School & District Management Opinion

Educators Flunk the School Grading System in Indiana

By Anthony Cody — November 13, 2013 9 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

One of the legacies of corporate reformer Tony Bennett in Indiana is a system by which schools are assigned a letter grade, based largely on test scores. The State Board of Education is considering making changes to this system, and last week held a public hearing. Today, I am sharing the testimony of three educators who spoke out. You can view video of the entire hearing here. (The public hearing is on the first video posted there.)

Dr. Vic Smith: Four Flaws in the System

Last month in the Oct. 2nd State Board meeting, the discussion of the A-F system implemented last October ignored the system’s flaws that led the General Assembly to pass HEA 1427 saying “Not later than November 15, 2013, the state board shall establish new categories or designations of school performance under the requirements of this chapter to replace 511 IAC 6.2-6. “

It is truly sad that Indiana’s schools are soon to be graded using a system that has lost the confidence of both the General Assembly and the general public. The flaws that led the General Assembly to void the system include the following:

Flaw #1: It is based primarily on the percent passing, rather than on improvement as PL221 called for. That creates an incentive to give extra attention to students near the pass line, the so-called “bubble” kids, to try to get them over the pass line in the next test.

Flaw #2: The bonuses for growth are anemic compared to the weight given to percent passing.

Flaw #3: The growth model used for bonus points is based on peer comparison statistics. This leads to amazing and unpredictable results about low-growth and high-growth students, especially for many highly talented students who consistently scored well but somehow got pegged as low-growth and a detriment to the school. The ultimate example of this concern came when one superintendent and principal documented a student who got perfect scores two years in a row but was marked as low growth by the state metrics. An appeal on this case was rejected. On the back of this handout, you will see examples collected by Superintendent Chris Himsel last fall illustrating the arbitrary and capricious outcomes of the growth model.

Flaw #4: When all was said and done, the current A-F system has been badly miscalibrated. Many good schools have been given low grades, damaging the economic development efforts of communities all over Indiana as they try to explain to prospective businesses why their strong local schools ended up with a low grade using a flawed grading system. If you don’t know about the injustices this system has done to MacArthur Elementary in Crown Point, to Liberty Early Elementary in Decatur Township or to William Bell Elementary in IPS, you should look into those stories. Many communities have a story of injustice under this school letter grade system. Overall, 18.6% of Indiana’s schools received D’s or F’s. Florida at the comparable time gave 6% of its schools D’s and F’s despite clear National Assessment scores showing that Indiana outscores Florida. The current system is not fair to Indiana’s schools.

If under current law we must use the current A-F system to issue school letter grades for 2012-13, it should be done with a full explanation to the public of the system’s shortcomings and the reasons why it will soon be replaced as required by HEA 1427. In line with the recommendation of the Grew/Sheldrake report, the current system should not be used to trigger state intervention of any school. Finally the current system should be voided after this final use in accord with the letter and spirit of HEA 1427.

Phyllis Bush: Stop Labeling Schools

We all know that labels are important; in fact, as consumers, we demand truth in labeling. However, when it comes to labeling our children, that is indeed another story.

Let me give you an example. When I first moved to Fort Wayne in the 1970s, South Side High School was a storied old school, heavily laden with tradition and with a great amount of community pride. By the time I began teaching at South Side in the late 1970s, the neighborhood was beginning to change, and the area was rapidly being viewed as “an inner city school.” Despite being in an area of high poverty, a sense of community, of family, and of tradition was alive and well at our school. However, even back then, whenever some horrific news event happened on the south side of town--whether it was a car accident, a shooting, or a robbery--the media was always quick to display the stately old columns of the South Side facade as the backdrop for the story.

At that time many of my students were so incensed by seeing the reputation of their alma mater besmirched by the association of the image of South Side High School with criminal activity that they indignantly wrote letters of protest to the newspapers, and I proudly posted their letters on my bulletin board. Recently I was reminded of this when a shooting occurred on the south side of town. When I turned on the news that evening, I was once again greeted with an image of the South Side facade as a backdrop even though there was no connection between the school and the crime. Interestingly enough, I was heartened to see that former students of mine were once again expressing their outrage (but this time on Facebook) at having the school which they loved labeled in such an unfair manner.

