updates to academic standards. Just as with Indiana’s new college- and career-ready standards in math and English, and academic standards across the country, the new science standards are expected to be more rigorous and focus less on memorization.

For the state’s new testing development committee, board member Byron Ernest, the current head of Hoosier Academies and former principal at Manual High School, was nominated to represent the state board. Legislation approved this year sets a hard deadline for ISTEP, which will be given for the last time in 2017. Now, the state has until May 1 to finalize the committee, made up of educators, legislators and policymakers appointed by Gov. Mike Pence, Ritz and Republican legislative leaders.

The group will explore options for Indiana’s next state test and accountability system.