By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
The state Department of Education released its controversial A through F letter grades Wednesday for more than 2,000 Indiana schools.
More than 60 percent of the elementary, middle and high schools in Indiana schools received an A or B grade, while nearly 19 percent earned D or F grades. Just more than 20 percent of schools earned the C grade.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, who is up for re-election next Tuesday, hailed the new grading system as a more accurate measure of how schools are performing than the measurements of the past. But he also conceded that the new system has “some complexity” that will make it difficult for parents, students, teachers and others to understand how the grades were reached.
At a meeting of the State Board of Education on Wednesday, Bennett likened the grades to the safety rating system given to cars. “You understand the rating but not everything that goes into it,” Bennett said.
Release of the grades, which are posted on the DOE’s website (doe.in.gov) was approved by the board at its meeting Wednesday. The state board had approved the new grading system earlier this year, over widespread opposition that included schools, community groups and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.
Bennett’s opponent in the race for state superintendent, Indianapolis teacher Glenda Ritz, has been sharply critical of the new school grading system that has been pushed by Bennett, saying it’s based on a complicated formula that uses flawed data to assess student success. Ritz, a Democrat, said schools with poor grades will be unfairly labeled and communities will be harmed.
“My vision does not paint communities as failures when students attending their schools are struggling,” Ritz said in a press release Wednesday, outlining her differences with the Republican Bennett. “Under A-F, Tony Bennett is saying to new businesses and homebuyers, ‘Stay away from this community — it is failing.’”
Indiana’s K-12 schools have been measured and graded in the past, using a system based in part on how many students passed standardized tests. The new system uses a more complex formula of metrics, rewarding schools with bonus points for getting students to make big gains on test scores from year to year.
At the elementary and middle school level, progress made by students from year to year on their standardized test scores play a significant role in the new grading system. At the high school level, college and career readiness indicators, such as Advanced Placement scores, industry certifications, and standardized test scores factor into how the new grades are calculated.
Before the State Board of Education approved release of the grades, Bennett defended the new grading rules. He pointed out that under the new system, 207 schools received A’s for the first time, and that another 28 schools that had received F’s in the past earned grades of C or higher this time.
“These fair and comprehensive measures of school performance demonstrate that school leaders and teachers are focusing on the skills our students need to succeed in their academic and professional careers,” Bennett said. “The results of our new approach to grading schools are already making a measurable difference in student performance, and Indiana’s educators should be celebrated for their hard work and success.”
But some schools also saw their grades drop. Five Indiana schools went from A to F. About 29 percent of schools saw their grades fall at least one grade. The rest either moved up or stayed the same.
Some of the lowest grades went to schools in the state’s largest urban school districts, including the Indianapolis Public Schools. Some of the highest grades went to schools in suburban school districts, such as Zionsville Community Schools, which is located in one of the most affluent counties in the state. Bennett rejected the notion that the grades reflect the amount of wealth or poverty in a school district. He noted, for example, that nearly 85 percent of schools that had raised their past grades by three or four letter marks were in “high-poverty” school districts.
The new grading system has met with opposition from organizations that lobby legislators on behalf of the traditional public schools.
Chuck Little, executive director of the Indiana Urban Schools Association, told The Tribune-Star in Terre Haute that he believes the underlying intent of the new system is to make public schools look bad and drive more state education dollars into charter schools run by private organizations and shore up support for putting more public dollars into the state’s voucher system for private schools.
He was also critical of the new metrics used to calculate the grades, calling a “complex system with errors built into it.”
The school letter grades were scheduled to be publicly released earlier this month, but were delayed to give schools more time to look at the data that was used to calculate the grades. Bennett said more than 140 schools appealed their grades, and 42 percent of those schools had some aspect of their data revised. He said 11 percent of the schools that appealed their initial grade received a grade change based on their appeal.
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at email@example.com.