INDIANAPOLIS – What's worse than distilling a school's efforts over 180 days to educate children of all backgrounds into one letter grade? Giving them two different grades.
And that will happen this year when schools receive a letter grade under existing state accountability law as well as one under the state's plan complying with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.
The formulas for each are different, meaning the grades might not match for some schools.
“It's going to be extremely confusing when you have two different systems going on that reflect different pieces,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick said. “What I hate is schools are on this roller coaster. ... My fear is you get fatigued and you get frustrated and that's not where we want schools to be.”
The dueling grades will happen for at least one year and maybe longer.
“I think it's really sad that the concept of accountability has become so politicized that people just don't pay attention anymore,” said Wendy Robinson, superintendent of Fort Wayne Community Schools. “The validity of how you get an A has lost the luster because so much is based on where the kids live and resources and socioeconomics. It's not consistent.”
The latest issue cropped up when the federal government retooled in 2015 with Every Student Succeeds. It requires certain low-performing schools to be identified as needing either targeted or comprehensive support. But it's flexible beyond that. States can assign A-to-F grades, give star ratings or even percentages.
McCormick held public hearings, gathered input and worked with stakeholders to craft Indiana's state plan – including the accountability piece. Because Indiana law requires an A-to-F grade, an informal panel chose a grade system and recommended aligning the state formula already in law with the new federal piece.
McCormick submitted the plan to the federal government, which approved it. The plan did not have to go before the appointed State Board of Education, but Gov. Eric Holcomb gave it his blessing.
McCormick says the plan includes every student in the state and all public schools where state law has some exemptions and not all schools are held accountable. Every Student Succeeds also requires attendance and English-language factors.
“It's a true transparent picture of what's happening,” she said of the Every Student Succeeds accountability model. “I get worried about if certain kids are not in the accountability system, who's keeping an eye on them? Sometimes out of sight, out of mind.”
The state accountability statute focuses almost exclusively on whether students pass standardized tests – known as achievement – and how they improve year to year, known as progress or growth.
The State Board of Education last year began revamping the state's A-to-F system and some hoped it would mirror the Every Student Succeeds model. Instead, the group was moving toward a system that would step away from using student growth in the calculation.
In March, the board abandoned that approach after educators around the state expressed concern.
State Board Vice Chairwoman Cari Whicker said she is not happy with having two grades but said it was the best option. That's because she likes the current state system better than what was being pushed by some other board members.
“I'm not sure how to explain this to parents and the public,” the Wells County elementary school principal said. “I would be less happy to lose growth. It was a Catch-22 for me.”
So why doesn't the state board simply mirror the Every Student Succeeds plan?
State board member Byron Ernest is one who doesn't feel that's necessary and doesn't truly consider it as having two grades. He said the state statute is what really matters, and he wants to find a more holistic approach rather than just test scores.
“It's not a concern in the interim,” he said. “I want us to get this right in the end.”
He wants the board to spend more time studying outcomes-based accountability other than just test scores.
“What I want is for accountability to match where we want our students to be,” Ernest said. “That's why I wanted to pause because I didn't think we were there.”
The ongoing saga is yet another example of frustration for everyone involved in the education world as tweaks are made constantly and consistency is rare.
“It's a disservice to my constituents that I can't give them a consistent, reliable assessment of where we stack up in the state,” Robinson said.
She said it's dangerous to devalue the state Department of Education and McCormick as the primary education contact point. Having a parallel group – the state board – basically running a dueling effort isn't optimal.
“There will be mass confusion. Two different grades. Different variables,” said Donna Hoff, a Spanish teacher at West Noble High School who has been an educator for 39 years.
She said some parents take the letter grades seriously and use them when choosing where to live.
“It makes it a little rough for some of us,” Hoff said.
McCormick said both grades will come out in the late fall. The Every Student Succeeds grade will likely come first because it has less of an appeals process than the state system. It could be weeks between the two.
FWCS parent Noah Smith said he isn't a big fan of a grading system philosophically but said if there is one it needs to apply to more than just one metric – the test.
He noted some parents use it to choose a place for their child.
“Having two grades will negatively impact all schools,” Smith said.
McCormick said now that there doesn't seem to be an appetite to centralize with one formula it might be time for the department to reopen discussion on Indiana's federal Every Student Succeeds plan and consider another option than a letter grade altogether.
Some states are using a points system or rating schools using stars.
“Our schools need to be reflected accurately,” she said. “Our current system, sometimes that single letter grade doesn't allow for that.”