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As low ILEARN scores loom, McCormick wants to change how Indiana evaluates schools, teachers

State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick addresses media on Aug. 28, 2019. McCormick announced she will ask legislators for a hold harmless exception and "emergency decision" power for the state education board prior to the release of 2019 ILEARN scores.
State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick addresses media on Aug. 28, 2019. McCormick announced she will ask legislators for a hold harmless exception and "emergency decision" power for the state education board prior to the release of 2019 ILEARN scores.
Emma Kate Fittes

With fresh urgency, State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick renewed her call for reforming how Indiana grades schools. Her statements came Wednesday, after schools expressed concern about how ILEARN standardized test scores would affect their state grades.

Scores for the first year of ILEARN won’t be released to the public until next week, but schools received theirs earlier this month and the results are said to be disappointingly low.

Earlier this week McCormick, along with Gov. Eric Holcomb, and a string of lawmakers released statements calling on legislators to pass a “hold harmless” exemption, which would protect educators and schools from the negative effects of low scores. State test results can impact a school’s A-F grade and decisions about teacher pay.

On Wednesday McCormick went a step further, saying she will also ask legislators to pause state interventions for failing schools for one year and grant the State Board of Education “emergency rulemaking authority” to revamp the state’s accountability system.

“We are hopeful that our state General Assembly will take a hard look at our state accountability system and address some of those concerns so a year from now we are not having the same conversation,” McCormick said.

Schools in Indiana currently receive two performance measures each year. One is the state’s A-F grade, which for elementary and middle schools is based only on standardized test performance. It considers how many students pass the test and how much students’ learning grows each year.

The other is a federal measure considers other metrics such as school attendance rates and language proficiency of English-learners. It also includes certain student that the state plan excludes, such as those receiving credit recovery services.

The state adopted this second method to comply with new federal requirements while still keeping its grading system.

McCormick has previously called for the state to have only one measure for “transparency and clarity.” It’s one of her 2019 legislative priorities. But proponents of Indiana’s model previously said the state’s grading system is a better option because it reflects Indiana laws and policies, not federal ones.

How the state grades a school is important because that grade can affect how communities feel about their schools, and too many years of failing grades can lead to state intervention, including takeovers. And the federal measures are used to determine how federal resources are allocated to the lowest-performing schools.

Conversations about changing the state’s accountability system are already happening among lawmakers, prompted in part by Indiana’s new graduation pathways, which give students different options for earning a diploma.

Last legislative session, lawmakers considered a bill that would have shifted the focus of high schools’ state A-F grades from how students perform on state tests to how students perform after they graduate. That language ultimately did not pass, but a State Board of Education group is now tasked with recommending measurements that would better align high school state grades with graduation pathways.

The state education department does not have a member sitting on that panel.

McCormick also said it is “past time” for the state to take students’ standardized test scores out of teachers’ evaluations. The argument is that scores should be used to inform educators on what concepts students have mastered and where they need help, rather than a way of evaluating how well teachers are doing their jobs.

“ILEARN was a snapshot in time, it was a one-day assessment,” McCormick said. “It gave us information on where students are performing, but there are a lot of pieces to student performance beyond one assessment.”

As for why the first year of scores were low, McCormick said the new test was “much more rigorous” and weighed skills differently, prioritizing “college and career readiness” skills.

Scores are expected to be released publicly on Sept. 4.

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