INDIANAPOLIS – The State Board of Education approved a resolution Wednesday halting the issuance of A-F letter grades until lawmakers change the law to hold schools and teachers harmless from significant drops in test scores.
The move comes with the release of ILEARN test results showing less than half of Indiana's students passed the new standardized test. In all, 47.9% of students in grades 3 through 8 were deemed proficient in English language arts and 47.8% in math. Just 37.1% passed both.
In comparison, last year, 50.7% passed both portions of the ISTEP+ test, which was phased out. Students took the ILEARN test for the first time in the spring.
Because the scores are the overriding factor in school accountability grades, Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick said more than half of all schools would likely be rated a D or F. For comparison, only 13% of Indiana schools received a D or F last year.
“That is damaging to schools,” she said. “It'll be a big hit for most districts.”
GOP legislative leaders and Gov. Eric Holcomb already came out in support of holding schools harmless for this transition year, which is sometimes called a pause in accountability. The General Assembly did the same thing in 2015 after new academic standards resulted in a drop. School grades were allowed to improve then but could not fall below their previous grade.
“It's a Band-Aid,” Southwest Allen County Schools Superintendent Phil Downs said. “We still have an injury to fix.”
He and leaders of other Allen County districts decried the use of standardizes tests to unfairly measure the effectiveness of teachers, schools and students. And they called for changes to the overall accountability system.
“One of the most depressing days of the school year is when test scores come out,” Fort Wayne Community Schools Superintendent Wendy Robinson said.
McCormick acknowledged that implementation dips usually come with a new assessment. Compared to last year, scores dropped 16% in English and 11% in math.
But she defended the students, noting college entrance scores and those on the National Assessment of Educational Progress show improvement.
“Their performance is not backsliding,” McCormick said. “There are promising trends of student performance. This assessment and threshold was much more rigorous.”
ILEARN is a computer-adaptive assessment, which means every time a student answers a question, his or her response helps determine the next question asked. The difficulty of the test adjusts to students' skills, providing a better measure of what each student knows and can do, according to the Indiana Department of Education.
In addition to the accountability grades, the scores are tied to teacher evaluations and bonuses.
When asked why Indiana finds itself here again, McCormick said “we are who we vote for.”
She went on to discuss the myriad changes in the education system over the past decade that led to one parent telling the board Wednesday that she is tired of her child being used as a guinea pig.
“One of the takeaways to today was the parent who spoke who mentioned the moving targets. We all feel that frustration,” McCormick said.
“It's been 10 years of policy frustration – whether that's an accountability system, a new assessment, the standards changing, the way it's weighted changing. It's a moving target.”
State Board of Education member Tony Walker said he understands the need to hold schools harmless but also said the test is accurate and reliable, and the poor showing of students is a concern.
“I really don't like it. The scores are what they are,” he said.
Locally, districtwide totals for proficiency in both English and math didn't crack 50% for any corporations in Allen County. Scores ranged from 25.5% in Fort Wayne Community Schools to 47.5% in Northwest Allen County Schools. East Allen County Schools and Southwest Allen County Schools scored 38% and 41.6%, respectively.
Each district had at least one school that scored above 50% in English and math proficiency. Cedarville Elementary School of EACS earned the best score, 74.5%, while Aboite Elementary School of SACS, Oak View Elementary School of NACS, Croninger Elementary School of FWCS and Leo Elementary School of EACS scored in the low 60% range. Maple Creek Middle, Cedar Canyon Elementary and Eel River Elementary schools of NACS, Holland Elementary School of FWCS and Leo Junior-Senior High and Woodlan Elementary schools of EACS scored between 50% and 56%.
English and math proficiency scores for individual grade levels at the county's public schools varied, ranging from 2.4% in fifth grade at FWCS' Levan Scott Academy to 74.5% in third grade at Cedarville Elementary.
Robinson also said she's become impatient with tests and accountability systems that have continued to change. “I grow weary of going through the same cycle every five years,” she said.
Downs thanked state leaders for the “hold harmless” effort and said he knows state lawmakers work hard for their constituents. But he questioned decisions they've made regarding testing – “It's pretty obvious over the last 10 years some of the advice (they've taken) might not have been the best.”
Matthew LeBlanc of The Journal Gazette contributed to this story.