Rewriting The Formula For School Grade Ratings

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Indiana education officials will soon re-write the formula state leaders use to assign letter grade ratings to schools — again.  Barely a year ago, the State Board of Education approved new rules for identifying the best- and worst-performing schools in Indiana.  Now, the General Assembly has given state officials until November to try again.  Among the groups hoping to add their input during the state’s re-write process:  an AP Statistics class at Ben Davis High School.  They asked StateImpact Indiana’s Kyle Stokes to help them get started.


Explaining a complex statistical model to a statistics class, even a high school statistics class, seems more like a job for, you know, a statistician.  I’m a reporter, so I was kinda nervous…At the request of the district’s superintendent, AP Stats teacher John Ulbright asked me to help his students study the A-F rating system for schools.  They want to formally suggest changes to the formula to some of the state officials charged with actually re-writing it.

“I think that had been rumored for a while that they were going to re-examine the A-F model,” says Ulbright. “That that actually got put into law, that seemed to give my students a really good chance to be a part of something big.”

My job wasn’t to tell these high school seniors what to recommend.  My job was to explain how schools were rated using more than just an overall pass rate on statewide tests.  After 20 minutes of blabbing, I ask: “What do you think of all of this?… This is your school’s letter grade.”

Kalen Phillips chimes in.  The rating system has impacted his classes — he says it sometimes feels like his teachers are rushing to cover all of the material in the state’s standards:

“Since we’ve got so much to learn in so little time, we don’t actually learn much, which effects our grade, which affects the school’s.”

Morgan Stovall has an idea.  She says let’s bring in outside evaluators — because shouldn’t teacher performance play a part in a school’s grade?

“If you go into a class and you have a teacher that doesn’t want to work, you don’t want to work either.”

Ulbright’s class will make its recommendations in the next two weeks. But in deciding to offer their two cents on what the state’s A-F ratings should look like, Ulbright’s students are entering a political minefield.  Lawmakers called for a rewrite because of one key concern:  Students’ ability to meet the state’s standard on a test used to determine their score.  But now, students are scored based on the standard and how they stack up with their peers.  It’s the “growth” part of the so-called “Indiana growth model.”  If not enough students show growth, or too many students fall behind, that can hurt the school’s letter grade.  This concerns critics for a host of reasons, which state superintendent Glenda Ritz shorthanded this way at a recent State Board meeting:  the model is too complicated. “The calculations are so complex for the growth portion of it, I cannot tell them what it really represents. It lacks transparency. School districts are wondering how it is that they’re supposed to improve and get to the next letter grade.”

But, another board member piped in, the model’s supposed to be complex — we want the grade to fairly reflect what’s going on academically in a school.  However education officials in the executive branch re-write the formula, there are signs the legislative branch isn’t happy.  Democratic State Representative Kreg Battles voted against the re-write bill. And on the House floor, Battles said it wasn’t because he was a big fan of the A-F model. “We’re gonna trust the State Board to come up with this magic formula remembering it was the State Board that created the formula that most of us in this room think is pretty daggone flawed.”

That’s frustrating for State Board member Jo Blacketor.  She isn’t a big fan of how complex the guidelines are.  But from her perspective, most state board members saw the A-F model as a work in progress. “For the legislators to think we just fell off the pumpkin truck, if you will, that we need to be told we need to review A-F, I think is really presumptuous. We were headed in that direction anyway.”

In their order to rewrite the rules, lawmakers forbade state officials from comparing students’ to each other in determining schools’ letter grades.  That means the newer “growth model” will have to find another way to measure student growth.  For StateImpact Indiana, I’m Kyle Stokes.


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