INDIANAPOLIS – Placing labels on schools isn’t new in Indiana.
But few people anticipated the stakes when schools were first put in accountability categories in 2006. The tipping point came in 2011, when categories were switched to the much more in-your-face A, B, C. D or F grades.
Lawmakers then started attaching the grades to program after program. From takeover and teacher pay to vouchers and charter grants – the grades sometimes control the fate of schools, teachers and students.
"What got off track was comparing schools via the label. You can’t compare schools if the makeup of the student body is so diverse, from special education to non-English speaking and poverty," Fort Wayne Community Schools Superintendent Wendy Robinson said.
"The concept of putting a letter grade on the value you are adding to a human life is going down the wrong path."
But the grades seem to be here to stay, despite efforts by Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz to pause or otherwise halt the accountability plan.
"Indiana’s A to F system is an easy to understand model that gives parents information about how their child’s school is performing," said State Board of Education member David Freitas. "It is a system that lets us celebrate the great work taking place in our classrooms, nearly 75 percent of our schools are A or B schools, and identify schools that need some extra help in educating our children. A to F is one tool that helps us set a high bar for performance and provides a goal that everyone can strive to achieve."
The grades generally are based on ISTEP+ testing results, though other factors such as graduation rates and college and career readness, are included.
Ritz and some others fear large drops in test scores this year due to new academic standards and a new test. That could, in turn, drop A to F grades, which are now expected in January for the 2014-15 school year.
Accountability categories are also now required by a federal waiver, though the state law existed before the federal regulation.
The Republican-controlled legislature has backed the grades even after it demanded changes to the complicated formula that go into effect next year.
The new formula dictates that growth be measured as a student’s progress toward or above a passing score rather than examining how the student’s test score gains compared with other students.
Tony Bennett was the architect of moving to A to F – and he still says it was the way to go.
He said the original phrases – exemplary, commendable, academic progress, watch and probation – weren’t obvious to people.
"No one denied those terms did not resonant and push schools to improve," he said.
"The original concept was to be clear. Everyone knows A, B, C, D or F."
Now a private consultant, Bennett was defeated by Ritz in 2012’s general election. Then in 2013, emails from Bennett and his staff were released showing changes to the formula to aid several charter schools. He resigned his post in Florida and eventually paid an ethics fine here for mixing state business and campaign work.
None of that has changed Bennett’s view that moving to grades made it easier for parents and the community to understand how a school is doing. But he does concede that the formula and its calculation have never been simple.
He has been surprised how often the grades have been inserted into education policy.
Here are just a few ways the grades hold weight:
• Charter school grant program – this brand-new program provides charter schools $500 per student for capital, transportation and technology improvements. Charter schools automatically qualify for the grant if they receive A-C school accountability grade, are in their first or second year of operation, primarily serve special needs students, are located in an innovation network, or don’t qualify to receive a grade. D or F schools qualify if their school accountability grade is equal to or better than their closest comparable traditional public school in each of the previous two years.
• Excellence in performance grants – provides $2 million annually to highly effective teachers who serve schools in the two lowest categories, called focus and priority on the federal level.
• Teacher pay – some local districts have tied school accountability grades to teacher raises.
• Voucher eligibility – Students who otherwise would have to attend a public school that has an F grade are allowed to seek a state-paid voucher to private school. Several thousand students have used this pathway to obtain the scholarships.
• Private school eligibility – A school that receives two consecutive F’s loses its ability to receive new vouchers.
• Intervention/takeover – Allows the State Board of Education and the Department of Education to intervene in schools that have a failing grade for four straight years.
Bennett said he sees merit in providing incentives or penalties for either hitting or not hitting goals.
He especially thinks attaching the grades to voucher and charter success ratcheted up accountability for these schools. He noted that prior to A to F, charter authorizers never took action against bad charter schools.
But Robinson said changes to the how the grades are reached over the years have made them unreliable and invalid.
She said Fort Wayne Community Schools received an A in 2011 and then the formula was changed the next year, saying a school or district couldn’t be considered for an A even with substantial progress by students if a certain cut score wasn’t reached.
"It wasn’t about improvement or growth," Robinson said. "That was the beginning of the end."
She said Bennett and former Gov. Mitch Daniels wanted more charters and the introduction of vouchers.
"You have to show the public product is lacking," Robinson said. "We’ve created this firestorm of misinformation, and then we keep getting a new version of what doesn’t make any sense."
Freitas defended tying the grades to programs, though he stopped short of saying it should play a role in the base tuition support that schools receive. Gov. Mike Pence this year supported enhancing performance funding within that formula.
Instead, lawmakers added money to a special performance grant that is based on the percentage of students who pass the ISTEP+ test.
Freitas said some programs should be focused on Indiana’s best schools and that other assistance should also be there to help lower-?performing schools.
"The system is designed to encourage and acknowledge better student performance and help parents make the best decision for their child," he said.