Not much meaning behind grades

Schools across Bartholomew County earned identical scores on their 2014 and 2015 accountability grades, an unsurprising result that stems from months of controversy surrounding last spring’s ISTEP+ exam.

None of the public or private schools in the county saw any change in their 2015 scores. Bartholomew Consolidated and FlatRock –Hawcreek schools were given an A for overall corporation grades. Area private schools also received A grades, with the exception of Columbus Christian School, which received a C.

However, the letter grades the Department of Education released — which were approved by the State Board of Education on Tuesday — are likely not the grades schools actually earned based on last year’s ISTEP results, graduation rates and other factors.

The 2015 exam, which was administered in the spring to students in grades 3 through 8, tested students on new, more rigorous curriculum.

As a result, student ISTEP scores were dramatically lower in 2015 — a 21.2 point drop from 2014 statewide scores.

Educators immediately began crying foul against the lower scores, which would have hurt teachers’ merit pay in addition to lowering school accountability grades.

After the scores were released earlier this month, members of the Indiana General Assembly scrambled to find a solution that would hold schools and teachers harmless for the lower scores.

Legislators ultimately passed two bills last week — one from the House and one from the Senate — that prevents the education department from enacting any penalties because of the ISTEP results. Gov. Mike Pence signed both bills into law.

The Senate bill allows schools to take the better of their 2014 or 2015 accountability grades. The department only released the hold-harmless grades, not the actual grades schools might have earned.

About 56 percent of the state’s 2,100 public and private schools received an A this year, compared to 54 percent last year. About 3 percent of schools received an F grade.

Clifty Creek Elementary School in Columbus earned a D, the lowest grade in the county. Aside from Columbus Christian, Taylorsville Elementary School also earned a C. The remaining Bartholomew County schools earned an A or B.

However, local education officials say they do not put much stock in the school accountability grades, even when they are not surrounded by this year’s controversy.

“Our district was an A district last year, but you don’t see signs up saying, ‘A schools,’” said Bill Jensen, BCSC director of secondary education. “The whole thing is just too nebulous.”

Rather than using the ISTEP results to measure an entire school’s performance, the scores would be better used to track individual students’ progress, Jensen said.

The results of the 2015 ISTEP and the subsequent accountability grades were released too late in the year to have any significance, said Shawn Price, FlatRock–Hawcreek superintendent.

Even if the grades were released earlier, Price said he still does not believe ISTEP is an accurate indicator of how schools truly are performing.

“Our job is very important and demands a certain level of accountability, but that accountability needs to be fair across the board,” Price said. “Right now, ISTEP is not doing that job.”

Kendall Wildey, Columbus Christian principal, said teachers at his school do not teach specifically to the standardized test. While teachers work to ensure students understand the information they will be tested on, the school focuses on a more comprehensive curriculum that includes information that would not be on ISTEP, such as religion.

“We don’t put a whole lot of emphasis on the test as much as a well-rounded education,” Wildey said.

Scott Schumacher, principal of St. Peter’s Lutheran School, said rather than focusing on the confusion surrounding ISTEP and school accountability grades, he plans to encourage teachers to look at the test results and identify areas where they can help students improve in the future.

Testing for the 2016 ISTEP exam, which will be administered by a new vendor, Pearson, is scheduled to begin in late February.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

What are school letter grades?

School accountability grades are determined by the Indiana Department of Education, which rates public and private schools on an A-F scale. Various factors contribute to a school’s accountability grade, such as ISTEP+ results in elementary and middle schools and graduation rates in high schools.

Refer to graphic inside

To see how Bartholomew County schools have fared on their school accountability grades over the last five years, see page AX.

Author photo
Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at ocovington@therepublic.com or 812-379-5712.