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Indiana lawmakers could overhaul accountability, end school takeovers

School bus shown in the rear-view mirror of a vehicle.
A proposal winning support in the Indiana House would eliminate many of the consequences that typically loom over Indiana public schools.
David Handschuh/Chalkbeat

Indiana lawmakers are considering a plan that would put the final nail in the coffin of the state’s aggressive efforts to take over schools with chronically low test results.

A proposal winning early support in the House would eliminate many of the consequences for poor test performance that typically loom over Indiana public schools. District schools with failing grades would no longer face the threat of state seizure or the steps that precede it, such as a requirement that districts attempt to improve schools by replacing personnel, giving them new resources, or working with outside experts.

Under the proposed law, charter schools with low grades would be able to seek renewals without special permission from the state. And even if they receive low marks from the state, private schools would be able to receive vouchers for new students.

To gauge how much students are learning, Indiana assigns each school an A-F letter grade every year. For this school year, House Bill 1514 would replace all those grades with “null” or “no letter grade,” because of the disruption caused by the coronavirus.

In the long term, however, Indiana would still assign schools A-F letter grades, in an effort to create a clear measure of academic performance for parents and community members. Because the stakes of those grades would be lower, lawmakers hope there would be less pressure to suspend grades when schools across the state see declines in test scores.

The plan “rolls back all the prescriptive state interventions in exchange for that increased transparency,” said author Rep. Tony Cook, R-Cicero.

The House Education Committee unanimously approved the bill last week, and it moved forward in the full chamber Monday. If the House approves it on third reading, it will head to the Senate.

The proposal comes nearly a decade after state leaders severed five troubled schools from their districts, an ambitious and controversial improvement strategy. Since then enthusiasm for state takeover has waned, and Indiana has not seized control of any other schools.

Instead, state officials have relied on local leaders to decide how to attempt to help their lowest-scoring schools.

Last year state education officials voted to return the four remaining takeover campuses to their home districts. All but two are now closed.

“Past interventions and penalties have not resulted in many successes, as we all know,” Cook said.

Under the House plan, the letter grades schools receive would still hinge on student test results, including annual state tests. The Indiana State Board of Education, which already began its own process for revamping A-F grades, would be tasked with working out the details of the new accountability system.

The state could incorporate student results on tests given throughout the year and other metrics, such as attendance, in the new calculation. The state board would also be charged with developing a school performance dashboard with more information that might be useful for parents and community members.

The bill won bipartisan support at the committee hearing last week. Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, said that while he opposes A-F grades for schools, the bill is “light years ahead of where we were in the past.”

An unusual group of allies spoke in favor of the overhaul, including advocates for teachers and administrators, and supporters of school choice.

“Refocusing the purpose of our school accountability model to be a Consumer Reports-type transparency tool makes sense, provided that there are options for students and parents who are dissatisfied with the education they’re receiving,” said Jason Bearce of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.

David Marcotte of the Indiana Urban Schools Association said that his organization supported the bill in its entirety, and was especially enthusiastic about the proposed dashboard.

“Anytime that you can have multiple measures to explain student learning is a good thing,” Marcotte said.

Some speakers opposed the plan to keep A-F grades in place, arguing that the grades largely reflect the economic status of students and that they are simplistic and stigmatizing. But a handful of parents spoke in favor of the grades as an easy, user-friendly way to assess schools.

Lawmakers hope that by abandoning the consequences that are tied to school grades, there will be less pressure to change them. Twice in the past five years, Indiana has passed laws to protect schools from receiving lower letter grades when passing rates on tests plummeted across the state, first when the state introduced new standards and again when it rolled out a new test.

Those provisions, known as a hold harmless, rendered school letter grades essentially meaningless because some school grades were based on 2-year-old test results. For years, there was also a different — more generous — grading scale used for new schools and schools that adopted charter-like agreements with districts.

“I think we have been less than honest in terms of the way we’ve computed this over time,” said House education leader Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis. A dashboard and consistent grades could give the community insight into how schools are doing.

“Let’s be honest about performance,” Behning said.

Behning framed the accountability changes as going hand in hand with a slate of plans to vastly expand Indiana’s voucher program, allowing many more middle-class parents to receive state aid for private school tuition.

The state doesn’t have to hold schools accountable when families have choices, Behning said — parents can.

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