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Failing the test on reform

How uncomfortable Friday afternoon must have been for Republican members of the Indiana Select Commission on Education. Listening to hours of overwhelmingly critical testimony of the A-F school grading system – a centerpiece of the Republican administration's so-called reform agenda –would be bad enough, but the critics included the Indiana Chamber of Commerce. Nothing like irritating the state chamber if you're intent on maintaining your pro-business profile.

How many of the GOP lawmakers flinched when Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, told the chamber's vice president for education and workforce development policy that he agreed with him?

But Derek Redelman is right when he calls the grading system "a flawed pass-fail model." And he's right when he notes that the state chamber has a long record in demanding school accountability, so his criticism can't be dismissed as an effort to dodge responsibility and preserve the status quo.

In truth, the lawmakers should be motivated by the harsh criticism of the grading system by Indiana school superintendents. These are the administrators in the position to most closely observe the effects of the system – and they are overwhelmingly a conservative group, often at odds with the Indiana State Teachers Association.

Some of the most eloquent testimony Friday came from Superintendent Tony Lux of Merrillville schools.

The core of his argument: "The phrase "poverty is not an excuse" has become an excuse – an excuse to ignore poverty and disclaim any responsibility for it and its devastating effects. The strategy is becoming all too clear – ignore poverty, blame the effects of poverty on teachers, maintain the public perception of failing teachers and schools with an A-F formula that is designed to rank order students so that the bottom 33 percent will always exist (no matter how much achievement gains are made), use it to designate teachers and schools with low grades, then create a red herring for an impatient public by offering a placebo known as charter schools and school choice to appease them."

Lux's full remarks, which not only outline problems with the A-F model, but also outline a proposal for fixing it:

There would be nothing wrong with the State A-F Grading Formula if the students at given grade levels in every classroom in every school across the State were essentially the same. If that were the case, then it would be fair to compare the progress those students make from year to year and draw conclusions about the only two variables that would matter - the teacher and the school. However, the harsh truths are that students are not the same and schools that serve different students are not the same. In fact, there is an incredible range between advantaged students and the schools that serve them and disadvantaged students and the schools that serve them that goes well beyond the school house doors.

The State A-F Grading Formula implies that student growth is only the result of the quality of the teacher and the school. This simply is not the case.

  1. 1. Student growth also depends on the environment students experience outside of school. Students always experience "Value Added" in school. But, students can also experience two extremes of either "Further Value Added" or "Value Subtracted" outside of school. Consider the differences in the outside-of-school environments of Advantaged versus Disadvantaged Students.
ADVANTAGED STUDENTS: Grow up in an intellectually stimulating environment; more highly educated parents; parents at home more often; daily Internet access; high expectations; several years of highly stimulating day care prior to entering Kindergarten; daily conversations with tens of thousands of vocabulary words and at higher levels of thinking skills; daily limitations/parameters regarding school homework; summer experiences such as travel, access to movies, live theatre, museums, farms, lakeshore; visits with or to relatives in other State or Cities.

DISADVANTAGED STUDENTS: Grow up in less intellectually stimulating environment; lower level of parental education; adults at home less often due to working several low paying jobs; lower expectations regarding school work or getting high grades; no access to technology in the home; less stimulating daycare experiences, if any are affordable; a deficit of thousands of vocabulary words; no travel to museums, live theatre, farms, zoos, the lakeshore, or large cities; limited home reading or discussion; no travel; lack of interest in school; sometimes absolute refusal to do school work; greater probability of experiencing debilitating emotional and physical trauma in daily lives.

Being "Disadvantaged" is not always limited to race and poverty. However, while many students of race and poverty are achieving at high levels, nevertheless poverty and race are the two highest correlates in the Achievement Gaps. And the percentage of students of color in poverty is more than twice that of white students. This is especially important in the context of student comparisons across the State.

Research reports from major Universities that verifies these realities have been amply quoted in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Time Magazine just to name a few sources.

