Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

What They're Saying About Indiana's New A-F School Letter Grades

Elle Moxley / StateImpact Indiana

State superintendent Tony Bennett shakes hands with students assembled at a press event in Broad Ripple High School on Indianapolis' north side.

To mark the release of Indiana’s 2012 A-F school letter grades, state superintendent Tony Bennett stopped by Broad Ripple High School — a school that, after years of consecutive F’s, received a B this year.

It matched Bennett’s message to press assembled at the Indianapolis magnet school: The state’s letter grades, he says, represent “positive news” overall about Indiana schools’ performance. 

“You went from an F to a B through the hard work of your teachers, your students and the Broad Ripple school community. I want to congratulate everyone for this work,” Bennett said.

Broad Ripple’s jump from F to B — no doubt aided in part by a state-led intervention that began in the school last year — was not typical statewide. Predictions of widespread declines in schools’ letter grades in the first year of a new model for calculating the A-F ratings didn’t pan out, either. As we pointed out earlier, three in four schools’ ratings were unchanged from last year or different by only one letter.

“These new measurements… by a long shot, we believe, are much better than the old measurements,” Bennett told the State Board of Education Wednesday.

Delays & Concerns

Some remain concerned about the new formula used to determine the grades. Bennett’s opponent in the election next week, Glenda Ritz, questioned the validity of the recently-debuted “growth model” and offered her own alternative.

“It’s going to cost a lot less to have a system that actually tells us the true reading levels, the true writing levels, the true math levels of each student and their actual improvement to themselves,” Ritz told StateImpact. “I want to simplify it. I want to give the teachers more time to teach.”

But objections to the growth model — which places less emphasis on the rate at which a school’s student body passes statewide tests and more emphasis on individual students’ improvement — predate election season.

Before the State Board of Education approved the new letter grades in February, more than 30 speakers (including some traditional Bennett allies) rose to criticize the growth model during a public comment period.

“Schools have become so accustomed and so focused on their data… and that’s a very positive thing. I had a former superintendent that said this process has forced schools to know their data like never before.”
—Tony Bennett, state superintendent

“Statistically speaking, everyone disagrees with how that formula is being applied,” Merrillville Schools superintendent Tony Lux told The Times of Northwest Indiana.

One local district administrator, Judy DeMuth, complained to StateImpact about delays in the letter grades’ release, which she attributed to basic errors in the state’s data. State officials say they delayed the release and extended appeals windows to make sure all districts’ questions were answered.

Vigo County Schools superintendent Danny Tanoos told us yesterday in an interview he felt the letter grades diverted attention from the schools’ educational goals:

[The] A-F [grading system] is a distraction for Department of Education employees. It’s a distraction for our school administrators. It’s demoralizing walk into schools. I had schools who were an A, an A, an A, now they’re a D. Now you go and tell that staff you’re a D after getting three A’s. I think it’s demoralizing to the staff. I think it puts them in a situation where they feel underappreciated… It really comes down to this for me: I think that I don’t need a grading system. All I need is a vehicle to go in and look at our scores, aggregate the information, look it over, see what our strengths and weaknesses are and attack those weaknesses to meet the needs of those kids who are the lowest level of learners.

Bennett Addresses Delays

During Wednesday morning’s session of the State Board, Bennett addressed districts’ concerns about delays in the letter grade release:

We wanted to get this right. These are new data sets. These are new data points that schools have had to drill into, that our staff has had to drill into, and that we’ve worked very closely with schools to make sure that their designations are correct. So it has taken us a while to work through the appeals.

Let me give you some statistical perspective. This year we had 140 appeals that were brought to the department. In comparison, we had 83 last year, and we had 138 in 2010. This year, as we drilled into this data and as schools drilled into this data, 42 percent of those appeals were at least partially approved.

Let me explain what I mean by ‘partially approved.’ Schools have become so accustomed and really so focused on their data that they drilled into data that may not affect their letter grade. They just wanted to be certain that the right data was for the right students and that they understood which students are getting growth, which students should be counted, those types of things. And that’s a very positive thing… Of that 42 percent, 11 percent changed a grade.

Bennett also told the State Board Wednesday the new grading system — as a result of a waiver from the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Model — removed restrictions that previously lowered more than 300 Indiana schools’ letter grades for failing to meet some federal requirements:

AYP caps meant you only get a C if subgroups didn’t meet certain levels. We had a number of traditionally high performing schools capped at a C because of that federal requirement. With this waiver, we are now able to prove those are A schools. There is a swing of schools up from C to A because they are no longer capped at C. That’s another product of this model.

‘Give It A Shot’?

