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Indiana education officials delay release of A-F grades amid poor ILEARN scores

The State Board of Education voted Wednesday to postpone releasing 2019 state letter grades for schools. This delay will allow time for lawmakers to consider a one-year “hold harmless” exemption to keep A-F grades from falling.

The board’s decision comes after its members saw this year’s inaugural ILEARN results, which were released to the public during Wednesday’s meeting. Scores for the first year of the new test are significantly lower than last year’s ISTEP test results. Only 37.1% of students statewide passed both math and English, and the pass rate was significantly lower for Indianapolis Public Schools.

Some 90% of Indiana schools saw 60% or fewer students passing both subject exams. That means most of the state’s elementary and middle schools are on track to receive a D or F under Indiana’s state grading system, which relies heavily on state standardized test scores.

Both the governor and state superintendent have made public calls for lawmakers to protect schools from dropping grades, which could negatively impact teacher evaluations and trigger state intervention at chronically struggling schools.

Read more: Indiana 2019 test scores drop, hitting new low in first year of ILEARN

“I think there’s something here that reflects a problem that is statewide and needs to be addressed,” said state board member Tony Walker, referring to the state’s accountability system.

The delay means it could be months before schools receive their grades. The legislative session begins in January. Lawmakers also gather once before for an organizational day in November, although they don’t typically use it to pass legislation.

There is no required timeline by which state grades must be released. Indiana law just says they have to come out once annually. They were last released in November 2018.

State board member David Freitas reiterated in the meeting that passing the resolution did not signal the board’s support for the hold harmless, or “any remedy” the legislature may consider.

The state last approved a hold harmless exemption when test scores fell after a new version of ISTEP, based on more rigorous academic standards, was introduced in 2015. In response, lawmakers passed legislation that prevented schools from receiving A-F letter grades that year that were lower than the ones they received the year before.

Such a move undercuts the test’s role as an accountability metric for the state. It also has fueled debate over whether the test is a useful measure of student achievement.

This year’s test scores didn’t go down as significantly as they did in 2015, but did see the lowest statewide passing percentages in recent history. State officials said they were expecting to see a drop because of the tests new format and increased rigor.

ILEARN is a computer adaptive test, meaning questions get harder or easier as students get answers right or wrong. More than its predecessor, ISTEP, it focuses on skills linked more closely to college and career readiness.

Without a hold harmless teacher pay could be affected by lower scores. Schools are waiting for finalized scores in order to finish their 2018-19 teacher evaluations, which will be used to determine who qualifies for a raise or, subsequently, the state’s Teacher Appreciation grant. And any pay change negotiated this fall would be retroactive to the beginning of the school year.

2019 ILEARN scores: Search for your school’s results

In addition to state grades, schools also receive a federal performance measure, which the state adopted to comply with federal requirements while continuing to give state grades. It considers other metrics such as school attendance rates and language proficiency of English-learners.

The delay and hold harmless exemption would not apply to the federal measure, which can factor into federal funding and which schools receive additional support. But State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said she expects the score will have a less severe impact on the federal measure because it puts less weight on test scores and is more goal-oriented.

The federal measure will likely be given to schools “a little faster” than state grades, McCormick said Wednesday, but that the state is still waiting on other data including growth scores.

In response to the ILEARN scores, McCormick, who is on the state education board, recently renewed her call for Indiana to use only the federal measure going forward, rather than both the federal and state grades