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How Indiana parents can use the state’s new school quality ‘GPS’ dashboard

Indiana State Board of Education members meet to discuss A-F grades for schools and other education issues at the monthly board meeting on Oct. 7, 2020.

The Indiana Department of Education rolled out a new dashboard to gauge school quality near the end of 2022. How it might affect the state A-F grading system is still unclear. Indiana State Board of Education members meet to discuss A-F grades for schools and other education issues at the monthly board meeting on Oct. 7, 2020.

Aaricka Washington / Chalkbeat

Why does math growth matter? How do 3rd grade reading scores correlate with college enrollment? And what does either one have to do with work ethic? 

Those are the kinds of questions that Indiana’s new school quality dashboard hopes to answer. 

Mandated by the Indiana General Assembly, the Graduates Prepared to Succeed (or “GPS”) Dashboard launched in December with landing pages for each public and private school and district that show how students fare in K-12 and beyond. The Indiana Department of Education plans to add more data in the future to cover topics like college readiness and teacher demographics. 

Its rollout comes amid questions about whether the state will abandon its current school quality metric — the A-F school grading system — which has been in limbo since the 2018-19 school year. Such a move would likely have support from education advocates who support a more comprehensive way of measuring school performance, rather than one based heavily on testing. 

But the dashboard is also meant to make things easier for families who have long asked for less jargon and more convenience when it comes to evaluating their children’s schools, said Secretary of Education Katie Jenner. 

Helping families access and understand education data

Before the dashboard, parents might have had to search for data across several state agencies to compile a full picture of their child’s school, Jenner said. Now, test results previously available from the education department are presented alongside postsecondary outcomes data from sources like the Commission of Higher Education and the Department of Workforce Development. 

The dashboard opens by explaining how each grade level connects to the state’s goal of preparing students for the future, and what characteristics define a successful student. 

Parents can then search for a school, district, or charter network to find its landing page. The district-level pages include information for all grade levels, while school-level pages contain metrics specific to those grades, like reading test results in elementary schools or enrollment in the 21st Century Scholars program in middle schools. 

But what’s most important in the sea of data? Jenner said that for elementary schools, parents might want to pay attention to reading results. For later grades, parents might be interested in the share of students who have taken dual credit courses, or who have filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, she said. 

Each indicator has an “explore” button that breaks down the data into student subgroups, giving results for English learners, high-ability students, and students by socioeconomic status. The explore tab also explains what each metric means, and offers questions about them. 

Jenner said she hopes that parents use the dashboard to find what’s working well at their school, or at others, in order to advocate for best practices or choose the best school for their child. 

“If a parent sees that wow — that school over there has most of their students in special education reading … I’m pumped about that,” Jenner said. “It makes me want to inquire more, or it makes me want to celebrate my school.”

Education groups have applauded the focus on a more holistic view of schools.  

Kim Graham, director of organizing and partnership at EmpowerED families, said any initiative that provides more information to families is useful. Now, she said, the department must make parents aware that it exists. 

Dawn McGrath, executive director of IN*SOURCE, which advocates for families of students with disabilities, said the dashboard is helpful for identifying what questions to ask — not necessarily for giving all the answers. 

“With a little work, a parent can gauge if the school is engaged in equitable practices of identifying students for special needs in proportion to the ethnicity and socioeconomic status of the school community,” McGrath said by email.  

What does it mean for A-F grades?

The new dashboard has led some policymakers to question whether Indiana still needs its other measures of school performance, like the annual performance report and the A-F grading system. 

Rep. Bob Behning, the chair of the House Education Committee, has introduced a bill  that would eliminate the school corporation annual performance report, which districts are required to produce every year with information on student enrollment and performance.

But lawmakers seem less likely to eliminate the A-F school grading system this year, even though it has effectively been suspended since 2018 as the state transitioned to a new testing system and later grappled with COVID. Another bill would suspend the grades again for the 2022-23 school year. 

The department asked the legislature to suspend the grades for another year as the dashboard rolls out, Behning said at a committee hearing Wednesday, with the goal of evaluating how the grades will be used moving forward.

The dashboard and the A-F grades serve different purposes, said Graham of EmpowerED Families. The grades are based on a standardized set of data, while the dashboard offers a clearer look at students’ growth over time, she added. 

But a single grade for a school may be misleading, said McGrath of IN*SOURCE.  

For example, a school with an A grade may have a low population of students receiving special education services, and thus have less experience integrating students with individualized education plans into general education classrooms, she said.

Future updates may include extracurriculars

McGrath said that the education department’s Office of Special Education already uses an oversight system known as the Results Driven Accountability system to gauge practices that are important to special education. Some of its measurements could be added to the GPS dashboard, she noted.

The education department is planning seven more updates to the dashboard this year, Jenner said, although that currently doesn’t include adding discipline data.

One possible update is demographic information for a school’s teachers. Other improvements will include a space for schools to share their mission statements and offer more information about the courses and extracurriculars they offer — something Jenner said is increasingly important to parents. 

“If a parent has a child that they’re trying to keep engaged, it could be as simple as having that class or co-curricular and having that teacher to light that fire of purpose,” she said. 

Aleksandra Appleton covers Indiana education policy and writes about K-12 schools across the state. Contact her at aappleton@chalkbeat.org.

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