By Maureen Hayden CNHI Statehouse Bureau
---- — INDIANAPOLIS — An advisory panel appointed by legislative leaders to review the state’s controversial A-F accountability system has come up with its own proposal for rating schools that keeps the much-criticized letter grades but changes the formula for how those grades are assigned.
Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, who co-chaired the panel, called it a “conceptual framework” for measuring how well schools are doing to improve academic performance and student growth.
“We are in the first phase of what we need to accomplish,” Ritz told a weary 17-member panel that had spent more than eight hours Monday hashing out some final details of the proposed plan. The panel, appointed in September, was on a Nov. 1 deadline to come up a plan to present to the State Board of Education, with whom is Ritz warring over the current A-F model.
Among the changes proposed: A new scoring system based on a 1-100 scale that would include more data for calculating grades, additional testing for students through the 11th grade, and an increased emphasis on graduation rates and college- and career-readiness.
The proposal also includes building in “guardrails” for schools that see a big drop on their accountability grade, to help set them back on a path toward progress.
The proposed plan isn’t simple: At one point during the long meeting Monday, several panel members voiced concerns that the proposed A-F metrics appeared as complicated as the old ones that have come under fire.
“We can’t even get a model that meets our first and simplest goal, which was to make this transparent and easy to understand,” said Brownsburg Community Schools Superintendent Dan Snapp.
Other panel members questioned whether some school officials might “game the system” if the new model allowed some students to escape the mandatory, standardized tests that are a critical component of the current A-F accountability model. Those panel members worried that some school officials would intentionally exclude students likely to do poorly on the tests.
“I think there are some out there (already) gaming the system and shame on them,” said Bluffton High School Principal Steve Baker.
The panel’s goal was to find a formula that could measure how well schools — and their teachers — are performing, but the task wasn’t easy.
Under a mandate by the federal government to come up with a grading system for schools, Indiana and other states are struggling to figure out a way to measure academic progress of students who range widely in their abilities.
“The things we’re looking at — the various ways to measure growth — are still in their infancy,” said panel member Derek Redelman, an education policy analyst with the Indiana Chamber of Commerce. “There is no commonly accepted way of doing it.”
The current A-F grading system has been a lightning rod for criticism since it was rolled out two years ago. During the 2013 session, legislators mandated the State Board of Education come up with a new formula that focused more on measuring individual student growth and less on how those students compared to their peers across the state.
The issue was elevated significantly over the summer, following reports by the Associated Press that Ritz’s predecessor, Republican Tony Bennett, covertly changed the A-F grading system in a way that elevated the scores of 156 schools, including an Indianapolis charter school founded by a wealthy Republican donor.
Ritz, the only statewide elected Democrat in the Statehouse, escalated the A-F controversy even more last week when she filed a lawsuit against the State Board of Education. Ritz contends the bipartisan, appointed board acted illegally when its members signed a letter asking Republican legislative leaders take the A-F grading system away from her department and turn it over to the Legislative Services Agency, the non-partisan research arm of the General Assembly.
Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller, a Republican, has asked for the lawsuit to be dismissed.