Future of Schools

Indiana delays release of A to F school grades

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Indiana State Board of Education members shelved today’s planned release of A to F grades for all Indiana schools after a sharp debate which included criticism of whether state Superintendent Glenda Ritz and her lieutenants properly screened the data for errors.

A mistake in the data that was brought to light at the state board meeting affected about five of more than 2,100 schools, but board members decided they wanted an outside review to double check the grades before approving them and making them public.

The schools in question might have lost credit toward their grades because of a mistake by a company that administers International Baccalaureate tests that high school students take when they finish advanced classes, state officials said. Indiana Department of Education staff said they discovered late in the grading process that the company had accidentally failed to submit results for Indiana students at about five schools but told the board the error would be fixed.

High schools get extra credit toward their grades when students successfully complete advanced classes. Representatives for Carmel’s Guerin Catholic High School said they were given a zero on that measure and the school’s appeal was denied. Education department officials said today that they were in the process of correcting that error, which could change the grade for Guerin and a handful of others. They suggested the board approve the rest of the A to F grades and vote separately to assign grades to the affected schools next month.

But state board members said they wanted the rest of the grades checked by the Legislative Service Agency to assure they were correct. That meant schools weren’t able to publicly release their school grades today as planned.

“The department has the incredible task of calculating (grades) and the board has the statutory duty to make sure they are right until we release them,” Brad Oliver said.

Ritz said minor data errors occurred every year and urged the board to follow the education department’s recommendation to go ahead with the release of grades. But later, she voted with the majority to table the grades until the next meeting on Nov. 5. Only Gordon Hendry voted no on Brad Oliver’s motion, which passed 7-1.

Ritz said she was willing all along to submit the data for an outside evaluation, and that’s why she voted in favor of Oliver’s motion. In fact, she said, the department already shared the data with Legislative Service Agency for double checking.

“I’ve been a proponent of making sure that happens,” she said.

The debate recalled last year’s battle between Ritz and the rest of the board over delaying the release of A to F grades, but this time the board and the education department took opposite positions from where they stood in 2013.

Last year, board members grew frustrated when grades were not released by mid-October and sought to circumvent Ritz to release the grades over her objections. Last Oct. 16 — almost a year ago to the day — board members sent a letter to legislative leaders asking them to direct the Legislative Service Agency, which provides data and other supports to state lawmakers, to calculate the grades. Ritz responded with a lawsuit, later dismissed, arguing the board violated state open meetings law by deciding to send the letter outside of a public meeting.

Last year, Ritz said glitches that occurred when students took the state ISTEP test online slowed the education department’s work to prepare the grades, but other state board members believed she was dragging her feet. After an acrimonious month of tense board meetings, the grades were rechecked by LSA and finally issued this past December.

This time, it was the education department arguing there was no need to delay the release and the board members asking to hold off so LSA again could check its work. Board members directed criticism at Ritz and her team for not ensuring that check was done before the board vote was scheduled.

“Somehow a lack of leadership a lack of attention to detail places us in a really bad position because school superintendents and schools are looking for this info today, and you have not provided some of the key ingredients to us to making a complete decision,” board member David Freitas said.

Board member Andrea Neal said she was surprised department officials did not catch the error with International Baccalaureate results before local school officials noticed problems and did not move more quickly to investigate.

“If they hadn’t caught it, we’d release the wrong grades for other schools,” she said. “It makes sense to take a step back, make sure all grades have been properly given that once over, and it’s a matter of a couple of weeks, so what’s the harm?”

Ritz, however countered the data-checking process worked just as it was supposed to. Each year, she said, a small number of errors are found among the large amounts of data that make up the system, usually when schools notice something out of the ordinary.

“That’s the whole process of the appeal,” she said. “We give over a month for people to appeal so that we can make sure all the data is correct. All the schools are involved.”

Mixed messages

Is the Board of Regents hostile to charter schools? Depends upon whom you ask.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent Collins and Regent Johnson engage in a discussion after a Board of Regents meeting.

When the Board of Regents took the unprecedented step of rejecting two new charter schools last week, it sent shudders through the charter school sector.

Even before the meeting last Monday, the Regents had been making charters “nervous,” said Andrea Rogers, the New York State Director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network. The rejections only heightened the anxiety.

“I think these denials skyrocketed the issue to the front of people’s minds,” she said.  

And yet, during the same meeting, the board praised and signed off on the opening of five other charter schools, which brings the number of new schools approved this year to more than any year since 2013.

The meeting was emblematic of the mixed signals that this Board of Regents have been sending over the last few months, feeding different interpretations among both those who advocate for charter schools and those who champion traditional schools

The board’s willingness to criticize and question charters have many believing the Regents are, at best, skeptics and, at worst, opposed to the publicly funded, privately run schools that they authorize and oversee.