While the number of schools that showed improvements as drastic as Broad Ripple’s were few and far between, Bennett noted that most of the schools that increased their ratings by three or four letter grades were “high poverty” schools.

“This is a time to celebrate success,” Bennett said.

Though concerns about the A-F grading model lingered into Wednesday’s release of the ratings, Jonathan Plucker, executive director of IU’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, told StateImpact in February the state’s created a model “that should be given a shot”:

I am a little surprised about the number of criticisms that we’ve heard about it… I just don’t get where the urgent panic is coming from. We’ve been floating these ideas for a long time now. The fact that the federal government really liked it, I think speaks volumes to the fact that we’re probably on to something here. People right, left and center seem to have problems with the system, which in my contrarian nature, I say, maybe we should be trying this then.


  • Susie Highley

    Why is nobody mentioning that last year Broad Ripple’s score included the middle school students, and this year it didn’t? How much money is being paid to Scholastic and all of the consultants who have been flown in to teach the staff things like “think-pair-share” and take credit for the improvement? How many of the students are the same ones who were there last year?

    • kystokes

      It’s interesting you point that out about the middle school students. I did remark upon that earlier, but not on the blog. I know IPS fought that point with the community high schools hard last year.

      As to consultants, I’m not sure.

      As to students who were there last year, I’m not sure what student turnover at Broad Ripple was like. Wasn’t under the impression that it was as high as at Howe, Manual, Arlington or Donnan.

    • Karynb9

      Plus, my understanding is that Scholastic personnel didn’t even set foot in Broad Ripple until December because it took so long for the contract to be hammered out with the state. It took about another month (after Christmas Break) for them to finish their “preliminary assessments” and actually begin working with the staff members. The first round of ISTEP was the first week of March. I don’t think we should be too quick to let this “turnaround process” take the credit for Broad Ripple’s “improvement” last year.

  • Karynb9

    Since the entire methodology of grading the schools changed, how can you (a collective “you” there) compare ANY school’s grade from previous years to this year? It’s like saying that a student is getting smarter because he got a D on the math test in the first grading period, an F on the math test in the second grading period, a D on the math test in the third grading period, but a B on his final spelling test. Sure, it looks great that Broad Ripple went from an F for six straight years to a B last year…but who’s to say that some of those previous F grades wouldn’t have been Bs if the new grading system had been in place over the past six years???

    • kystokes

      That’s a good point. I think there is an apples-to-oranges argument to be made on the school/micro level. (See also: Susie’s great point about combined middle/high schools.)
      There’s a separate macro-level discussion to have, too, about whether the model is valid — there’s a lot of concern and continuing discussion on that front. Not all of the concern was based on fears that grades would see widespread decline, but it was one of the significant fears. In that sense, a comparison of grade distributions and the changes in letter grades from last year to this year is relevant.

  • inteach

    ” People right, left and center seem to have problems with the system,
    which in my contrarian nature, I say, maybe we should be trying this

    It’s so wrong it must be right.

  • Jenny Robinson

    The grades are an affront to our hard-working teachers and students. We should neither praise those schools which received A’s nor apologize for those which received F’s.

    As a parent, I am interested in a number of aspects of a school. What is the average educational attainment of the teachers there? How experienced are they? What is the philosophy of education espoused by the school leadership? Is it a caring environment where students learn that adults in authority genuinely care about them? Do students have opportunities to explore and reflect, as well as to learn processes and master content? Is there a commitment to making lessons relevant, meaningful, and engaging? Are there field trips and chances to get involved with the broader community? Is there enough recess and physical activity to promote healthy minds and bodies?

    These grades say nothing about any of those issues. At the elementary level, they are based on ISTEP scores, with some bonuses and demerits for students’ “growth” relative to those at other schools in the state. And ISTEP scores tend to correlate to the affluence of the community tested. In my district, the local paper just ran a story about the dramatic jump in the number of children whose families are homeless at a school the DOE calls failing. All the DOE wants to know about, to grade that school, are those kids’ ISTEP scores. Retired educators tell me that the student turnover at the other “failing” school, in any given year, is 50%–the school serves a population with unstable home lives. With that rate of mobility, how can change in test performance from one year to the next even be considered valid?

    This shameful process affects us all. It affects how our community will judge our schools. It affects families’ willingness to move into neighborhoods. I have several friends with children at one of our “F” schools. Each of them has told me only positive things about their children’s experiences there. But, if this year is like the last, these scores will be posted on the doors of the schools. Real estate agents will talk about them with clients.

    It will affect the quality of our schools, as the process will force them to focus on scores more than ever. It will affect how many young people choose to go into teaching. It will affect the rates of teacher retirement.

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