January 13, 2021

State Ed Board Considers A-F School Grade Overhaul, Jenner Voted In As Chairperson

Indiana Secretary of Education Katie Jenner speaks at the meeting of the State Board of Education Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021 at the Indiana State Library. - YouTube

Indiana Secretary of Education Katie Jenner speaks at the meeting of the State Board of Education Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021 at the Indiana State Library.

YouTube

Indiana’s first and newly appointed Secretary of Education was voted in as chair of the State Board of Education by its members Wednesday. Now, Secretary Katie Jenner, who also heads the Department of Education, faces a major policy challenge -- crafting a new school accountability system.

Indiana’s A-to-F school grading system has long been criticized by classroom educators for its reliance on standardized test scores. It came into use in 2011 as a way to drive academic improvements and often caused school leaders to focus heavily on the areas used to calculate the ranking. The letter grades are intended to give families and the public an easy way to gauge how well their local school is educating students.

Schools and entire districts who earn consecutive failing grades can face intervention from the state, including being placed under control of the state.

Now, the State Board of Education is revamping the accountability system and has suggested new ways to evaluate school quality could include attendance rates, social studies and science test scores, and career exploration.

During the first regular meeting of the year Wednesday, board staff released early feedback on those ideas. Major themes collected from responses submitted by parents, educators and others were summarized in the document and included a response from board staff.

Document: Accountablity Framework Feedback Summary

Some board members agreed that the current A-F system is not working for all schools. Others, including Perry Township Schools Superintendent Pat Mapes, also voiced support for making student literacy in grades K-3 a focus of the new metrics.

“Is the accountability system a burden? No. Is the accountability system upside down? I would say ‘yes’ because it should be more focused on [grades K-3] for literacy than what it means in the middle and whether or not we are passing the test,” he said.  “Because if we don’t have literacy skills, it does not matter what we do after grade 3 because those kids are going to struggle.”

BJ Watts said the system needs work but warned that schools will shift priorities based on what the board eventually decides the metrics should be.

“Whatever we put in accoutbalitty, that is what schools are going to do,” Watts said.

David Freitas suggested creating a two-tiered type of system that would reward schools who had shown multiple years of a C-grade or higher, by not requiring they meet certain benchmarks.

He criticized the current system as blocking the freedom of teachers to try new ideas in the classroom because they are too focused on the state’s ILEARN exam. 

“Why would we treat every school in the state of Indiana the same, they are just not,” Freitas said, later adding: “Do you want to be unleashed or do you want to continue with the same burdensome system we have encumbered them with for a number of years.”

Board members also want to know if the new accountability system can satisfy federal requirements. Now, each school is given a state grade and a federal assessment - a duality that can create confusion of what the rankings mean and how each compares to the other.

Jenner, formerly an adviser to Gov. Eric Holcomb and a vice president at Ivy Tech Community College, said no matter what is eventually decided it must be clear cut.

“We have an opportunity ahead, a major opportunity ahead to build a trusted and transparent system with transparent data, right?” she said during the meeting. “For our families, for our educators to use.”

Public, Stakeholders Respond

A majority of responders to the board's earlier memo disapproved of 100 points being the maximum awarded to a student to describe their annual academic growth. Higher points could potentially increase a school’s calculation for a letter grade.

“Schools that push students beyond one year of academic progress should receive more than 100 points,” many commenters agreed. “If one year’s growth is the expectation, then it is only appropriate to provide additional points beyond that.”

Responders voiced little support for making student attendance and chronic absenteeism an indicator because it “shifts focus away from key measurements of college and career readiness.” But school climate and culture surveys received some support from commenters as a possible metric.

The board is expected to hold a work session to further discuss ideas before next month’s meeting.

In addition to Jenner’s unanimous election as board chair, Kathleen Mote was voted in as vice chair and Pete Miller elected as the secretary.

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