Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

The Prime Function Of School Letter Grades: Conversation Starter

    Kyle Stokes/StateImpact Indiana

    Ninth graders at George Washington Community High School in Indianapolis. The school received an F rating from the state in 2011.

    This year, 244 Indiana schools received the same rating as they did last year. This year, though, the ratings look and sound different — what were “Academic Progress” ratings in 2010 are equivalent to C’s under the 2011 system.

    The formula for determining the rating didn’t change, but Jon Gubera, the Indiana Department of Education’s chief accountability officer, says letter-grade based rating system set off alarm bells:

    We didn’t hear a word from [schools] while their rating was ‘Academic Progress.’ As soon as we flipped the switch to A, B, C, D and F, they came calling saying ‘Oh my goodness, now we’re a C school?’ Exactly. These grades, because they actually mean something to people, because they can relate to them, drive conversations.

    State officials say a letter grade system will paint a much clearer picture of how well a school is performing and start dialogue about how schools can perform better. But not all civic leaders trust the letter grades will paint any clearer a picture or start a clear-eyed conversation — in fact, they fear the new system could actually distort the picture and muddy the conversation.

    PL 221 Letter Grading System
    The IDOE gave schools letter grade ratings for the first time following the 2010-11 school year. The new letter grades were based on the same calculations as the old rating labels.
    2011 Rating 2010 Rating
    A “Exemplary Progress”
    B “Commendable Progress”
    C “Academic Progress”
    D “Academic Watch”
    F “Academic Probation”

    The Data: Connection Unlikely

    Undergirding Indiana’s overhaul of how its schools are funded and evaluated is the idea that students and state funding should be able to move freely to the best-rated schools.

    So far, though, it’s not clear the ratings are compelling students to move at all.

    State education officials worry families haven’t been able to judge which schools are the best based on their ratings. In fact, data analyzed by StateImpact show there’s likely little connection between a school’s enrollment and its state rating from the year prior.

    Screenshot / IDOE

    The State Board of Education meets in Indianapolis on the morning of October 5. They saw a presentation of a new way to calculate state-issued letter grades for schools.

    ‘The Parent Has To Understand This’

    Gubera and state officials believe that’s because few families could interpret the meaning of rating labels like “Academic Watch” or “Commendable Progress.” (Those are D’s and B’s now, respectively.) A system of letter grades, Gubera says, ensures anyone can see a rating and know how their schools are performing.

    “But do we [know]?” asks education blogger Steve Hinnefeld on School Matters. After all, the Indiana State Board of Education is considering changes to the formula officials use to calculate the letter grades.

    Rather than using only standardized test scores to calculate a school’s letter grade, the new letter grade ratings will also consider how scores for subgroups of students scores change over time, as well as graduation rates and Advanced Placement test scores.

    As Hinnefeld writes, this new formula could also be too complicated for the ratings to mean anything to the community:

    The [new] formula gets a lot more complex… [While deliberating the new ratings,] the board clearly struggled with adopting a system that may be too complex for the general public to understand. “The parent has to understand this,” member David Shane said at one point. “The average person, the businessman, the social service worker out in the community, they have to understand this. I’m not sure I understand this.”

    But Gubera says a rating that’s truly reflective of a school’s performance demands a complicated rating formula, especially if the letter grade it generates is supposed to drive community conversations about a school’s performance.

    “Why is there complexity in the model? Because it’s actually representing what’s being done at the school,” Gubera says.

    Believing In The System

    There’s a critical barrier to starting a community conversation surrounding letter grades: mistrust of the rating system.

    Civic leaders tend to downplay the importance of letter grades in assessing their schools — and in using schools as an economic development selling point. When a school’s rating is bad, it’s easy to blame a system for assigning grades that even the state admits aren’t truly reflective of a school’s performance.

    For example: Hamilton Southeastern and Fishers High Schools both received C’s because of a technicality in the ratings that even the state doesn’t like. But they’re among the top performers on state standardized tests, and a spokesperson for the city of Fishers says the C ratings haven’t undercut good schools as a selling point for the city.


    Columbus, Ind., mayor Fred Armstrong

    In Columbus, Indiana, mayor Fred Armstrong is often in the position of trying to sell the city to people moving to town to work at the some of the city’s biggest companies (it’s home to Cummins, an international engine manufacturer).

    Often they ask about the quality of the schools, but Armstrong says nobody has asked yet why most of the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation’s schools received C’s and D’s on the latest round of state ratings.

    In economic development, Armstrong says schools are clearly a selling point or a deal breaker. Armstrong isn’t convinced the state’s rating system is accurately evaluating schools, and he fears a bad rating could drive a business away from Columbus.

    “Today’s businesses are gonna get on the internet, they’re gonna look you up, and if they see on the front page of the newspaper the corporation gets a C grade, they may just wipe you off the list of cities to go to,” Armstrong says.

    But Indiana Department of Education spokesperson Alex Damron says a letter grade rating system is less likely to scare community members away from underperforming schools as it is to encourage conversation about how to make schools better.

    “We don’t believe folks are going to walk away from their schools, we believe that A-through-F grading will cause people to start walking into their schools and start working with stakeholders to drive improvement at all levels,” Damron says.


    About StateImpact

    StateImpact seeks to inform and engage local communities with broadcast and online news focused on how state government decisions affect your lives.
    Learn More »