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The Journal Gazette

Tuesday, March 15, 2016 9:40 pm

A-F grades could die on technicality

Niki Kelly | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – The Indiana Department of Education is investigating whether a legal technicality could cancel A-to-F school accountability grades this year.

The agency, run by Democrat Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, believes the rule governing the issuance of the grades to schools each year expired in November.

"What we’re doing is our normal due diligence on rule-making that we do every year," spokesman Daniel Alt­man said. "It gets very technical."

He acknowledged that the agency has reached out to Attorney General Greg Zoeller’s office to get a legal opinion.

A department document obtained by The Journal Gazette says that no active A-to-F model currently exists, which "creates legal issues by calculating grades when there is not administrative rule in place."

"The superintendent has tried four or five times in the last three years to negate accountability, so I’m not surprised there would be another effort," State Board of Education member Cari Whicker said. "But it’s a stretch."

Under Indiana law – and a waiver from certain federal education regulations – Indiana public schools and schools using state-paid vouchers must be placed into A-to-F categories every year, largely based on how students perform on the ISTEP+ test and a few other factors.

Ritz has sought a suspension of the grading system for the 2014-15 school year numerous times, but the State Board of Education, Gov. Mike Pence and GOP lawmakers continue to support the accountability measure.

The grades help determine teacher pay, state intervention, voucher availability and more.

This year’s ISTEP+ test for students in grades 3 through 8 is based on new standards and has more challenging questions. The state’s testing provider reported last month that student scores won’t be available until mid-December, meaning the A-to-F grades wouldn’t be issued until early next year.

But now there is a question of whether the scores will come at all.

"They are consistent in their continued efforts to derail accountability," said Betsy Wiley, president of the Institute for Quality Education, a nonprofit that focuses on school choice.

She said she thinks Ritz’s prediction of a huge drop in student test scores is meant to cause a little chaos and panic for schools that might in turn lead to a revolt against the accountability grades.

A new A-to-F rule is already in place for the 2015-16 school year, spurred by legislators who didn’t like the current formula. This year was to be the last time the current formula was used.

In arguing against the grades, Ritz’s department is hinging its argument on part of a 2013 bill that called for the new formula. It says an emergency rule adopted under the bill expired Nov. 15, 2014.

Marc Lotter, spokesman for the State Board of Education, said the current A-to-F rule is a permanent rule – not emergency – so he is unclear why it would have expired.

Justin Ohlemiller, executive director of Stand for Children Indiana, said he hasn’t heard the new theory but is strongly in favor of making sure the grades are issued.

"We need more transparency for parents on how their school is doing, not less," he said. "To me, it’s a key part of the system, as it is, frankly, in every other sector of our society. There are measuring sticks for excellence everywhere."

He said national data have shown a large gap in the past between state-measured proficiency and a student’s actual ability to be prepared for college or the workforce.

Ohlemiller acknowledged that there is a potential for test scores to drop but said "we need to talk about that in an honest and open way. This is a new generation of tests in alignment with our new standards, so parents need to be ready and understand the fundamental shift."

nkelly@jg.net