When Indiana’s school letter grades debuted in 2011, the purpose was to make it easier for the public to understand school quality — but key players in Indianapolis education say simpler is not always better.
Indianapolis Public Schools, in partnership with The Mind Trust and the mayor’s office, are developing “equity reports” that will use different kinds of school data to better inform parents and community members about the quality of roughly 100 schools in the city — both IPS schools and mayor-sponsored charter schools. The new reports will have much more information than the state-issued letter grades, which currently consider little more than student test scores.
“We know parents and families need more than A-F (grades),” said Kameelah Shaheed-Diallo, the senior vice president of strategy and community engagement with The Mind Trust. “This is a tool to give them something more.”
The new reports, expected to roll out in November, are modeled on similar reports used to measure schools in Washington, D.C. They come at time when states nationwide are searching for better ways to measure schools that don’t just rely on standardized tests.
Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which will replace No Child Left Behind next year, states must include “non-academic” indicators in their accountability systems. The problem? Some of the new qualitative metrics are still being developed. They could include metrics such as graduation rates for high schools or things like school attendance or the results of student and staff surveys.
“This is very much a 1.0 moment for those measures,” said Thomas Dee, a professor from Stanford University’s graduate school of education. “I applaud efforts to pilot innovation, but I guess for me it’s not just about data. It’s about how it’s used, and my concern is that, if it just sits on a website, that it’s going to be under-utilized by parents and by school leaders and by taxpayers.”
The equity reports are one of two efforts underway in Indianapolis to develop a better school measurement systems — both for parents to make more informed school enrollment decisions and for schools to better reflect on what they need to improve. Equity reports are the parent- and community-facing piece.
Some of the data that will be used for the reports is already available from the Indiana Department of Education, but the reports will compile the information in an easy-to-find way that is more user-friendly, said Aleesia Johnson, the IPS’s innovation chief.
“The equity reports to me will be a way in which information is sort of packaged in a more transparent and clear way, both for (district) schools and public charter schools as well as for families,” Johnson said.
Both IPS and The Mind Trust are the process of meeting with community groups to find out exactly what parents want to know. Information on school leadership, discipline and attendance are already on the table.
IPS and the mayor’s office teamed up with The Mind Trust on this project after receiving a grant from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation that is geared toward creating a unified school enrollment system. The reports will be folded into that system as an extra service for parents as they choose schools for their children.
That grant is also funding a second effort on school measurement that is designed to help schools internally assess how well they’re helping students.
The second effort is driven by UChicago Impact, a nonprofit group affiliated with the University of Chicago has been using school climate and culture surveys in Chicago schools for years. The Chicago model — currently being piloted in 20 IPS schools and 20 mayor-sponsored charter schools — is based on a theory about the “five essentials.” Those are five qualities that strong schools share, said Elliot Ransom, the director of the five essentials efforts at UChicago Impact.
According to the group’s research, if schools rate high on three of the five measures — effective leaders, collaborative teachers, involved families, supportive environment, ambitious instruction — they are 10 times more likely to see student improvement than schools that are weak in those areas. But just having the data isn’t enough if you don’t act on it, he said.
“Educators are awash in data at this point in time, and it’s sometimes hard to make sense of what we should pay attention to,” Ransom said “It was foolhardy to think that you give something to someone and they suddenly change. So part of that is making (the data) public because the conversation will fundamentally change about school quality.”
After seeing some progress in Chicago, the state of Illinois voted in 2013 to include the five essentials in tracking school quality. While Illinois’ accountability system doesn’t use explicit ratings like Indiana’s, Ransom said, the commitment from the state shows that Indiana, too, could use such information in a large-scale way.
Dee, the expert from Stanford, urges states to be open to new ideas and to experiment but warns educators against putting too much stock in qualitative measures. Surveys, in particular, can be tricky to use because people don’t always give honest answers.
“You would worry about low response rate, you would worry about the extent to which people filling out the surveys really understood what they were responding to,” Dee said. “So there’s concern there.”
For now, both the equity reports and the UChicago surveys are only funded through the end of this year. Whether they’ll continue next year will depend on whether parents and educators find them valuable and whether anyone is willing to pay for them in the future.
If the new measures are popular, they could serve as a model for the state education department as it expands Indiana’s new accountability system.
The state’s new A-F grading system does factor student test score improvement, graduation rates, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses and college readiness in a school’s grade, which means the system meets most of the new federal school accountability requirements for high school students. But state officials still have work to do to come up with metrics that go beyond test scores for elementary and middle schools.
Cynthia Roach, testing director for the Indiana State Board of Education, said the state is weighing its options, but no decisions have been made. Coming up with test alternatives and non-test based metrics is one of the goals of the new state panel that was created by lawmakers this year to explore a new accountability systems for Indiana schools after ISTEP is retired next year.
There haven’t been any conversations at the state level about how either of these new pilots might address gaps in Indiana’s accountability system, but the potential is there, said the Mind Trust’s Shaheed-Diallo.
“Changing the state accountability is a bigger lift than I think we have capacity for, but I think it gets to this demand question,” Shaheed-Diallo said. “If people know there are other ways to measure (schools), perhaps it does create additional momentum for those conversations.”