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The Journal Gazette

  • File East Allen University graduated its first class in May.

Monday, December 19, 2016 6:07 am

A failing grade

What letter-grade did your elementary school receive when you were a third-grader? Did your high school earn an A your freshman year?

A trick question, of course. The meaningless quest to assign grades to Indiana schools didn’t begin until 2011. But the state’s release of grades last week again underscores the absurdity of reducing school quality and performance to a single letter. Until taxpayers complain to their legislators, however, Indiana will waste more time and tax dollars without helping a single student.

The folly of devising a formula capable of grading thousands of Indiana schools is captured perfectly in the example of East Allen University, East Allen County Schools’ early-college program. Last spring, 100 percent of EAU’s first senior class graduated, with 55 students in the 77-member class receiving an associate degree along with their high school diploma.

And EAU’s reward for helping its graduates – many of whom qualified for free- or reduced-price lunch – earn hours of college credit before starting college? A letter grade of F.

"That grade is the furthest from the truth," EACS Superintendent Ken Folks told The Journal Gazette.

The state’s illogical formula penalized East Allen for its innovation, refusing to give EAU full credit because it didn’t have five years of graduation data. While the district will appeal, the stigma of the failing grade is a blow to students, teachers, administrators and the entire East Allen community. The grade perversely penalizes them for precisely the kind of effort Indiana should be encouraging. 

How did the state come to this? In 1999, the General Assembly passed Public Law 221, requiring a school accountability system. The Indiana Department of Education and state Superintendent Suellen Reed, the State Board of Education and a forward-thinking Indiana Education Roundtable carefully crafted a system. They established five classifications between "exemplary progress" and "academic probation." The system wasn’t perfect, but it was an honest and judicious effort to hold schools accountable.

Under Gov. Mitch Daniels and Superintendent Tony Bennett in 2011, the state board threw out the descriptive labels and adopted a letter-grade system, a practice championed by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Indiana’s new approach was broken from the start. It was revealed in 2013 that Bennett privately ordered staff to change the metrics so that dozens of school grades improved. A charter school operated by one of the state superintendent’s biggest campaign donors saw its grade boosted from a C to an A.

In spite of repeated problems and unsuccessful efforts to develop a valid grading formula, Indiana policymakers have refused to give up on their quest to attach grades to schools.

Why?

Taxpayers should demand an answer from their legislators. The best-performing states – Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire – do not use an A-F school letter-grade system. The best-performing nations – Singapore, Finland, Japan – do not grade schools.

The flawed grading system does nothing to improve student achievement, and it has been a costly diversion from the education progress Indiana was seeing a decade ago. The state has no good reason to continue wasting time and money on this fool’s errand. In its students, Indiana has 1.1 million reasons to abandon it.