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School leader pitches agenda: Superintendent wants to assess evaluations

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State laws that changed how teachers, students and schools are evaluated and graded aren’t going away, but the incoming state superintendent of public instruction wants to review how those laws are being enforced.

That includes looking at whether it’s effective to hold third-graders back from fourth-grade reading lessons — or fourth grade entirely — based on their scores on a single test.

State law requires the state superintendent to evaluate third-graders’ reading skills and provide remediation for those falling behind, holding students back as a last resort. If students are behind in reading as third-graders, they risk falling behind in other subjects.

Glenda Ritz, who will replace State Superintendent of Instruction Tony Bennett next year, agrees third-graders’ reading abilities should be assessed.

Any changes to this or any other state law must be approved by incoming Gov. Mike Pence and the General Assembly, but the law doesn’t specifically require students take the IREAD-3 exam. Ritz said she wants to review other options for enforcing the law, which shouldn’t include assessing third-graders with a single, pass/fail exam.

“I feel there are many ways to implement what is already in the law,” she said.

Ritz also is not convinced Indiana should move forward with the Partnership for Assessment for Readiness for College Careers (PARCC) exam, which was to replace Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress exam within the next two years, or the new standards it was meant to test. She also wants Indiana to drop the A-through-F grading scale it has been using to assess schools for the past two years.

Instead, Ritz wants Indiana to find and start using tests that better gauge how much students are learning in a single year.

“I don’t believe that we need pass/fail tests. We need growth-model measures,” she said.

Ritz is a library media specialist at an elementary school in the Metropolitan School District of Washington Township in Marion County. She was president of the Washington Township Education Association for 15 years

As state superintendent, she will spend the next four years advocating for funding and policies that will affect the more than 1 million students and more than 58,000 teachers across the state.

Under Bennett, Indiana had been planning to implement a new set of classroom standards, called common core, over the next two years. They’re similar to the state’s current academic standards but focus on developing students’ critical thinking skills in all grades.

For example, students in kindergarten through 12th-grade reading classes would need to be able to answer questions about why an author told a story a certain way. Simply reciting details from the story wouldn’t be enough.

Students in most grades are being taught a mix of common core and current Indiana standards now, while kindergarten and first-graders and 11th- and 12th-grade English students have been using common core exclusively.

But Ritz wants to examine common core to see if its lessons are really what Indiana students need.

“I feel we need to re-evaluate the common core standards to determine what parts of common core we might accept or reject, or determine which of our current Indiana standards should be retained. We want to provide the best K-12 standards for our children, so we need to take a look at those,” she said.

Ritz also isn’t interested in moving forward with the college careers exam, which the Indiana Department of Education adopted after it was approved by the Indiana Education Roundtable and State Board of Education. Twenty-three other states were also planning to use PARCC to test students.

Other states are using a test called the Smarter Balanced assessment to test students, but Ritz wants to find a test that factors in where students’ math, writing and English skills begin, so their improvement can be tracked.

For example, an eighth-grade teacher might have five students who read at a sixth-grade level and five others who read at a 10th-grade level. Whatever statewide exam Indiana uses must be able to account for what skills a student had at the beginning of the year, so they can measure how much they’ve learned or improved, regardless of the grade level, Ritz said.

Even if Indiana’s standards and statewide assessments differ from other states, education chiefs will speak regularly to see how the differences compare.

“I think that we can develop our growth-model assessments and still have commonality with the improvement levels,” she said.

Once Indiana finds a test that better measures how much students learn in a year, it needs to update its system for evaluating schools, Ritz said.

Indiana assigned letter grades to schools this fall for the second consecutive year based on students’ ISTEP and end-of-course assessment scores, as well as whether the rates of students passing the exams are improving.

Johnson County principals and superintendents have said that a letter grade can’t accurately convey how well a school is performing. Ritz wants to discontinue the system, which she said labels students so that someone who graduates with a 4.0 from a school that received an F could be perceived differently from a student who graduated with a 4.0 from a school that received an A, she said.

“I don’t want our improvement categories to label our students that are leaving our schools,” she said.

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