Indiana state board approves, then quickly reverses ‘nuclear’ change in A-F school grades

Indiana’s State Board of Education on Wednesday passed a major change to how it grades schools — and then, at the very same meeting, voted to reverse its own decision.

In an effort to rein in how the state rewards student improvement on its standardized exam, the board initially approved a cap on so-called growth scores, which measure year-over-year performance.

Every year Indiana gives each school an A-F grade, meant to evenly weigh student growth and passing rates on state tests. But a board member, David Freitas, said the grading system skews unfairly toward growth. That’s because students could earn more than 100 points on growth but could get a maximum of 100 points for answering every test question correctly.

It’s not clear how drastically the cap the board passed, and which Freitas initially favored, would have affected school grades. But an Indiana Department of Education spokesperson, Adam Baker, said in an email Wednesday it would have negatively impacted school grades overall.

The board voted to reverse course when Board Chair B.J. Watts asked that his colleagues reconsider the decision before making a “huge change.”

“The vote that we took was a nuclear option,” said Watts, who at first was the only board member to vote against the cap. “It changes accountability on a level that I want to make sure that we all understood what we did.”

Indiana’s education department, which calculates schools’ growth scores, did not recommend the growth score cap. State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, who heads the department, sits on the 11-member state board but was not at Wednesday’s meeting.

Ultimately, Freitas, along with all board members but one, voted to undo the decision.

Proponents of growth scores say they are a more fair measure of what a child has learned than whether or not they pass a high-stakes test. For example, a student who did not pass the ILEARN exam can still score well if they improve more than their peers did on average. The measure is particularly important at low-performing schools, where school leaders want to see significant year-over-year growth as they work to improve passing rates.

But on Wednesday Freitas argued that the ultimate goal of schools is to get every child learning at or above grade level. Such a metric places more value on whether or not they can pass the test.

This discussion comes at a time when schools’ A-F grades are already expected to be low statewide. That’s because nearly two-thirds of Indiana students didn’t pass both the math and English portions of ILEARN, Indiana’s new standardized test.

Although the education department is still working to calculate school grades, it could be months before they are made public. The state board already voted to hold their release until state lawmakers could consider a one-year reprieve, which would shield teachers and schools from any negative consequences of declining scores. Without such a reprieve, state grades could negatively impact teacher evaluations and trigger state intervention at chronically struggling schools.