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Report on high-achieving kids dings Indiana A-F grade model unfairly, state says

Meghan Mangrum

At a time when many educators are paying attention to how schools can better serve struggling students, a new report from a conservative-leaning think tank raises a different question: What about the “gifted” kids?

The report, from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C., rates each state in the country by how well its accountability system recognizes and incentivizes schools that support high-achieving students. Indiana earned a low score — one star out of four — but state education officials take issue with the way scores were calculated.

“A more thorough review by Fordham may have resulted in a more accurate picture of Indiana’s accountability system,” Samantha Hart, a spokeswoman for the Indiana Department of Education wrote in an email.

The Fordham report used four criteria to decide how many stars to award, with states getting:

  • One star if their school grading formula gives extra points to kids who do more than just pass a test;
  • Another if the formula rewards test score improvement by individual students;
  • A third if it looks specifically at how gifted students perform and reports that publicly; and,
  • A fourth if the state calculates at least half of a school’s grade based on whether students improve or lose ground on test scores from one year to the next.

Indiana’s new A-F school grading system, used for the first time this year, met just the second requirement, according to Fordham, because the state uses a model that measures individual student test score “growth” from one year to the next.

Hart acknowledged that the state does not report on gifted students to the federal education department the way it does students from low-income families — disqualifying Indiana from earning a star for the third requirement.

But the first and last are another story, Hart said.

The state’s A-F grading system does give kids extra credit on their “growth scores” if they score in the “pass plus” range, Hart said, arguing Indiana should have earned that star. But the report requires those extra points be included in the part of the grade calculation that deals with how well they do on tests in a given year, not how much they improve.

She also said that the state should have earned the fourth star, too, because Indiana’s school measurement formula does, in fact, use test score “growth” to calculate more than half of a school’s grade.

The Institute, however, noted that the growth score itself is an average of the top 75 percent and the bottom 25 percent of students. That means the improvement of lower-scoring students counts for more than higher-scoring students. Fordham said this breakdown of percentages cost Indiana another star in its rating.

Just four states — Arkansas, Ohio, Oregon and South Carolina — have systems in place to encourage schools to focus on their highest performing students as well as their lowest, the report said.

The recommendations come as states are tinkering with how they rate schools under the nation’s new federal education law.

Like previous versions of the law, the Every Student Succeeds Act requires that states identify the lowest performing schools. While the new law continues to require states to measure the quality of schools using results from annual tests in reading and math, states are free to choose other measures of school quality.

Fordham’s report asserts that an unintended consequence of previous accountability systems is that high-performing students, especially those at struggling schools, were left without support to push them even further in their academic pursuits.

“It’s wrong for any child to miss out on academic challenges at school, and we should do everything we can to develop the full potential of all our students, including high achievers,” the report’s authors wrote.

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