Ritz proposes 1-year hold on lower A-F school grades

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State schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz asked the Indiana Board of Education on Wednesday to not give lower A-F performance grades to schools for a year because of an expected drop in student standardized test scores.

Ritz proposed to board members that individual schools receive an updated A-F grade only if it was improved from the grade given in 2014. She cited an anticipated score decline with changes to the ISTEP exam taken this spring and wants schools to have more transition time.

Many schools could drop two letter grades with even a slight decline in student scores, Ritz said, and the number of schools receiving an F could jump from the current 87 to nearly 150. That would leave many communities around the state with schools wrongly labeled as failing, she said.

"We are assessing new standards and I don't want to give a false impression of what our schools really actually are doing in terms of student performance," Ritz said.

The board isn't expected to decide on the proposal until this fall, but voted Wednesday to ask the state attorney general's office to review its options under Indiana's school assessment laws.

Ritz, who has announced she'll seek the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican Gov. Mike Pence next year, has been skeptical of the school grading system, while the board dominated by Pence's appointees has advocated the grades.

Board member Gordon Hendry said he was willing to delve into options for making the school grades fair, but was concerned about the equity of not giving any lower grades for a year.

"That doesn't really seem to be a fair way to approach it," said Hendry, who was appointed by Pence.

The ISTEP exam became the center of outcry from parents and educators in February over longer testing times for the exam, which was redesigned to align with new state standards created after Indiana withdrew from the national Common Core standards last year.

The revamped test was to have taken students about 12 hours—about double from last year—before state Department of Education officials and experts hired by Pence developed a plan to shave at least three hours from the exam, mostly by eliminating some questions.

Meanwhile, Ritz joined other board members in unanimously selecting suburban Indianapolis teacher Sarah O'Brien as vice chairwoman, a new position that shares some board authority with Ritz.

Ritz remains the board's chairwoman despite Pence's push during this year's legislative session to change the law so the board could elect any member as its leader. The Republican-dominated Legislature delayed that change until after the 2016 state superintendent election, instead creating the vice chair position that shares with Ritz responsibility for the panel's agenda.

O'Brien, a Pence board appointee, is a fourth-grade teacher at River Birch Elementary School in Avon and the daughter of Republican state Rep. Bill Fine of Munster.

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