November 1, 2012

Grading Progress

State releases grades for schools based on new metric system

by Sarah Einselen

— After Columbia Elementary School received a failing grade from the Indiana Department of Education yesterday, school superintendent Michele Starkey took issue with the grading metric’s reliance on the annual ISTEP standardized test for issuing grades to elementary and middle schools.

And she wasn’t the only superintendent to criticize the metric.

IDOE released school grades Wednesday morning after the state Board of Education gave them its final approval. Most of the schools in Cass County and the surrounding area either remained at the same level as they achieved last year or improved a letter grade.

The exceptions were Galveston Elementary School, which moved from an A to a D; Thompson Elementary, which fell to a C from last year’s B; and Columbia Elementary School in Logansport, which fell from a C to an F — a grade that only 7.1 percent of all schools in Indiana were given.

This year’s grades aren’t based on the same metric as last year’s, however. While last year’s were based only on passing rates for standardized tests, this year’s grades incorporate a new metric measuring student growth on standardized test scores among groups of students drawn from across the state, as well as measuring student proficiency on the tests.

“While the assignment of grades is usually easy to assign and understand, this is very complex and is not a true representation of everything that goes on in a school,” said Starkey. Before yesterday’s release, administrators had not been able to estimate what grades would be for the elementary and middle schools, either, in part because of the grade’s new student growth metric.

Columbia Elementary’s grade came because students didn’t show enough growth, she said, compared to students across the state who had similar scores on the ISTEP.

“It’s not a true reflection of what’s going on over there,” said Starkey. “When they got the information, it was devastating to them. They work very hard and they’re doing a lot of the right things.”

The good news, she said, was that the corporation’s other grades were acceptable. Logansport Community High School improved its score to a B from a D. Columbia Middle School and Lincoln Middle School both got Cs; Franklin and Fairview elementaries got A grades; and Landis Elementary got a B.

All Saints School, a small nonpublic school located in Logansport, received an A. Principal James McNeany expressed pride in the achievement of students and teachers at the school, but said the growth metric was “not really valid” from a research standpoint.

Elsewhere in Cass County, rural schools earned a mix of Bs, Cs and Ds.

Lewis Cass Junior-Senior High School and Thompson Elementary School both earned C grades, while Galveston Elementary got a D, a stark difference from last year’s A grade received under the old metric.

That’s “ludicrous,” said John Bevan, superintendent of Southeastern School Corporation, made up of Lewis Cass, Thompson and Galveston.

“There’s a whole bunch of reasons” for that criticism, he said. “I don’t care if we’d have gotten A’s. I just don’t think the system is statistically sound.”

In Bevan’s opinion, measuring growth — improvement over time — should be based on what’s technically called “criterion testing” against hard benchmarks: in other words, “you get there or you don’t get there. You got to the mark, you exceeded the mark, you didn’t get to the mark.”

What the state is using now is what’s called “norm-referenced testing.”

“That says no matter how much I grew, I am now being compared to another group and how well they did,” Bevan said. “That’s not statistically sound.”

Pioneer superintendent Dave Bess had the same issue with the growth model.

“It’s relative to how everybody fared,” Bess said, much like grading a class on a bell curve. “I remember that from my undergrad days, and sometimes I fared pretty well and sometimes I didn’t.”

Pioneer Junior-Senior High School got a C and Pioneer Elementary got a B.

Fulton County’s Caston School Corporation fared worse this year. Both the junior-senior high and the elementary schools received D grades, to superintendent Dan Foster’s consternation.

“Well, naturally we are not pleased with our ‘grade,’” Foster said. “The whole process of these grades this year has just been one issue after another.”

In a three-page letter Foster wrote to parents, he pointed out that Caston Elementary had an A under last year’s metric and the junior-senior high school had gotten a C.

“Meetings have taken place, data discussed, and changes implemented for this school year that we believe will make a positive difference,” Foster wrote. However, he added, “we truly have no idea what all went in to the grades we are assigned.”

He, too, criticized the norm-referenced model for the student growth part of the metric.

In Carroll County, schools earned no grades lower than a B, like 61 percent of schools statewide.

Carroll Junior-Senior High School earned a B and Carroll Elementary got an A.

“Our performance is comparable to what it has been over the last few years,” said Carroll superintendent Chris Lagoni. “The biggest difference is now the school accountability matrix is focused on student growth, not just achievement.”

“As a core concept, measuring growth of a student or students is fairer than just comparing performance,” he said, but plenty of educators and parents alike have become confused over how that growth is measured. “If educators and parents understood what criteria helped establish the cutoffs, it might help with the confusion.”

Delphi Community High School and Middle School both got Bs, while Delphi’s elementary got an A. Superintendent Ralph Walker was unavailable for comment.

Schools in Winamac received grades similar to the Carroll County schools. Winamac Community High School and Eastern Pulaski Elementary School both got A grades, and the middle school received a B.

Robert Klitzman, superintendent of the Eastern Pulaski Community School Corporation in Winamac, echoed Lagoni’s preference for including growth in the measure, but likewise had reservations about the particular method the state used to measure growth.

• Sarah Einselen is news editor for the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached at or 574-732-5151.