School accountability report card grades for Bartholomew County schools slid lower this year as sinking ISTEP+ test scores dragged down local letter grades.

Seven of the 11 Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. elementary schools dropped at least one grade lower in the Indiana Department of Education’s A-F Accountability scores for 2017.

Mt. Healthy, Richards, CSA – Fodrea, Taylorsville and Southside elementary schools all dropped one grade level, while Clifty Creek and Schmitt dropped from a B grade in 2016 to a D grade this year, according to the state.

BCSC’s two high schools held their grades steady from last year, with Columbus North High School at an A and Columbus East High School at a B.

Central and Northside middle schools dropped from a grade of B last year, to a grade of C in 2017.

“At the end of the day, it’s the ISTEP scores,” BCSC Superintendent Jim Roberts said. “We’re going to drill down into this data and find opportunities for improvement.”

The high school grade formula uses graduation rates and other career-preparation data, but ISTEP+ scores are the primary basis for letter grades for elementary and middle school students.

In September, the state notified BCSC that the percentage of students passing ISTEP+ math and English tests went down in 11 of the corporation’s 13 elementary or middle schools. The scores were down by 4 percentage points districtwide in grade 3 through 8 compared to 2016, the state reported.

For the first time, the 2017 ratings include a growth component that measures how each student progresses in ISTEP+ test scores, which is figured into the overall A-F grade, Roberts said. With the decreases in the overall scores, it is apparent the growth component data was not enough to maintain the letter grades in some of the schools, he said.

Roberts mentioned again that the spring round of testing was taken online, and the school corporation has worked hard to eliminate the online variables that cause some students to do poorly when frustrated by the on-the-computer test. The school corporation had received waivers to allow students to take the test on paper in earlier years because of numerous computer glitches in the testing process.

“But that’s all I’m going to say about that because we need to drill down in the data to see what it’s telling us,” Roberts said.

Virtually all of the students who took the ISTEP tests in the spring have advanced to the next grade level, but school officials will be looking for areas to improve, and to maintain success by examining what the data shows, he said.

Challenging situations

The superintendent acknowledged school officials will be taking a look at the two elementary schools that received D grades, Clifty Creek and Schmitt, describing them as among the most challenging in the school corporation. Some of the students at the schools receive special services from the school corporation, and demographics by geography for the two schools indicate that some families whose students attend there deal with economic challenges.

Schmitt has dropped from an A in 2015 to a D this year, while Clifty Creek improved from a D in 2015 to a B in 2016, only to receive another D in 2017.

Schmitt’s grades have varied widely over the years, principal Brett Boezeman said, with the school receiving A’s in 2012, 2014 and 2015, a B in 2016 and a C in 2013.

“Only minor adjustments have been made to programming and staff at Schmitt over the past years, yet letter grades have fluctuated greatly,” he said in a note to staff members shared with The Republic. “I’ll let you form your own opinions on the system of grading schools after reviewing the data and using your own knowledge.”

Boezeman said all of Schmitt’s staff is considered “highly qualified” according to federal regulations. “My office can provide data to show students are achieving at higher academic levels now than they were three years ago.”

The principal said a contributing factor to the decline this year was the move to online testing for ISTEP+.

“We will continue to reduce technology barriers within our students this school year,” he said. “In terms of knowledge of academic content, that data continues to rise year after year.”

Boezeman said school officials will continue to take feedback, positive or otherwise, and work to improve.

The state legislature approved a law two years ago which prevented a school’s grade from being unfavorably affected by the 2015 ISTEP+ scores, saying that year was a transition year to a new test with higher standards, which had led to significantly lower scores. But ISTEP+ scores dipped again in 2016, but there was no safety net for the letter grades.

Indiana Department of Education officials said nearly 25 percent of schools around the state improved one or more letter grades, with nearly 6 percent improving their letter grade to an A. Overall, 62 percent of schools received an A or a B, according to the state’s report.

Established in 1999, the General Assembly passed Public Law 221-199, which created a performance-based accountability system.  In 2015, state education officials established new metrics for Indiana’s student-centered accountability system. The metrics went into effect beginning with the assessment of the 2015-16 school year.

Grades for other schools

Among schools that experienced no grade movement were both of the Flat Rock-Hawcreek School Corp. schools. Hope Elementary and Hauser Junior-Senior High repeated their B grade from 2016.

All of Bartholomew County’s private schools also remained with the same grade as 2016, including Columbus Christian and St. Peter’s Lutheran School with B grades, and St. Bartholomew and White Creek Lutheran maintaining their A grades for the past three years.

“I am encouraged by the results of our current accountability grades as an indication of the great education Indiana students are receiving,” said Jennifer McCormick, Indiana superintendent of public instruction “Our work, however, is not finished. As a department we will continue to partner with stakeholders from the state level to the local community to ensure every school is successful and every student is academically prepared for the future.”

The state is in the process of changing its standardized testing system, announcing this week it has hired a vendor for Indiana’s Learning Evaluation Readiness Network (ILEARN), which replaces ISTEP+, and the Indiana Reading Evaluation and Determination (IREAD-3), a test to determine reading capabilities of third graders.

The American Institute for Research, in Washington, D.C., has been recommended by the Indiana Department of Administration to serve as the vendor for the new versions of the tests. The company provides online assessments for more than a dozen states across the country.

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Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.