On a similar note, even though the A-F bipartisan panel has done an excellent job of wrestling with the difficult question of how to measure student growth against fixed standards, there are still fatal flaws in this system which determines winners and losers among schools, teachers, and students. While I know that the A-F Accountability letter grade rating system is now a part of Indiana state law, I am still bothered by the labeling of schools, of students, of teachers, and of neighborhoods.

All of this leads me to ask this question. Why in the world do we need another label to decide what the quality of a school is? Do we really want to punish and reward schools and teachers according to demographics?

Interestingly enough, a few weeks ago Indiana Senator Dennis Kruse (chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Education) expressed his concern about testing at the Faith and Politics Forum here in Fort Wayne; he said that he never really liked either the A-F Grading System or the ISTEP tests. So, let me get this straight: if the chairman of the Education Select Committee is skeptical of these measurements, shouldn’t the State Board and the General Assembly consider slowing down this process or at the very least consider creating a pilot program to study the effects of these programs?

Having said all of the above, do we really want a system which measures dubious data? Of course, we can change it and rearrange it, but such a system leaves much to be desired. We can slap a fresh coat of paint on a broken down car, and the car still won’t run, or in the words of the philosopher, Sarah Palin: “You can put lipstick on a pig, and it is still a pig.”

Rather than making a seriously flawed system only marginally less so, why not ask teachers and community members what they think makes a successful school? Why not measure the qualities that we value rather than meaningless numbers that can be quantified.

Donna Roof: Time to Bring Back the Joy of Learning

I am a public school teacher. I am a breast cancer survivor. I dreamed as a little girl of the day I would be a teacher. I never dreamed as a woman that I would one day be a cancer survivor. So now I am both and proud that I am.

I speak to you today as both, for you see there are times these days that being an educator is more challenging, more stressful, more worrisome, more exhausting than being a cancer patient/survivor. I never ever in my wildest imagination dreamed that I would one day be in a fight for my life. I also never ever dreamed I’d be in the fight of a lifetime to save my students’ joy of learning, my public schools, my profession.

I didn’t just wake up one day, and my lump was there. It had been there all along, undetected. The same holds true for what is happening to public education. The education reform movement has been there all along, too, mostly undetected. But now, it has metastasized at unparalleled speed and is no longer hidden.

I have seen how my having cancer affects those around me. I have seen and, sadly, continue to see how the siphoning off of public funds from public schools, an A-F grade system to label schools, and more and more testing affect my students, my colleagues, my district, my neighborhood, my community, my city. Nevertheless, we persevere and succeed because that’s what public schools do.

The lessons learned as a cancer patient/survivor are plentiful. Perhaps the most important lesson is that I learned not to let the cancer define who I am. In the same manner I will not allow all that is happening in education define who I am as a teacher although I know there are those who like to paint me with their brush of pejoratives like union thug and status quo.

I know what kind of teacher I am, for I hold that belief in my heart, and there is no way to measure that. Teaching is much more than my career; it is my passion. Everyday I enter my classroom believing I am a master teacher, for if I didn’t hold true to that claim, I shouldn’t be there.

Even more importantly, I refuse to let all that is happening in education define my students, my school, my district, my community, my city. My students have so much potential. My students’ lives are more complicated than I can ever begin to imagine. They overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles and are successful because they meet their challenges. If you could see my students, you would know what I mean. They are so much more than data points. They are unique individuals with dreams and goals. I so want them to dare “to color outside the lines” and not just simply bubble in a test circle. I welcome any politician or state board member to come to my classroom--not for a photo op but to teach.

My physicians saved my life and brought back my joy of living. It is time to save the life of public education and bring back the joy of learning. Give all students equal educational opportunities. Our future and our democracy depend on public schools. As Martin Luther King, Jr. once stated, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

What do you think of this testimony? Are systems that assign letter grades to schools useful? Or should they be dismantled?

Dr. Vic Smith is a retired teacher and adminstrator. He is active in the Indiana Coalition for Public Education.

Phyllis Bush is a retired public school teacher. Donna Roof teaches high school in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Both are active in North East Indiana Friends of Public Education.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.