Cold Spring School and School 79—both schools in the Indianapolis Public Schools district—were standouts on the recent ISTEP test. At both schools, more students passed the state exam than the average for the IPS district as a whole, and their students made solid gains over last year.
So why did Cold Spring earn an A from the state while School 79 received a C?
It’s largely because Indiana lawmakers decided to judge some schools by a more generous yardstick than others.
Most elementary and middle schools are graded based on two factors: how their students score on state tests, and how much their scores improved. New schools and schools that join the IPS innovation network can opt to be graded for three years based only on the second measure, known as growth.
Advocates say the two-tiered system makes sense because schools shouldn’t be held accountable for the low passing rates of students that they just began educating. But in practice, the policy benefits charter and innovation schools, which enjoy strong support from Republican lawmakers.
It raises the question of whether grades that were supposed to be easy for parents to understand are too distorted to be clear.
“When you start evaluating otherwise identical schools using different measures … that is not informative,” said Marcus Winters, a Boston University researcher who has found benefits to grading schools. “It’s hiding information.”
Because Cold Spring became an innovation school last year, it was graded based on growth alone. If it were graded using the same rules as School 79, it also would’ve received a C from the state. That’s a huge improvement over the F it received last year, but it’s not as remarkable as the A that appears on its report card.
Cold Spring is not unique. Six of the eight innovation schools graded received As from the state. But only one innovation school—Phalen Leadership Academy at School 93—would’ve gotten that grade under the rules used for grading other schools.
At 18 traditional neighborhood and magnet schools in IPS, students made large enough gains on the state test that the schools would’ve received top marks if they were innovation schools. But instead, they were given Bs, Cs, Ds and even an F. (Years of repeated low letter grades can trigger state intervention or takeover.)
The disparities have led to backlash from education advocates who are skeptical of partnering with outside operators at innovation schools. IPS leaders began creating innovation schools three years ago as a way to turn around chronically struggling schools, give more freedom to successful principals and pull charter schools under the district umbrella. The schools are managed by outside nonprofit or charter partners, and their teachers are not part of the district union.
Education advocate and lawyer MaryAnn Schlegel Ruegger pointed out that this grading quirk can have cascading effects that stack the deck in favor of outsourcing of school management.
“The favorable treatment on state grades (which translate into eligibility for state and federal grants and higher ratings on school and real estate marketing sites like Great Schools and Niche and Zillow, and bragging rights to parents on the new IPS/charter school combined enrollment assignment company Enroll Indy) is the incentive to convince more financially struggling school districts throughout the state to do the same thing,” she wrote on Facebook.
Jon Valant, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies school choice, said that the inconsistency seems troubling. But there are benefits to judging schools by growth because operators are not penalized for restarting schools that have chronically low passing rates.
“In principle, it’s growth that is the sort of true reflection of what schools are actually doing,” he said.
Many innovation schools are making real progress when it comes to student scores on state tests. But even schools that are not benefiting from the system. For example, at one innovation school, Kindezi Academy at School 69, passing rates and student growth fell from 2016 to 2017, but the letter grade nonetheless rose from an F to a D. Because it became an innovation school last year, its low passing rate is no longer pulling the grade down.
The growth-only grading scheme was also used at two IPS schools that were considered new: Center for Inquiry at School 70, which received an A, and the now-closed Arlington Middle School, which nonetheless received an F.
The rule change for grading innovation schools had wide support when lawmakers approved it in 2016, including from IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee who said he wanted innovation schools to get “a fresh start.”
Rep. Bob Behning, the Indianapolis Republican who authored the innovation school legislation, said he thought innovation schools should have the same options that exist for other new schools.
“Innovation network schools generally are new schools or reconfigured schools, so it’s not just schools that have changed their names,” Behning said. “So we decided that it made sense because we allowed charters to have that same flexibility.”
But the rules don’t just apply to new or restarted schools—they apply to any school that joins the innovation network. As a result, even schools like Cold Spring and KIPP Indy, which were not restarted when they became innovation schools, are treated like they are brand new. Like Cold Spring, KIPP got an A under the growth-only model—after years of C and D grades.
The two-tiered system could be short-lived. Behning said he anticipates that the grading system will change in several ways as the state overhauls the way it evaluates schools under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.
“I think the differences between the combined letter grade and the growth-only (grade) will hopefully be mitigated in the new model, so it won’t have such stark differences,” Behning said. “The goal wasn’t just to give them a pass and not to have to hold them to the same level of accountability.”
Chalkbeat Indiana is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.