November 18, 2012

Fixing grading system

by Kelly Hawes

— The argument over Logansport High School’s grade in the state’s evaluation system is a perfect example of what’s wrong with the system.

Logansport administrators say they have run the numbers, and they believe the school qualifies for a grade of B in the state’s A-F scoring system.

The Indiana Department of Education counters that it, too, has run the numbers and the school qualifies for a C.

It doesn’t really matter all that much who’s right and who’s wrong. The problem is that we’re having this discussion in the first place.

Glenda Ritz, the newly elected superintendent of public instruction, says the formula for determining these grades is so complicated that even the Indiana Department of Education doesn’t understand it. Her first priority on taking office should be to change that.

The process also needs to be quicker. It’s ridiculous that schools are more than halfway through the first semester before they find out how they scored the previous school year.

How can schools effectively address their shortcomings when they find out so far into the school year the issues they need to address?

There is no reason state officials should not be able to hand out these grades at least by mid-summer, preferably sooner.

How would the state react if schools were this slow in evaluating their students? Teachers are expected to calculate student grades in a matter of days, not weeks or months. Why shouldn’t the state be held to a similar standard when it comes to grading schools?

The state also needs to take a look at fairness. Schools should have a reasonable chance at success regardless of their demographics.

It does not speak well of the state’s scoring system that the bulk of failing schools are in areas of high poverty and most top-rated schools are in suburban school districts with many more affluent households.

State officials need to find a way to level the playing field, to measure the progress schools are making in overcoming whatever challenges they face.

The state took a good first step this year when it began to consider student growth in its evaluation system. That, after all, is what this scoring system should be all about.

Are the students learning? Are they making progress? Did they score better this year than they did the year before?

The problem with the state’s scoring system is that it gives students credit for “high growth” only if their gain is better than two-thirds of all students at their testing level. That means that only a third of Indiana students will get such credit regardless of how much they improve.

What’s the point of that?

The knock on these assessments from the beginning has been their emphasis on passing rates. Certainly, we want our students to pass standardized tests. We want them to display a grasp of the basics.

But we also want them to learn.

Which should be the measure of success? Maintaining a high passing rate on statewide tests or showing progress from one year to the next?

My argument is that it should be the latter.

This is particularly true for school corporations such as Logansport with a high number of students who struggle academically. If a student scores better than he or she did a year ago, that should benefit a school’s rating, even if he or she fails the test. If the student scores worse, that should be chalked up as a negative, even if he or she passes the test.

The goal for all schools should be to teach, to deliver knowledge to their students. And their success in accomplishing that should be the measuring stick by which all schools are judged.

If the state’s new school superintendent accomplishes nothing else in her tenure, I hope she will accomplish that.

Kelly Hawes is managing editor of the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached at 574-732-5155 or