The basics of education in Indiana

The basics of A-F grading in Indiana: Changes and controversy

PHOTO: Shannan Muskopf via Flickr

(This story is one in a series exploring the basics of key issues in education in Indiana. For a list of the issues and links to the other stories in the series, go here.)

The letter-grade system for Indiana schools—rolled out in 2011—was designed to make education easier to understand. Parents, the thinking went, could easily read the A through F grades and know which schools were performing well and which had more work to do. Then they could make decisions accordingly. Simple.

But the initiative has been anything but simple. Instead, since 2011, the new grading scheme has been repeatedly at the center of fierce debates.

Twice, state officials overhauled the grading formula. And in 2013, controversy erupted over allegations that school grades were manipulated by former state Superintendent Tony Bennett for political reasons.

In 2015, Indiana will try once again to change the school-grading formula—this time with the goal of making the grades better reflect how well schools are preparing students for college or careers. It’s the latest in a long run of adjustments to the way schools are judged by the state.

Making changes

The state has categorized schools for years based on the percentage of students that pass state tests in math and English. Schools with less than 60 percent passing state tests were placed on “academic probation.” Categories changed at 70, 80 and 90 percent passing. While there was not a traditional “growth” measure for test score improvement, gains in percent passing over the prior year could earn schools extra credit.

In 2011, Indiana replaced its old rating categories with A to F grades — “exemplary” became an A, “commendable” a B, “academic progress” a C, “academic watch” a D and “academic probation” an F.

Bennett’s goal, he said, was to make school grades more understandable. For parents, a label with a name like “academic watch” might not make it clear how the school’s test scores suggested it was performing, Bennett argued. But replacing those words with a “D” grade would clarify that the school was truly in need of improvement, perhaps prompting new urgency for change, he said.

Critics fought the change, saying letter grades could have harmful effects. Labeling a troubled school an “F,” for instance, might demoralize students and staff, confounding efforts to improve the schools, some argued. High-rated schools were sometimes wary that small, temporary slips, such as from an A to a B, could have real consequences, perhaps even causing property values to fall in ultra-competitive communities.

The letter grades didn’t change the mandated consequences for poor performance. Schools that persisted in the lowest category faced the possibility of state takeover after six years. As letter grades replaced the old categories, the formula for placing schools in categories stayed the same for the first year, based heavily on the percentage of students who passed state tests. But Bennett promised an overhaul of the grading criteria for 2012.

At the same time, Indiana asked for a release from the accountability provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind law. The state was among the earliest applicants to the U.S. Department of Education for a waiver to allow it to create a new system for judging school quality, submitting its new A to F plan as the blueprint.

A new system

Former state Superintendent Tony Bennett

Bennett’s 2012 revision to the A to F calculation method called for considering new factors to determine a school’s grade.

The system was set up to give credit to schools that demonstrate that they are making kids “college and career ready” by tracking the percentage of kids who take advanced classes, college courses or earn industry certifications, again with bonuses or penalties attached.

But the centerpiece of the new system was a new test score “growth measure” that aimed to give rewards and punishments based on how much the lowest-scoring students improved. Modeled after a system in Colorado, the growth measure matched groups of similar students — those with similar prior test scores and demographic characteristics — and compared how each student did when measured against the rest of the group.

The new system came under criticism the moment it was proposed. At a public hearing in January of 2012, a parade of speakers representing rarely allied groups — urban schools, the chamber of commerce, superintendents, charter schools and others — opposed the new system. Mostly they complained it was either unfair or too hard for parents — or even schools — to understand.

Complaints notwithstanding, the Indiana State Board of Education approved Bennett’s revisions, and in the fall of 2012, the first grades came out under the new system.

Top grades were tougher to earn — A’s dropped to 41 percent from 47.5 percent of schools, while F’s were up slightly to 7 percent from 5 percent. But there were unexpected changes, such as a handful of schools that went from A to F or F to A.

Concerns persist

In 2013, lawmakers set about revising the system in response to public complaints.

The final bill, passed that spring, recommended several changes, especially junking the Colorado-style growth measure. Instead, lawmakers dictated that growth be measured as a student’s progress toward or above a passing score rather than examining how their test score gains compared to other students.

The legislature tasked a panel of experts with designing the framework of the new system, the Indiana Department of Education with developing the new process for awarding grades and the Indiana State Board of Education with approving the final plan in 2014.

The expert panel, jointly appointed by Gov. Mike Pence, State Superintendent Glenda Ritz, the state board and leaders in the state legislature, began work on recommendations in late 2013, delivering them to the state board in November. The board approved a framework for revising A to F grading.

A to F grading became such a flashpoint that even the issuing of 2013 grades caused tempers to flare on the state board. Ritz delayed release of grades, usually issued in the fall, to near the end of the year, blaming spring testing errors and re-scoring of some tests. But state board members accused Ritz of dragging her feet, asking legislative leaders to intervene to issue the grades.

