by Eric Stearley
The Indiana Department of Education released 2013 accountability grades for schools across the state on Friday, Dec. 20. Educators, administrators, parents, students and community members can now see if their school made the grade. The legitimacy of these grades, however, is questionable.
The formula used to determine these grades was put in place in February 2012 and will soon be replaced by a new system following an accountability report released by Indiana Superintendent Glenda Ritz and Southwest Allen County Schools Superintendent Steven Yager this past October.
The reason the current grading system lasted only a year is due to calculation that many educators find dubious and difficult to interpret. Prior to February 2012, the grading system was very straightforward. The letter grade was solely based upon the percentage of students who passed standardized tests. If 80-89 percent passed, the school received a B. Scores between 90 and 100 percent earned schools an A, with Cs, Ds, and Fs going to schools with passing rates of 70-79 percent, 60-69 percent, and 59 percent and below respectively.
The system put in place in 2012 attempted to take more factors into account, including graduation rates, Advanced Placement exam scores, and a “growth model,” the most controversial of the new measurements. The growth model attempts to grade student improvement by comparing individual student growth over the course of a year to that of all students in the state who received the same score the previous year.
The growth model used in the current grading system is quite complex. Like the old system, schools receive a baseline grade according to the percentage of students who pass standardized tests. From there, a formula is used to calculate “high growth,” “standard growth,” and “low growth” distinctions for each student. Students are separated into two groups, the top 75 percent of students and the bottom 25 of students in each school. The school’s letter grade can then be raised or lowered based on the amount of improvement the students made in comparison with students in all other schools in the state.
The biggest problem with the current system is that it fails to accurately reflect the real scores of the students at each school. This can be best explained using a hypothetical standardized test with an optimal score of 100 and a passing score of 60. Both Student A and Student B took and passed the test last year, receiving scores of 60 and 90 respectively. This year, the two scored a 70 and 92 respectively. If the state’s average improvement for students scoring a 60 last year was 6 points, Student A would be considered “high growth.” If the average improvement for students scoring a 90 last year was 4 points, Student B would be considered “low growth.” In turn, Student A would help to boost his/her school’s score, while Student B would hurt the school’s score, regardless of the fact that Student B did much better on the test. The fact that Student B scored well last year makes it harder for him/her to fall into the “high growth” category, and easier for him/her to contribute to the school’s potential grade reduction.
The complexity of this highly simplified, hypothetical scenario makes it easy to see why educators have advocated for a new grading system. In addition, the standardized test grading, including the growth model, only accounts for 60 percent of the overall grade. The rest is comprised of graduation rates and “college and career readiness” (based upon Advanced Placement exam scores, International Baccalaureate exam scores, college credits received, and industrial certifications earned. Finally, the weighted proportions themselves change each year, the weight put on “college and career readiness” increasing by 5 percent each year, offset by a decrease in the weight of Math and English scores. This makes it very difficult for educators and administrators to gauge real improvement year to year. If you are lost at this point, you’re not the only one. Even State Superintendent Ritz is confused by the system.
“I cannot tell any school what their grade represents,” said Ritz at the April meeting of the Indiana State Board of Education. “It lacks transparency. School districts are wondering how it is that they’re supposed to improve and get to the next letter grade — what does that represent?”
Ritz and Yager hope to clarify the grading system and increase transparency with the new system of calculation proposed this past October.