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Sarah Janssen | The Journal Gazette
Fort Wayne Community Schools board President Mark GiaQuinta discusses the district's assigned grade near a poster with the district's standardized test score passage rates on Wednesday.

Schools take grades with grain of salt

State rankings issued, rankle some

– With Fort Wayne Community Schools' fall from a high to average rating under the state's accountability system, the atmosphere during the district's news conference Wednesday was significantly different from last year.

But Superintendent Wendy Robinson emphasized that the message this year isn't different in that the district has shown improvement in its standardized test scores for three years in a row.

"We're really quite pleased Fort Wayne has continued to demonstrate … excellence as an urban school district," Robinson said.

Despite the drop at FWCS, the percentage of schools earning high marks increased under the state Department of Education's revamped rating system, which assigns A-F grades to schools and districts based on performance.

Locally, Northwest and Southwest Allen County Schools both received overall A grades. East Allen County Schools and FWCS both received C grades.

The ratings were released Wednesday after final approval from the state Board of Education.

Fewer than 20 percent of schools across the state earned D's or F's under this year's revamped system, a percentage that is nearly unchanged from last year. Sixty percent of schools received A's and B's, up from 56 percent last year. The more than 200 public and private schools in northeast Indiana fared similarly to schools around the state, with about 38 percent receiving a C or below.

Fort Wayne Community Schools, which has become the largest district in the state, has a high population of low-income and non-English-speaking students, but it fared better under the system than other districts such as Indianapolis Public Schools, which had 44 percent of schools, or 30, receive F's.

The letter grades are assigned to traditional public schools, charter schools, accredited nonpublic schools and any schools participating in the Indiana Choice Scholarship program, or schools that receive state-funded vouchers for attending students based on income.

Under Public Law 221, traditional public schools are subject to state intervention if they receive an F grade for six straight years. Just two traditional public schools in the area received F's: Harrison Hill Elementary in FWCS; and Central Noble Middle in Central Noble Community School Corp.

If schools receiving voucher dollars earn a D or F for two consecutive years, they face suspension from the voucher program for incoming students for one year. Sanctions become more severe the longer these schools earn a D or F grade.

St. John Lutheran School in Kendallville, Cornerstone College Prep of Fort Wayne and Central Christian School of Fort Wayne were the only voucher schools in northeast Indiana to receive a letter grade lower than a C.

Eighty-five percent of all northeast Indiana private schools received A's and B's.

Robinson said it's important that teachers and parents not focus completely on ratings. A number of educators have deemed the new system complex and confusing. The release was delayed from Oct. 10, nearly two months later than the release of the grades last year.

"We're careful not to evaluate our district and our schools on a letter grade alone," Robinson said.

Northwest Allen Superintendent Chris Himsel agrees, despite the district's A rating. Arcola Elementary School in the district received a D, which Himsel said could have been a B had one more student passed both the English/language arts and math portions of the ISTEP+ test, the standardized test the state uses for performance data.

"We're proud of the work our schools have done," he said. "But we take these ratings with a grain of salt because they don't tell the whole story."

Himsel said one of the biggest changes from last year is the way student improvement was used to calculate the rating. Students receiving similar scores two years ago were grouped together in cohorts. Their growth compared with one another placed these students in categories of typical, high and low growth.

He said even if a student's score went down, but didn't go down as much as that of other students in the cohort, that student could still be considered high-growth.

Robinson said Wednesday she wouldn't try to explain the district's drop in rating.

"We don't make decisions based on these grades," she said. "We have some questions about the reliability of the state's formula."

Julie Smith, administrator at Central Christian School, echoed many of sentiments expressed by Himsel and Robinson. The school's D rating prompted Smith to send a letter home to parents in the hopes of explaining the school's grade.

"I'm not complaining by any means, but I want it to be known that the data is skewed," she said.

Last year was the first year Central Christian took the ISTEP+ test. It had an 87 percent pass rate in English/language arts and 77 percent in math but was penalized for participation because just 50 students took the test.

Last year, the school enrolled 103 students, with almost half in preschool to second grade, which don't take the test. Smith also said the state calculated its growth data based on 12 students who took the test two years ago at a different school.

"I'm trying to be patient and understanding, but this reflects poorly on us," she said. "I know they're trying to do good (by adding the growth model), but it's just too complicated."

Robinson also said with the delay of the release, schools and teachers can't wait to make changes when the grades come out based on last year's data. But the district's bottom line is that it will continue to use measures it has in place to improve student achievement.

"No matter what formula you put in front of us, we're still going to focus on the child," Robinson said.

sarah.janssen@jg.net

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