After a public battle that included a lawsuit, the state board set Dec. 20 for the release date.

As work continued toward a new system throughout 2013, another major controversy erupted about the old system.

Integrity of the system is questioned

The release of emails written in 2012 by Bennett and his staff in July of 2013 led to complaints that Bennett tried to manipulate A to F grading. Emails showed high concern among Bennett’s team about the grade of a particular charter school and effort to find a way to improve its grade. Barraged with questions in the wake of the email revelations, Bennett resigned as education commissioner in Florida.

The emails were obtained by journalists using state public records law. They showed state officials were concerned that Christel House Academy, run by a former donor to Bennett’s campaign, might not receive an A. Christel House had a track record of A grades over several years and Bennett asked his staff why it appeared headed for a C under the new system. His lieutenants sprang into action, ultimately recommending tweaks to the grading formula that raised the school’s grade, along with those of a handful of other schools.

A consultants’ review of A to F grading later called Bennett’s changes to the formula “plausible,” but did not explore the motivations of Bennett or his staff for altering the system in a way that helped raise about a dozen schools’ grades. Supporters of Bennett and A to F grades said the report exonerated him and erased fears that grades were unfairly changed. But critics argued the entire incident showed how easily grades could be manipulated by small changes to the formula.

Pence, the state board and legislative leaders remain committed to creating an improved system that maintains A to F labels. In 2014, Indiana approved new standards and went to work to create new state exams that will provide the scores that serve as the foundation of A to F grades for schools.

Because of the transition, Ritz proposed Indiana consider a “pause” for some schools when it comes to A to F grade changes because she said test results after big changes to the exams in other states had resulted in huge drops in scores, also sinking school grades. After opposing the idea for months, Pence and Republican leaders reversed course and promised to protect teachers from the consequences of a drop in test scores.

-Updated December 2015


After almost 10 years of changes to Indiana classrooms, ESSA’s headed your way. Here’s what you should know about the new federal law.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in IPS School 91's multi-age first-, second- and third-grade classroom work on math activities.

This year, Indiana education officials are focused on shifting education policy to comply with the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which Congress passed in late 2015.

But given Indiana’s history, ESSA is likely to be just the latest in a long line of education policy changes.

What started with a new schools chief focused on shaking things up in 2008 turned into major legislative changes that gave Indiana its oft-cited charter school and voucher programs in 2011.

Around the same time, Common Core standards burst on the scene, highlighting Indiana once again as an early adopter and — just a few years later — as one of the first states to jump ship. Battles over replacing ISTEP ramped up in late 2015, followed in rapid succession by an election resulting in a new governor and an upset in the race for state superintendent.

Throw ESSA into the mix, and it’s safe to say the last decade of Indiana education policy has been tumultuous. What does this new law mean for Indiana? We answer some of those questions below.

Where did ESSA come from?

U.S. lawmakers passed the newest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in late 2015 to replace the controversial No Child Left Behind Act.

The goal, in part, was to remedy a number of complaints around NCLB. State and federal officials have talked up how ESSA is supposed to give states more autonomy and remove NCLB’s rigid performance goals.

Advocates hope ESSA will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

What does ESSA mean for testing?

As it turns out, not that much — most of Indiana’s testing changes come down from the state, not the feds.

Indiana’s ISTEP test would have fulfilled most of the federal requirements, but the state trashed ISTEP earlier this spring in favor of a new test (still in the works) that will be given for the first time in 2019 — “ILEARN.”

For elementary and middle school students, ILEARN will be “computer-adaptive,” and adjust difficulty based on students’ answers. In high school, students would be expected to pass end-of-course assessments in Algebra, ninth-grade biology, 10th-grade English and 12th-grade U.S. Government.

The state’s plan also includes a chance to pursue giving state tests in other languages. So far, Spanish would be the focus.

How does this affect A-F grades?

Congress passing the Every Student Succeeds Act collided almost directly with Indiana’s overhauled A-F grade model, used for the first time in 2016.

Although the new model checks many boxes when it comes to new ESSA requirements, there’s still work that needs to be done.

Indiana’s new A-F model replaces one that centered primarily around ISTEP test scores. A-F grades still factor in test scores higher than other measures, but they no longer reflect just test passing rates. How students improve on tests from year to year is also included and weighted equally with passing rates.

Beginning this school year, A-F grades will include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

What about low-performing schools?

So the timeline doesn’t change — public schools can still only get four Fs in a row before the state steps in. But once they do, that’s where the process differs starting in 2018-19.

Going forward, two new categories will replace priority schools and focus schools. Two new ones will be introduced: “targeted support” and “comprehensive support.”

At schools receiving targeted support, certain groups of students — ethnic groups, English learners, low-income students or students with disabilities — would score in the bottom 5 percent of state test-takers for at least two years in a row.

