IPS overhauled high schools. Now, the state is giving them a fresh start on A-F

Four Indianapolis Public Schools high schools that were overhauled this year as part of a district-wide reconfiguration are getting a fresh start from the state.

The changes at the schools were so extensive, state officials determined, that they were given new identification numbers and all their data, including their state letter grades, was wiped clean through a little-known process called a “baseline reset.” On the state website for school data, George Washington, Crispus Attucks, Shortridge, and Arsenal Technical high schools appear as though they opened this year.

The decision is the latest reprieve Indianapolis Public Schools has gotten from state accountability as it has overhauled schools and begun new partnerships with charter networks over the last four years. While the results for students are still unfolding, the changes have allowed the district to remake its image — and boost A-F grades for schools, many of which are graded based on a more generous measure that focuses on student growth on state tests for three years.

The practice raises thorny issues. Critics point out that schools that reset can receive an advantage when it comes to school letter grades, and a clean slate can obscure whether the changes are working. Ultimately, that can make it harder for prospective parents and students to assess schools.

“I think that we need to have more transparency,” said Bob Behning, House Education Committee chairman. “How would we know whether the [schools are] making any progress since all the rest of the data has been basically erased?”

State and local officials say the reset makes sense for the high schools in Indianapolis Public Schools because they have changed so dramatically. After years of middling academic results and decades of declining enrollment at high schools, the district last year closed three campuses, uprooted staff, and created a new system for students to choose their schools.

Ultimately, one of the goals of accountability is to improve schools, said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank. In that sense, it is fulfilling its aim by pushing Indianapolis Public Schools officials to make dramatic changes.

“They took this very bold step in closing basically half the high schools in the district,” he said. “That’s a deep and meaningful change.”

The district has closed some of its lowest-performing high schools over the last two years. Before the reset, the Indianapolis Public Schools campuses that have remained open had mixed grades from the state. George Washington had a D from the state and was previously in a transformation zone designed to help low performing schools improve. Tech received a C last year, and both Shortridge and Attucks earned Bs.

In future years, the schools could get an advantage when it comes to letter grades: Like new schools and new innovation schools, campuses that have had a reset of the baseline have the opportunity to be graded on a scale that only includes students growth on tests, not their proficiency. That typically leads to better grades for schools.

It’s not common to get a baseline reset. Over the last nine years, 29 schools have had their data reset, according to the Indiana Department of Education. That’s a small fraction of the schools in the state and only about 25 percent of those that applied. This year, 18 schools applied, including 14 South Bend campuses that were denied.

The only other applications this year came from Indianapolis Public Schools, which had all four of its applications approved.

When schools apply, staff from the department evaluate whether they meet a three-prong test laid out by state regulations. To qualify, schools must show they have had a 70 percent change in enrollment and that there was a significant change in educational philosophy, curriculum, or staffing. Finally, the changes cannot have been made to avoid accountability.

Although some schools like Attucks and Shortridge have the same principals as before the restructuring and some of the same magnet programs, the combined shifts were enough to meet the “significant change” threshold, said Maggie Paino, the director of accountability for the Indiana Department of Education. For example, schools can show significant changes through a combination of new staff and new choice programs.

“It’s not something we take lightly when we are looking at this,” Paino said. “We have tried to make the rubric as objective as possible.”

The Indiana Department of Education declined to release the form showing how the committee made its decisions on the Indianapolis Public Schools campuses, but it did provide the district’s application with evidence to support the reset.

Nearly 40 percent of teachers at Indianapolis Public Schools high schools were new to their campuses this year, according to data provided to the state by the district. And schools added specialized programs, such as the teaching and learning academy at Attucks, as part of a new model that requires students to choose their school based on focus area rather than a neighborhood.

The district also provided data to the state that indicated the high schools would have more than 70 percent changes in enrollment, including students entering and leaving, if incoming freshman were included in the number of new students.

“We decided to go for the baseline resets for the four high schools because they were changing dramatically,” said interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson. “It was important for us to pursue a reset because they are fundamentally sort of differently structured, organized schools.”

Baseline resets aim to give a fresh start to schools that have changed so much that there would be a clear break in the data picture, said John Keller, the department of education’s chief technology officer. In situations such as when schools consolidate, enrollment might jump and prior performance data would no longer be as relevant. If the old data remained, there would need to be an asterisk explaining the changes to the public, he said.

State officials are aware there’s an incentive for schools that have chronically low letter grades to apply for resets. And one of the prongs of the test specifically requires schools to show they are not making changes to avoid accountability.

But it can be a tricky issue to “suss out,” Keller said, because when performance is low, schools are more likely to take pretty drastic measures to improve — the same kinds of changes that might make them eligible for a reset.

When a school’s history is erased after significant shifts, it makes it hard for the public to judge whether the schools are improving, said Christy Hovanetz, Senior Policy Fellow for accountability with ExcelinEd, a think tank that supports school accountability. But, ultimately, state and district officials can still see the underlying data.

When it comes to assessing whether overhauls are working, she said, “my hope would be that the state and the district are doing their diligence.”