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Teachers’ questions about state’s ratings remain unanswered


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The principal of Creekside Elementary School wants to know how well his fourth-grade students have to perform on ISTEP next month to earn the school a better grade from the state.

Creekside Elementary earned an A from Indiana in 2011 but received a C last year, under Indiana’s new grading system. The state typically doesn’t intervene with schools unless they receive an F grade for at least four consecutive years, but teachers and principals know parents judge their schools based on the letter grades they receive.

The new system grades schools based on the number of students who pass ISTEP, as well as the number of low- and high-performing students who improve. Depending on how much students’ scores improve, a school’s letter grade could go up or down.

The problem Mark Heiden and other principals and superintendents locally and across the state have is that no one has told them specifically how much students who passed ISTEP the previous year need to improve their scores during the current year for the school to get a better letter grade.

“We want our students to show high growth, and we don’t actually know what that is. The state has not let us know that,” Heiden said.

The new administration at the Indiana Department of Education is trying to find the answer to that and other questions about the statewide grading scale.

The grading scale that was used in 2012 and that will be used this year as well was created by employees working for former State Superintendent Tony Bennett, and most of the people who designed that scale now are gone.

Employees within the department of education’s accountability and assessment office know how the grading scale works, but right now that is the only office in the department of education that can explain it to schools. Much of the rest of State Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s staff still are trying to understand it, spokesperson David Galvin said.

“All of the information is there. It’s about the new team, the new administration, learning how the system works. And how the formula is applied,” Galvin said.

Galvin said Ritz wants to revamp the state’s grading system in favor of one that doesn’t compare students with others across the state, but instead measures how much an individual student has learned during the school year. But before the department of education can update the grading scale, it needs to better understand how the current system works and see whether lawmakers are going to make any changes to the classroom standards schools were preparing to use for the 2014-15 school year, Galvin said.

That also means continuing this year with a system of ranking schools that few people in the department of education understand and that confuses school officials.

“There’s no other option at this time,” Galvin said.

Twenty-two of Johnson County’s 41 schools received As under last year’s grading scale, down slightly from 25 in 2011. The new scale also no longer factored in the federal assessment for schools. In 2011, Center Grove, Whiteland, Franklin and Indian Creek high schools had their state grades capped at C because they didn’t show enough growth under the federal assessment. Last year, five of the area’s high schools received A.

Superintendents from Center Grove and Greenwood schools said last fall they were unable to give schools that didn’t earn As details about how they could change their classroom lessons because they didn’t fully understand how the grades were calculated.

At Northwood Elementary School, Principal Katie Crites doesn’t believe the C the school received in 2012 shows how well students actually are doing.

Last year, 81 percent of the school’s students passed both the math and English sections of ISTEP, the school’s highest ISTEP passing rate in the last five years. And 95 percent of students passed the IREAD-3 exam, which Indiana students took for the first time last year and gauges whether students are reading at their grade level. But the students who passed ISTEP didn’t show enough improvement in their scores for the state, Crites said.

“I want to say there’s no excuses, but there’s also, when you know where we started and where we are now, we have shown significant growth from the overall passing,” she said.

Northwood has made changes with the goal of improving overall ISTEP scores. For the past several years, teachers have been assessing students throughout the year to see how well they’re keeping up with the lessons taught in class. If a student doesn’t understand what’s being taught, that student is given more time with a teacher or classroom assistant, either individually or in small groups, to review the material until it is better understood.

Creekside has started providing similar help for students who are behind, and both schools are providing more individualized or small-group instruction to students who are keeping up or who are working ahead.

So when a math teacher at Creekside checks to see how well her students understand adding and subtracting fractions with similar denominators, she might find students in the class who still don’t understand what they’re being asked to do. In that case, the teacher or a classroom assistant can work with those students until they master the lesson. Meanwhile, they’ll provide a more challenging lesson to the students who do understand the lesson, such as adding fractions with different denominators.

That way students who are behind can catch up, and students who are keeping up or are able to work ahead are constantly challenged in class, Heiden said.

The hope is that could add up to the kind of student improvement numbers the state will be looking for this year when those students take ISTEP.

“Just passing (ISTEP) in third grade and passing it again in fourth is not enough,” Heiden said.

Grading scales

ISTEP begins March 4. Here are the details behind the state’s old and new grading scales:

Last year

Schools’ grades were calculated by examining the percentage of students who passed ISTEP or English and Algebra 1 end-of-course assessments, along with whether the rate of the students passing those exams had improved within three years.

This year

For elementary and middle schools:

Schools get preliminary scores based on the percentage of students who passed ISTEP or similar statewide assessments. Those scores can be raised if either the bottom 25 percent of students show high growth on the exam, or the remaining 75 percent of students show low growth.

The scores can be lowered if less than 95 percent of the bottom 25 percent of students take the exam, or if less than 95 percent of the remaining 75 percent take the exam.

For high schools

High schools receive scores based on the percentage of sophomores who have passed the English 10 and Algebra I end-of-course assessments. The schools’ scores can be raised if there is a 10 percent improvement in English, or a 17 percent improvement in math compared with students’ eighth-grade ISTEP scores.

Scores can be lowered for a school if students’ end-of-course assessment scores are lower when compared to their previous ISTEP scores.

But scores can also rise if 59 percent of students who didn’t pass the English end-of-course assessment, or 63 percent who didn’t pass the a,lgebra exam pass the exam by graduation.

Schools get another set of scores based on graduation rates, which can be raised if more than 34 percent of students receive honors diplomas or 13 percent of students who didn’t graduate within four years graduate in five.

Those scores can fall if 33 percent or more students receive general diplomas.

Schools also receive a set of scores based on preparing students for college and careers. Those are based on the percentage of graduates who do one of the following: Earn a passing scores of three, four or five on an Advanced Placement exam; earn a passing score of four, five, six or seven on an International Baccalaureate exam; earn three verifiable college credits from the Priority Liberal Arts course list or earn a department of education-approved industry certification.

SOURCE: Indiana Department of Education

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