A new plan could drop test scores and graduation rates from Indiana high school grades

Indiana Republicans want to give the state education board the power to drop state tests and graduation rates from high school ratings — controversial metrics that some critics have long said don’t tell the full story.

The bill, debated Wednesday in the House Education Committee, would dramatically change the high school measuring stick to look more like the state’s new graduation requirements and recommendations from Gov. Eric Holcomb’s panel on workforce development. The bill doesn’t spell out exactly how the state could measure post-high school preparedness, giving the board wiggle room to decide on its own.

More of the basis for the letter grades could be on career preparation and what students do after they graduate — continuing a trend among some education advocates in Indiana and other states to prioritize workforce development over strictly classroom learning.

Read: The future of education reform in Indiana is pushing career-readiness to the forefront

Rep. Bob Behning, the chairman of the committee, said the bill was intended to give the Indiana State Board of Education more leeway in designing the school rating system, so it doesn’t spell out specific ways to measure college or career preparedness. It wouldn’t require that ratings be based mostly on test scores and graduation rate — as the current grading model does — but those factors could still be included if the board chooses.

Some school leaders argued the changes could hold schools accountable for whether students have jobs or find success in college or the military after high school, outcomes that could be out of their control. Steve Baker, principal at Bluffton High School, and other educators gave examples of students who might take more time to figure out next steps, or those who might leave school or employment because of family, financial, or other personal reasons unrelated to their high school education.

“I did a great job preparing them, but what they decide to do after high school, I have zero influence,” Baker said. “Hold me accountable for things I can control.”

The bill’s author, Rep. Tony Cook, a Republican from Cicero, said he was frustrated by some educators’ testimony and questioned their commitment to school accountability.

“We are trying to prepare (students) for the future — we don’t want them to fail,” Cook said. “I ask what kind of accountability some of you really want to have … you can’t have it all the way.”

Cook also admonished some of the speakers for not taking into account changes that were made to the bill late Tuesday night, which several lawmakers, educators and education advocates said they had not had time to review. Cook’s amendment stripped some of the specifics from the bill, including adding metrics like how fluent English-learners are to elementary school accountability. Behning said the bill would receive a vote in the coming weeks, but likely no more public testimony would be permitted.

The change to the state’s school accountability system would be the latest in a long series of updates since schools were first rated about 10 years ago. Indiana’s State Board of Education is in the process of making changes to how the state rates schools. Currently, test scores, test score improvement, and graduation rate account for at least half of a typical high school’s state grade. If passed, Cook’s bill would give state board members a new set of guidance to consider as they continue that work.

It’s unclear how changing the drivers behind high school ratings — from test scores and graduation rate to other measures — would affect the ratings overall. Although only about one-third of high school students pass both English math state tests, dragging grades down, graduation rates are fairly high across the board. And it’s too early to know how state board members would attempt to change the ratings themselves, either keeping A-F letter grades or possibly going with another label. Last year, about two-thirds of schools received As or Bs under the state system.

State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, who sits on the board, said the bill is an overstep by state lawmakers — the state board hasn’t talked about the bill at all, she said, nor about how they might change A-F grades since a work session a few months ago. McCormick’s education department, however, has moved forward on an updated rating model to meet new federal law.

“We’ve not voted on this, there’s been no resolution on this, there’s been no conversation about this,” McCormick said. “It lacked a lot of transparency.”

McCormick also accused lawmakers of leaving her and her team out on purpose, echoing concerns she raised late last year about political squabbles that ultimately led her to forgo a second term as state schools chief.

Read: The ‘toxic’ politics behind McCormick’s decision to reject a second term as Indiana schools chief

“We have to have these people who are in the weeds, in the trenches, be part of the conversation,” she said. “The only way that that’s sensical is if that’s purposeful. It’s just frustrating.”

Behning rejected the idea that McCormick and the education department have been left out. He said even if the plan is approved this year, it’ll take the state board a while to make changes, and they’ll do so with outside input.

“Jennifer has a voice,” he said.