Measuring schools

Beyond test scores: Indianapolis considers new ways to measure school quality

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

When Indiana’s school letter grades debuted in 2011, the purpose was to make it easier for the public to understand school quality — but key players in Indianapolis education say simpler is not always better.

Indianapolis Public Schools, in partnership with The Mind Trust and the mayor’s office, are developing “equity reports” that will use different kinds of school data to better inform parents and community members about the quality of roughly 100 schools in the city — both IPS schools and mayor-sponsored charter schools. The new reports will have much more information than the state-issued letter grades, which currently consider little more than student test scores.

“We know parents and families need more than A-F (grades),” said Kameelah Shaheed-Diallo, the senior vice president of strategy and community engagement with The Mind Trust. “This is a tool to give them something more.”

The new reports, expected to roll out in November, are modeled on similar reports used to measure schools in Washington, D.C. They come at time when states nationwide are searching for better ways to measure schools that don’t just rely on standardized tests.

Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which will replace No Child Left Behind next year, states must include “non-academic” indicators in their accountability systems. The problem? Some of the new qualitative metrics are still being developed. They could include metrics such as graduation rates for high schools or things like school attendance or the results of student and staff surveys.

“This is very much a 1.0 moment for those measures,” said Thomas Dee, a professor from Stanford University’s graduate school of education. “I applaud efforts to pilot innovation, but I guess for me it’s not just about data. It’s about how it’s used, and my concern is that, if it just sits on a website, that it’s going to be under-utilized by parents and by school leaders and by taxpayers.”

The equity reports are one of two efforts underway in Indianapolis to develop a better school measurement systems — both for parents to make more informed school enrollment decisions and for schools to better reflect on what they need to improve. Equity reports are the parent- and community-facing piece.

Some of the data that will be used for the reports is already available from the Indiana Department of Education, but the reports will compile the information in an easy-to-find way that is more user-friendly, said Aleesia Johnson, the IPS’s innovation chief.

“The equity reports to me will be a way in which information is sort of packaged in a more transparent and clear way, both for (district) schools and public charter schools as well as for families,” Johnson said.

Both IPS and The Mind Trust are the process of meeting with community groups to find out exactly what parents want to know. Information on school leadership, discipline and attendance are already on the table.

IPS and the mayor’s office teamed up with The Mind Trust on this project after receiving a grant from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation that is geared toward creating a unified school enrollment system. The reports will be folded into that system as an extra service for parents as they choose schools for their children.

That grant is also funding a second effort on school measurement that is designed to help schools internally assess how well they’re helping students.

The second effort is driven by UChicago Impact, a nonprofit group affiliated with the University of Chicago has been using school climate and culture surveys in Chicago schools for years. The Chicago model — currently being piloted in 20 IPS schools and 20 mayor-sponsored charter schools — is based on a theory about the “five essentials.” Those are five qualities that strong schools share, said Elliot Ransom, the director of the five essentials efforts at UChicago Impact.

According to the group’s research, if schools rate high on three of the five measures — effective leaders, collaborative teachers, involved families, supportive environment, ambitious instruction — they are 10 times more likely to see student improvement than schools that are weak in those areas. But just having the data isn’t enough if you don’t act on it, he said.

“Educators are awash in data at this point in time, and it’s sometimes hard to make sense of what we should pay attention to,” Ransom said “It was foolhardy to think that you give something to someone and they suddenly change. So part of that is making (the data) public because the conversation will fundamentally change about school quality.”

After seeing some progress in Chicago, the state of Illinois voted in 2013 to include the five essentials in tracking school quality. While Illinois’ accountability system doesn’t use explicit ratings like Indiana’s, Ransom said, the commitment from the state shows that Indiana, too, could use such information in a large-scale way.

Dee, the expert from Stanford, urges states to be open to new ideas and to experiment but warns educators against putting too much stock in qualitative measures. Surveys, in particular, can be tricky to use because people don’t always give honest answers.

“You would worry about low response rate, you would worry about the extent to which people filling out the surveys really understood what they were responding to,” Dee said. “So there’s concern there.”

For now, both the equity reports and the UChicago surveys are only funded through the end of this year. Whether they’ll continue next year will depend on whether parents and educators find them valuable and whether anyone is willing to pay for them in the future.

If the new measures are popular, they could serve as a model for the state education department as it expands Indiana’s new accountability system.

The state’s new A-F grading system does factor student test score improvement, graduation rates, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses and college readiness in a school’s grade, which means the system meets most of the new federal school accountability requirements for high school students. But state officials still have work to do to come up with metrics that go beyond test scores for elementary and middle schools.

Cynthia Roach, testing director for the Indiana State Board of Education, said the state is weighing its options, but no decisions have been made. Coming up with test alternatives and non-test based metrics is one of the goals of the new state panel that was created by lawmakers this year to explore a new accountability systems for Indiana schools after ISTEP is retired next year.

There haven’t been any conversations at the state level about how either of these new pilots might address gaps in Indiana’s accountability system, but the potential is there, said the Mind Trust’s Shaheed-Diallo.

“Changing the state accountability is a bigger lift than I think we have capacity for, but I think it gets to this demand question,” Shaheed-Diallo said. “If people know there are other ways to measure (schools), perhaps it does create additional momentum for those conversations.”

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

These are the 13 education bills poised to become law in Indiana in 2018

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
House Speaker Brian Bosma talks with Democrats shortly before the session adjourned without passing several bills.

Despite a chaotic end to this year’s legislative session, lawmakers managed to push through several education bills that could bring changes for teachers, students and schools.

And it’s not quite over either.

Lawmakers ran out of time before their midnight deadline last week, leaving behind several major bills, including a bill that would expand state takeover in Gary and Muncie school districts. On Monday, Gov. Eric Holcomb announced he’d be calling for a special session so they could revisit that issue and others.

