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November 1, 2012

State hands out grades for schools, districts

Results not bad, but some area districts have concerns

> SOUTHERN INDIANA — Schools and school corporations got their grades from the Indiana Department of Education on Wednesday, but not without ruffling some feathers.

While none of the school districts in Clark and Floyd counties fared poorly on the state’s A-F grading system, some of them disagree with scores given to their schools and others said the system isn’t as transparent as its design suggests.

The model, which replaces the previous one that used labels such as Exemplary Progress and Academic Watch, was designed to give parents a better idea of how their schools were performing, according to a release from the Indiana Department of Education.

Elementary, middle, combined and high schools were tabulated in different ways. But overall, student improvement, test performance, graduation rates and other factors were included in the grades.

However, some district officials said they thought the transparency was more opaque than the state intended.

John Reed, assistant superintendent of West Clark Community Schools, said he’s glad his corporation overall got a B and didn’t have a school that scored lower than a C, but still has concerns with how some of the schools were graded. Specifically, he said how student improvement with the bottom 25 percent performers divided from the rest of classes was difficult to digest.

“I do have concerns with how they’re using this growth model from a statistical standpoint,” Reed said. “I do want to study it further. The problem that I have is that the formulas  that they use to put together your points with growth at the bottom 25 percent and top 75 percent, it does not make statistical sense.”

The New Albany-Floyd County Consolidated School Corp. also issued a release calling concerns about the model into question Wednesday.

New Albany-Floyd County — the only district in the area to get an A as a whole — said in the release that the improvement of students contributed to the overall good grades. But it also pointed out that the growth model is not “understandable to schools or the general public.”

“The system should be criterion-based and it is not. If the system were criterion-based, school districts would know and be able to inform people before the test is given what the target scale score would be to achieve typical and high growth status,” the release says. “Because the score is based on a normal curve that compares students within score bands, no predictability or transparency exists.”

It pointed out that Georgetown Elementary School was honored by the state for having the seventh-highest math growth in the state in 2011, but received a B in the scores.

A release from Greater Clark County Schools didn’t talk about how the model works, but instead focused on what the plan is to raise the district’s scores.

Greater Clark was given a C by the state. Three of its schools received a D — Northaven Elementary School, Parkview Middle School and River Valley Middle School — but it also had as many A schools as New Albany-Floyd.

Andrew Melin, superintendent of Greater Clark, said in the release that he appreciates the work former superintendent Stephen Daeschner did, but the focus needs to zero in on the students who are having the most trouble.

“Moving forward, the district’s academic focus will be on meeting the academic needs of each student,” the release says. “Realistically, targeting less than 2 percent of the district’s 10,351 students will significantly impact our overall letter grade.”

In Clarksville Community Schools, the district received a C as a whole from the state. Clarksville High School got an A and the other two schools got a C.

Kim Knott, Clarksville’s superintendent, said in the release that the work of teachers paid off.

But in West Clark, Reed said the complexity made it difficult for school corporations to understand the model, and the timeframe didn’t give much time to contest any of the results.

“I really think that administrators, teachers, the profession across the state is going to have to work to understand this better,” Reed said. “We were only given a couple weeks to appeal. Historically, we had four to six weeks to digest everything and then make an appeal. But we had to digest everything very quickly, so it makes it very difficult for us to find any problems with it and defend ourselves.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett,  who is up for re-election Tuesday, hailed the new grading system as a more accurate measure of how schools are performing. But he also conceded that the new system has “some complexity” that will make it difficult for parents, students, teachers and others to understand how the grades were reached.

At a meeting of the State Board of Education today, Bennett likened the grades to the safety rating system given to cars. “You understand the rating but not everything that goes into it,” Bennett said.

Release of the grades, which are posted on the DOE’s website, was approved by the board at its meeting today. The state board had approved the new grading system earlier this year, over widespread opposition that included schools, community groups and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.

Bennett’s opponent in the race for state superintendent, Indianapolis teacher Glenda Ritz, has been sharply critical of the new school grading system, saying it’s based too heavily on standardized test scores and unfairly labels schools.

Indiana’s K-12 schools have been measured and graded in the past, using a system based in part on how many students passed standardized tests. The new system incorporates a range of metrics. At the elementary and middle school level, progress made by students from year to year on their standardized test scores played a large role in the new grading system. At the high school level, college and career readiness indicators, such as Advanced Placement scores, industry certifications and standardized test scores factored into the new grades.

Some of the lowest grades went to schools in the state’s largest urban school districts, including Indianapolis Public Schools. Some of the highest grades went to schools in suburban schools districts, such as Zionsville Community Schools, which are located in one of the most affluent counties in the state.

But Bennett rejected the notion that the grades reflect the amount of wealth or poverty in a school district. He noted for example, that 85 percent of schools that had raised their past grades by three or four letter marks were in “high-poverty” school districts.

The school letter grades were scheduled to be publicly released earlier this month, but were delayed to give schools time to look at the data that was used to calculate the grades. Bennett said more than 140 schools appealed their grades, and 42 percent of those schools had some aspect of their data revised. He said 11 percent of the schools that appealed their initial grade received a grade change based on their appeal.

CNHI statehouse correspondent Maureen Hayden, contributed to this story

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