More schools received As and fewer had Fs under grades the Indiana State Board of Education assigned Wednesday.
In fact, 54 percent of all schools received the state’s highest grade. That’s 9 percentage points higher than last year.
About 4 percent of schools received failing grades compared to 5.4 percent of schools last year.
“This data shows significantly increased performance for our schools, particularly in schools that have been lower performing in prior years,” State Superintendent Glenda Ritz, who chairs the board.
About 20 percent of schools had Bs, 16 percent had Cs, and 6 percent had Ds. Those categories all had fewer schools than last year.
Board member Brad Oliver said Wednesday the improvement is the result in part of an “intentional focus” on school improvement. That’s despite board plans to overhaul the A-F system under criticism that it doesn’t accurately reflect a school’s efforts.
The new system, which is in the rulemaking process now, will put more emphasis on whether individual student achievement improves over time.
“The A-F letter grade system is not perfect,” Oliver said. “But it is useful.”
But the approval did not come without plenty of controversy – most of it aimed at concerns that the Department of Education had not properly considered appeals from several schools.
The state board was set to approve the new grades last month but Oliver and others pushed for a delay to give the Department of Education more time to review the data and reconsider grades for some unusually-configured schools. That also gave the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency a chance to run the grading calculations as well to check the education department’s work.
But even after that delay, the board tinkered with grades for a handful of schools who objected to some of the data used for their calculations or that that have atypical grade configurations. The latter could mean they are startups with only a few students, don’t have traditional K-12 setups, or have slowly been adding grades and therefore don’t have the same data sets available for evaluation that other schools do. Many of those are newer charter schools.
Board member Tony Walker said schools shouldn’t be penalized just because they aren’t set up like others. “I don’t think a cookie cutter approach to all these schools is going to work,” Walker said. “There’s room for discretion here within the law.”
Ritz said the State Department of Education staff members had already tried to apply the board’s past decisions and state rules to the unusually configured schools. The staff acted in “good faith,” she said.
But Oliver said the board should itself consider the grades for unusual schools on a case-by-case basis.
Then, with little discussion about the individual situations, the board voted to recalculate grades for Horizon Christian Academy, Columbus Christian, Kings Academy and Lighthouse Christian Academy using only their elementary and middle school data. That’s in part because their high school data was incomplete.
Oliver said the decisions made Wednesday are “not defacto policy but responses to a specific situation.”
The board also voted to let another school – the Hammond Academy of Science and Technology – appeal its grade calculation even though it requested the change past the deadline.
Sean Eagan, the school’s principal, said the school has college placement and graduation rates that are higher than 90 percent. But education officials didn’t consider those numbers because they did not have previous data to use to determine improvement. However, education officials did consider high school test scores for algebra and English. That led the state to preliminarily assign the school a D.
“Regardless of what the letter grade reflects, there is outstanding education going on at your school,” board member Gordon Hendry told Eagan.
The board then voted to up the school’s overall letter grade from a D to a B by including only information for the middle and grade school.
The board also considered several requests from schools that said the Department of Education staff had not fairly considered their appeals. Members asked state education staff members to reconsider those grades but the board did not immediately vote to change those grades.
Board member Dan Elsner said the department staff had exhibited a “bad attitude” and “poor customer service” in dealing with some schools that had concerns about their grades, a charge Ritz denied.
Lesley Weidenbener is executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.