Comprehensive support is similar to what are now priority schools — those that fall in the bottom 5 percent of passing state tests; any school that receives an F grade; or any high school where the four-year graduation rate is lower than 67 percent.

If a school gets a C grade or better for two years in a row, it is no longer categorized as needing comprehensive support. Schools in targeted support have five years to earn two consecutive C grades.

Doesn’t the graduation rate change, too?

Unfortunately, yes.

As early as fall of 2018, the general diploma could cease to count in the graduation rate the state is now required to report to the federal government.

The federal calculation will likely cause rates to drop and school A-F grades to take a hit because general diploma students students would no longer be considered graduates to the feds.

Students can still earn a general diploma — it just can’t factor into state accountability grades. ESSA requires states to count graduates that earn the diploma that a majority of students get or one that is more rigorous, but not one that is less.

What happens next?

There are still some major questions lingering over how the new A-F grade components will play out next year, particularly when it comes to dual credit classes and changes to graduation rate.

Those issues won’t get solved right away, if only because the Indiana State Board of Education must officially approve any A-F grade system changes, which won’t happen until after the ESSA draft plan is completed.

The plan must be submitted to federal education officials in September. First it gets a review from the governor, who can choose to endorse it or not — no formal approval is required.

Read more of Indiana’s ESSA coverage here.


The basics of...

The basics of Jennifer McCormick: Political newcomer struggles to set herself apart

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Jennifer McCormick speaks during a 2016 campaign event.

This is one of two stories summarizing the basics facts about Indiana’s two major party candidates for state superintendent. A more detailed story about Jennifer McCormick’s policy positions can be found here. To learn more about Glenda Ritz, go here. To see all of Chalkbeat’s “basics” stories, go here. To read all of Chalkbeat’s 2016 election coverage, go here.

Tune in to our live blog on Election Day for highlights from the field and updates on the races as results trickle in.

As the political newcomer to this year’s race for Indiana state superintendent, Republican Jennifer McCormick has had to spend a lot of time telling voters who she isn’t.

She isn’t Glenda Ritz, she’s said, emphasizing that as a former teacher and principal who has spent the last 12 years as a top administrator in the Yorktown school district, she has experience as a steady, organized manager that she says Ritz lacks.

And she says she isn’t Tony Bennett, the education reform-darling who lost in a huge upset to Ritz in 2012, either.

In fact, McCormick falls somewhere between the two: She’s a career public school educator and district leader with policies not entirely unlike Ritz’s. But she also has the backing of the Republican party and advocates who’ve pushed to expand charter schools and private school vouchers.

Although McCormick has been more supportive of charter schools and vouchers than Ritz has been, the Yorktown superintendent says she’s concerned about the way school choice efforts divert money from public schools and vehemently denies suggestions that she would want to see them expand.

On the campaign trail, McCormick has tried to steer the conversation away from controversial policy matters toward what she sees as her strong suit: Her years of leadership running schools and districts.

The New Castle native has spent her career in Yorktown, a traditional public school district in northeastern Indiana that enrolls about 2,500 students K-12. Her school district is wealthier, whiter and faces few of the challenges that confront urban and rural districts across the state.

Yorktown school board president Tom Simpson said McCormick has worked to provide more computers and tablets to students and has made a point of ensuring that teachers are trained to use and teach with the devices. She’s also worked over the years to help the district adapt to its growing population.

How she’ll govern

It’s still not clear what kind of relationship McCormick would have with lawmakers if elected. Although her policies don’t necessarily line up with those of Republican legislative leaders, the fact that she brings none of Ritz’s baggage after four years of clashes with Republican Gov. Mike Pence could ease tensions and lead to smoother working relationships.

But McCormick’s lack of policy experience and adamant statements that she won’t engage in “politics” could also mean she underestimates the work needed guide her vision through the sometimes-thorny Indiana legislature.

Plus, should both she and John Gregg, the Democrat running for governor, prevail, there’d once again be a political division between the state’s top education leader and top executive, who is responsible for appointing the majority of members to the state board of education.

On the issues

McCormick’s positions on many state education issues are similar to those of her opponent. She largely agrees with Ritz on the need for an A-F grade overhaul, more school funding, and adding support and pay for teachers.

Here’s a rundown of her positions:

Vouchers. McCormick said while she supports the power of parents to choose the best school for their children, she’s not interested in expanding programs that divert money from public schools.

Testing. While Ritz has called for a new kind of test that would be given to students in chunks throughout the year and provide feedback to teachers, McCormick said she would be in favor of adopting the SAT, or something like it, for high school students and keeping a simple, ISTEP-like test for elementary and middle school students.

Preschool. While Ritz has campaigned strongly for a “universal” preschool plan for all Indiana four year-olds, funded with what she anticipates would be $150 million per year from the state’s budget, plus federal and private grants, McCormick has called for a more conservative approach — at least at first. She says the state should prioritize students who are struggling or from low-income families rather than offer pre-K to kids with more resources.