In non-budget year, it can be hard to make significant change because money is generally not available to fund new programs or increase existing ones. This year, the biggest education issue lawmakers passed was a bill to make up an unexpected shortfall in school funding.

Below is a summary of education bills that passed this session, which next head to Holcomb, where he can decide whether to sign them into law. You can find the status of all the bills introduced this year here, and Chalkbeat’s 2018 legislative coverage here.

Graduation and workforce

Senate Bill 50 establishes the governor’s workforce cabinet, which would oversee job training efforts across the state. The cabinet would create a “career navigation and coaching system,” which all Indiana high schools would be required to participate in. State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick would be a cabinet member.

House Bill 1426 would combine Indiana’s four diplomas into a single diploma with four “designations” that mirror current diploma tracks. In addition, it would change rules for getting a graduation waiver and create an “alternate diploma” for students with severe special needs.The bill would also allow the Indiana State Board of Education to consider alternatives to Algebra 2 as a graduation requirement. It makes several changes to state tests, replacing the state high school exam with a national college-entrance exam and eliminating the requirement that schools give the Accuplacer remediation test. The final version of the bill also changes the timing of testing from earlier version. Students wouldn’t begin the new graduation pathways plan until 2021, so the same deadline was applied to switching to a college entrance exam for state accountability. Until then, state education officials will have to decide what annual test high schoolers take when students in grades 3-8 switch to the new ILEARN test next year.


House Bill 1001 would close the gap in school funding that resulted from miscalculations in the number of students attending public schools. The bills would let the state transfer up to $25 million this year and up to $75 million next year from a reserve fund to the state general fund, where it could then be distributed to districts. The bill also calls for a study of virtual education programs within school districts.


Senate Bill 172 would require public schools to offer computer science classes as an elective in high schools, as well as a part of the science curriculum for all K-12 students, by 2021. The bill also sets up a grant program to help pay for teacher training in computer science.

Senate Bill 297 would require schools to include “employability skills,” also known as “soft skills,” in their curriculums. The idea for the bill came from David Freitas, a member of the state board of education.

Senate Bill 65 would require school districts to let parents examine any instructional materials dealing with sex education. It would also require schools to send out consent forms for sex ed classes, where parents could then opt students out of the class. If they do not, the students would still receive instruction.

House Bill 1399 would require the state board to create elementary teacher licenses in math and science. It would also require the state education department to create an incentive program to reward teachers who earn the content area licenses.

Senate Bill 387 would allow districts to pay teachers different amounts and give special education and science teachers extra stipends in an effort to fill jobs. A previous measure that would let districts hire up to 10 percent of unlicensed teachers has been added and removed several times this year, and was killed for good in conference committee. The bill also makes changes to the state’s career specialist permit. Career specialists would have to pass an exam showing they understand how students learn and the practice of teaching, in addition to content exams. The bill also removes a provision from the current version of the permit that says a career specialist must have a bachelor’s degree in the area they wish to teach in.


House Bill 1420, among several other measures, would not let a student who has been expelled from a virtual charter school for non-attendance re-enroll in that same school during the same school year.

House Bill 1421 would ask the state education department to develop a school discipline model that reduces suspensions and expulsions, especially among students of color. It also requires the department to provide guidance and information to districts, beginning in 2019, that want to use that model. It encourages the legislative council to study positive student discipline and restorative justice and asks the education department to survey districts on those practices.

House Bill 1398 would allow a group of charter schools and districts to form a “coalition” to pursue innovative academic strategies. Coalition members could also waive certain state requirements, such as the requirement that students pass Algebra 2 to graduate.

Senate Bill 217 would require districts and charter schools to screen students for dyslexia and by 2019, to employ at least one reading specialist trained in dyslexia, among other provisions.

House Bill 1314 would set up data sharing between the state’s education and child services departments. It would also require that the Indiana State Board of Education release an annual report about foster and homeless youth education.

'A Significant Change'

Done doing ‘more with less,’ Brighton district will move to a four-day school week

PHOTO: Seth McConnell/The Denver Post
Students in Alicia Marquez's 6th grade science class at Overland Trail Middle School in Brighton watch a video and work on home work in August 2017. (Photo by Seth McConnell/The Denver Post)

Students in the Brighton school district will attend school just four days a week starting next school year.

Officials with the fast-growing district north of Denver announced they were considering the change earlier this year after voters turned down a request in November for more local taxes, the latest in a string of defeats for District 27J. This week, they made it official.

There are already 87 school districts in Colorado that use a four-day week at all their schools, but until recently, the phenomenon was largely limited to rural districts. Brighton will be the largest school district in the state on a four-day week

In response to the concerns of working parents, the district will offer paid child care for elementary-aged children every Monday, when school is closed, officials said. Teachers will work some Mondays on planning and professional development.

The change is expected to save the district about $1 million a year, but Brighton Superintendent Chris Fiedler previously told Chalkbeat that the biggest benefit will be “to attract and retain teachers” in a district whose salaries are among the lowest in the metro area.

“I realize this will be a significant change for our students, their families, and the communities we are so fortunate to serve, but our district can no longer be expected to do more with less financial resources,” Fiedler said in a press release.

A mill levy override, a type of property tax increase, hasn’t been approved in District 27J since 2000. A 16th request for more revenue failed in November.

“We are 100 percent committed to providing our students with the necessary skills and competencies that will enable a future far beyond graduation,” Fiedler said. “To that end, I believe it is in our students’ best interest to provide high-quality, engaged teachers using 21st Century tools for learning four days a week rather than not have them five days a week.”

Local union president Kathey Ruybal told Chalkbeat that teachers showed “overwhelming support” for the change.