  • Center for Advanced Studies reports that Parents of advantaged students that spent up to five times as much per child than poor families back in 1972 are now spending as much as nine times more as of 2007.
  • Researchers from UCLA report that Affluent children spend 1,300 more hours than poor children by age six in day care centers, museums and other educational experiences outside of the home.
  • Also from that report, Affluent children spend about 400 more hours than poor children prior to the start of school in literacy activities.
  • "Intensive Cultivation" by parents is a major factor in differences between Advantaged and Disadvantaged … University of Pennsylvania
  • Parenting matters … University of Chicago
  • University of Michigan study reveals that the college graduation rate over ensuing generations for affluent students has increased from 33% to 50% but the college graduation rate for students of poverty has only increased to 9% , barely up from 7%.
  • Poverty a greater predictor of achievement than race … Stanford University
  1. 2. The State A-F grading formula professes that the growth component is only comparing students who are essentially alike. By design, the growth formula compares students who have the same starting scale score in one year with how much those same students grow in the next year. The theory is that those students must basically be considered the same and their growth must solely be attributable to the ability and quality of the teacher and school.
But here again, the issue of what it means to be "Disadvantaged" has a terrible debilitating effect on Growth. Just because students end a school year with the same State exam score, it does not mean they are essentially alike.

In a Time magazine article entitled "The Case Against Summer Vacation", researchers from Duke University and Johns Hopkins University, who reviewed decades of research report that while both advantaged and disadvantaged students make essentially similar growth during the school year, when out of school over the summer, the growth gaps are so large that they result in up to a three year gap by the end of elementary school and the effects of those gaps are cumulative over time all the way through high school. Advantaged students get an educational boost each and every summer, not to mention what may or may not occur on a daily basis when student leave school to go home.

Finally, when disadvantaged students are brought up to grade level, they are now competing against a new group of students consisting of many more advantaged students than before. This is where the outside school effects of "Further Value Added" or "Value Subtracted" come into play even further to either supplement or diminish the in-school effects of the teacher.

The cold fact is that teachers of disadvantaged students face challenges much more difficult to overcome than teachers of advantaged students. Comparing these teachers and their schools without taking this into consideration is totally wrong.

  1. 3. The State A-F formula inappropriately bases its definition of "High Growth" and "Low Growth" not on how much students actually grow in one year, but on how much they grow relative to other students. Even if all the students would grow more than ever before in the history of the State, there would always be a bottom 33% identified as "Low Growth". And if teachers and schools had too many of those students they would receive a lower grade, despite the fact that those students might be achieving at levels never before reached.
A harsh example of this gross unfairness is to look at Salk Elementary School in Merrillville. Salk is 75 percent minority with 60% Free and Reduced Lunch students. In 2011, 92 percent of students in Grade 4 passed ELA and 86 percent passed math. However, because not enough of its student grew more than 33 percent of the students with whom they were compared, the school would have been penalized and would have only received a Grade of C!

As a further illustration, this growth formula would take a classroom of students who all achieved A's, rank order them, then take the lowest 33 percent, call them Low Growth and then blame the teacher for that Low Growth.

  1. 4. The high school portion of the A-F Grading Formula is also blatantly biased in favor of high wealth communities and their schools. Increases in letter grade measurements are given based on the percent of students who Pass IB exams, AP exams and gain dual credits. All of these components have costs associated with them that less funded schools with poor students cannot afford. IB costs are high - more teachers are needed to teach the advanced level IB courses; fees are required for IB exams, AP exams and dual credit - students of poverty cannot afford these costs (State only covers costs of some AP exams and even though many dual credit class fees are equalized, or even free for students on free and reduced lunch, wealthier students can still afford to pay for more credits and exams than poor kids, but schools get rewarded for how many more students they have who can afford those costs.)
  2. 5. The high school portion of the A-F Grading Formula also unfairly diminishes the value of a General Diploma which again discriminates against schools in higher poverty areas where the history of even achieving a high school diploma is totally different than that in high wealth communities. The entire value of first generation high school graduates with General Diplomas is lost and disregarded.