At the same time, the Regents have not been without praise for charters, and some charters say they have appreciated the support of the body and the state’s support staff.

Chancellor Betty Rosa said the Regents’ decisions are evidence of nuance, not rigid ideology or partisanship.

“I think there’s too many times when people want to simply say ‘you’re for’ or ‘you’re against.’ It’s so much more complicated than that,” Rosa told Chalkbeat in an interview Wednesday. “To me, if it’s a wonderful opportunity for kids — you got me. If it’s not, I’m probably going to be your worst enemy.”

As an authorizer, the Board of Regents has the power to approve new schools and decide which of its 87 schools should remain open. In addition to deciding the fate of individual schools, the board is rethinking how it evaluates all of its schools   and whether they should take a closer look at measures like surveys or chronic absenteeism.

With several new members and a relatively new leader, the Regents’ actions have been under particular scrutiny for signs of partisanship. Some have seized on recent events, such as critical statements made by some Regents as charter schools have come before the board for approval or renewal.

One Regent suggested that charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students; another suggested a charter school in Brooklyn is contributing to segregation.

Rosa has fiercely opposed a proposal that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers, calling the idea  “insulting.” The board also rejected a batch of Success Academy renewals, arguing that their authorizer attempted to renew the high-performing but controversial charter schools too soon. (The move had little practical effect, since their authorizer, SUNY, can override the board’s decision.)

Rosa said the sum of these decisions does not mean either she or the board is anti-charter. Her opposition to the teacher certification proposal had nothing to do with the source of the proposal — a charter authorizer — but because, she said, she believes the idea is an affront to the teaching profession and will allow unqualified teachers to enter classrooms.

The Success Academy renewals, she said, were returned based on legal requirements — and were not an appraisal of the charter network.

But taken together, observers of different educational ideologies have concluded that the board is more likely to probe problems with charter schools than in the past.

“It is quite a change from a couple years ago, and it does show greater misgivings about charter schools than what we saw under the board as it was previously constructed,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. (Lowry said he appreciates that the board is paying more attention to how charter schools will affect the funding of surrounding school districts.)

The state’s teachers union has picked up on the change and praised the board for providing more oversight of charter schools, while calling on them to do more.

“The Regents, at this point, are providing much overdue scrutiny of the charter sector,” said NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn. “We believe that the Regents and the state education department need to do more, but this is a good step.”

Charter school advocates agree, seeing the Board of Regents’ actions as worrying. Since the board’s philosophy is hard to pin down, schools are starting to wonder if they can switch authorizers, Rogers said.

Yet there are signs that charters’ fear are based on conclusions that are far too sweeping. As the board rejected two schools outside of New York City, they also lauded applications for schools opening in the city a fact that may suggest differences in how the Regents assess schools in different areas of the state.

Regent Christine Cea welcomed a new school in Staten Island, saying she is “totally in favor of it.” Rosa expressed excitement about a new KIPP school in the Bronx, saying the community has “tremendous support” for its opening.

Rosa said Regents are more thoughtful and involved in reviewing schools now. She suggested that there are educational innovations that can be learned from charter schools, but also offered some critiques. At the top of her list, she worries that charter schools are not well-equipped to serve students with the most severe disabilities.

Several schools that are currently authorized by the board expressed their appreciation for the Board of Regents and those in the state education department’s charter school office who provide technical assistance to schools and create charter school recommendations for the board.

“On our quest to better serve scholars with learning differences, we have found no better ally,” said Eric Tucker, who is a co-founder of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School. “Through technical assistance and oversight, the Regents push public schools like ours to continually improve to better serve the needs of all students, all days.”

Still, said Bob Bellafiore, an education consultant who works with charter schools, several Regents come from district school backgrounds, and so their default attitude is to question charter schools and support the traditional school model.

“They’re much more district school system people,” Bellafiore said.

What's Your Education Story?

Tips for teaching poetry in a women’s prison. ‘Remember, you are not allowed to hug anyone.’

PHOTO: Lwp Kommunikáció, Flickr CC
Inmates at the Indiana Women's Prison.

Adam Henze was one of seven educators who participated in a story slam sponsored by Chalkbeat, Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media and the Indianapolis Public Library on Sept. 5. Every teacher shared stories about their challenges and triumphs in Circle City classrooms.

A poet and educator, Henze read a poem about a day in his life as a poetry instructor at the Indiana Women’s Prison. Henze recounts the painful struggle to reconcile his experiences with the crimes for which his students were serving time — some life sentences for murder

It’s a story full of darkness, but it also offers hope that, as Henze said, “we are the sum of the things that we have done, but we’re also the sum of the things that we have yet to do.”

Check out the video below to hear Henze’s story.

You can find more stories from educators, students and parents here.