Indiana lawmakers might end the two-tiered system for grading innovation schools

New innovation schools in Indianapolis Public Schools might no longer receive high marks from the state despite low test scores under a new Republican-led proposal to drop the more generous grading scale.

Rep. Bob Behning, the House Education Committee chairman, told committee members on Wednesday that state law allowing the schools to be graded in their first three years just on student test score improvement — rather than improvement and the test scores themselves — lack transparency. While brand-new schools deserve this grace period, he said, schools that join innovation networks might or might not undergo dramatic changes and shouldn’t get the same break.

Known as a “growth-only grade,” the state’s school rating law says district and charter schools that join innovation networks can receive a more generous assessment from the state by only using growth to drive grades for their first three years in the network. That could mean that a school where few students pass state tests could still get high marks if those students make big gains from one year to the next.

“Growth-only distorts the performance of the school,” Behning said.

Read: Why it’s hard to compare Indianapolis schools under the A-F grading system

Part of Behning’s concern stems from how parents might interpret the grades — they were created to be easy to understand, but parents and community members might not be familiar with how growth-only grades differ from typical ones.

It’s a model that has boosted grades in Indianapolis Public Schools. Of the 11 out of 70 Indianapolis Public Schools campuses that received A grades from the state in 2018, eight were rated based on growth alone. Those include a school in its first year of operation and seven innovation schools, some of which had previously had years of low grades. Traditional neighborhood and magnet schools that had similar or better growth scores received Bs, Cs, and Ds. If schools get too many years of bad grades, they can face state intervention.

Under Behning’s proposal, instead of a grade based on growth, schools in their first three years of innovation status would have their scores for test proficiency and growth posted publicly, but they’d be able to request a “null” grade from the state — a move typically reserved for schools too small to receive a grade or for those with other special circumstances. The bill would not affect current rules from the state board of education that say any school in its first three years of being open can opt for a growth-only grade.

Currently, only Indianapolis Public Schools and Gary Public Schools have innovation networks in their districts. IPS began its innovation network more than three years ago as a way to improve long-struggling schools. In the networks, districts allow school leaders to shed certain rules and regulations and work with outside nonprofit or charter partners.

Charter schools can also join districts as innovation schools, which allows them to retain their structure but potentially bring in some local funding. Their test scores and other student data also count as part of the district’s results. Innovation school teachers are not part of the district’s union.

Ahmed Young, chief of staff for IPS, said it was still too early to say if the Behning’s proposal is a good idea. He did not testify on the bill Wednesday, and he said the district has “different ways to advocate.”

“It’s still early in the process, and we’re working with Rep. Behning and other stakeholders to make sure we can create an environment where our schools are telling an accurate story as it relates to how they are performing,” Young said.

He said the current growth-only grades don’t necessarily lack transparency, but they show one snapshot of a school, just as students’ postgraduate choices and test scores show snapshots.

Initially, the rule change allowing innovation schools to use growth-only grades saw strong support when it was passed in 2016. At the time, IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said it was a “fresh start” for the schools, some of which do undergo big changes to staff and structure when they join the innovation network.

But some schools are not restarted when they become innovation schools. That means that schools like Cold Spring and KIPP Indy were graded based on the growth-only scale when they became innovation schools despite having the same leaders and many of the same teachers and students as before they converted.

The bill will be considered for a vote on Monday at the earliest.