Actions of the rogue districts in Indiana followed a national flap over the practice of grading schools that erupted on Aug. 1. On that day, Florida’s state education commissioner, Tony Bennett, resigned in the wake of allegations that during his previous tenure as Indiana’s education chief, he tweaked the rules for the state's school grading system to benefit a charter school run by a campaign contributor. Though Bennett denied the allegations, which were bolstered by emails published by the Associated Press, he stepped down from his Florida post.
McShane, of American Enterprise Institute, said the best guard against “gaming the system” is transparency.
“States that use these systems should make their methods and all of the data available so that independent folks can analyze the results and make sure there weren’t any shenanigans," he said.
The success of school grading in Florida was called into question earlier this year by the Shanker Institute, a think tank with ties to the American Federation of Teachers. Matthew Di Carlo, a senior fellow at the institute, analyzed the data around Florida’s increase in successful schools after its school grading program began and concluded that over time, the jumps in numbers of A-rated schools in Florida coincided with major changes to the formulas for figuring the grades. At times when the grading criteria remained constant, there was little upward movement in the grades the schools received, the analysis showed.
But others say the success of Florida’s system is real. Ron Matus, of the redefined education reform think tank, notes problems with Florida's grading system, but wrote in an opinion piece for South Florida’s Sun Sentinel that “school grades and other Bush-era policies nudged school districts into putting more time, energy and creativity on the kids who struggle the most.”
“I have no doubt that those efforts, carried out by hard-working, highly skilled teachers, moved the needle,” Matus wrote, noting statistics showing that achievement gaps between low-income students and their more affluent peers closed between 2003 and 2011.
Points of contention
Fort Wayne’s resolution against Indiana’s school grading system highlights the general complaints against these types of programs. The resolution said that the letter grades assigned to schools are based on student test scores “without regard to numerous factors that affect those scores, including the number of students living in poverty, the number of students learning the English language, the number of students with special needs, and the extent of parental involvement.”
Data from the Indiana Department of Education shows that in Indiana’s schools with highest poverty, only 13 percent of schools get A grades. In schools with lowest poverty, 64 percent of schools get A grades.
“Are we going to judge a school on basis of a standardized test, and not all the different characteristics that go into creating a happy learning environment?" GiaQuinta asked, noting that 70 percent of students in his district qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a poverty indicator.
Beating the status quo
McShane said that school grading programs are a step in the right direction, despite their flaws. They provide a helpful shortcut for parents seeking information and have the potential to become more sophisticated and accurate in the future, he said. He favors programs that focus on growth measurements that give schools credit for the progress low-performing students make, even when those students fall short of desired score thresholds.
“So long as school grading systems are a part of an evolutionary process towards a more flexible and nimble accountability system, I think they are a good development,” McShane said.
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