  1. 1. No student who passes or reaches Pass+ should ever be considered "Low Growth". Passing at grade level each year by its very definition of meeting the next year's higher standards of content mastery is growth. How can being at grade level, or at Pass+, year after year ever be considered "Low Growth"?!
  2. 2. Ever increasing percentages of students passing the State exam should be weighted more heavily and be made a part of the Growth formula to more significantly benefit schools.
  3. 3. High schools should not have their letter grades diminished because they have students who receive a General Diploma. For many urban schools, acquiring a General Diploma may represent the first family member to ever achieve such a goal … a school should not be down-graded for this. A major goal has been to increase Graduation Rates. This is happening and should be celebrated.
  4. 4. To make up for "Value Subtracted" outside of school, students who are below grade level must be required to spend more time in school!!! EXTEND THE COMPULSORY ATTENDANCE LAW TO SUMMER SCHOOL FOR STUDENTS WHO ARE BELOW GRADE LEVEL. If the State can take a year out of a student's life for not Reading at grade level by grade 3, how can it not be willing to take a month out of a student's summer?! And before someone says there is no money for this, please realize that the State has already committed at least $5,500 per student that is retained because those students will be in school an extra year.
  5. 5. Provide more funding for summer school and student remediation programs.
In the midst of A-F Grading and new teacher evaluation both of which are related to student growth, INCREDULOUSLY THE STATE IS REDUCING OR ELIMINATING FUNDING FOR SUMMER REMEDIATION OF STUDENTS WHO HAVE FAILED ISTEP.

  1. 6. If high schools are to be rewarded for more students taking and passing IB, AP and dual credit classes, then those opportunities should be equally accessible in all schools, and not be limited by a student's financial status.
  2. 7. Schools should be rewarded in the grading formula for increasing the number of students who take AP classes and dual credit classes.
In conclusion, it has been said that student achievement should not be dependent on a student's zip code. Certainly the goal for everyone is equal academic success for all students regardless of zip code, race or economic status. However, the harsh reality is that the obstacles to academic achievement do depend on zip code. Not because of what happens in school, but what happens out of school. Some zip codes result in "Further Value Added" and others result in "Value Subtracted" as soon as students walk out of the school doors.

The flaw in the State A-F Grading Formula is that it ignores and pretends that those differences do not exist and wants the public to believe that it is only the quality of the teacher that makes all the difference. Ask this question, which zip codes will attract the most and best teachers? Will teachers apply to zip codes where the odds are stacked against them, or where the odds are in their favor? Also ask, what is being done to level the playing field for students and teachers who live and work in those "Value Subtracted" zip codes?

The State track record is not very good on this count. We are seeing declining funding for summer school and remediation at the very time when the stakes are being raised in measuring the success of schools and teachers according to a formula that is inherently biased in favor of schools in high wealth communities and incredulously tries to convince the public that schools and teachers in disadvantaged communities are only making excuses when they point out the realities and challenges they face. The State A-F formula inherently blames teachers and schools for not being able to overcome societal disadvantages while rewarding teachers and schools who benefit from societal economic advantages.

The real solution is not greater rewards or harsher punishments. The real solution is more months for disadvantaged students in educationally rich environments i.e. public school.

The phrase "Poverty is not an excuse" has become an excuse - an excuse to ignore poverty and disclaim any responsibility for it and its devastating effects. The strategy is becoming all too clear - ignore poverty, blame the effects of poverty on teachers, maintain the public perception of failing teachers and schools with an A-F formula that is designed to rank order students so that the bottom 33% will always exist (no matter how much achievement gains are made), use it to designate teachers and schools with low grades, then create a Red Herring for an impatient public by offering a Placebo known as Charter Schools and School Choice to appease them.

Please consider the recommendations to recognize these issues and provide programs that will level the field for all teachers and schools and make changes to the A-F formula that unfairly discriminates against teachers and schools who face Society's greatest challenges.

Respectfully Submitted,

Dr. Tony Lux

Superintendent of Merrillville Schools

June 15, 2012

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at