The Indiana A-F School Grading System: Does It Really Demonstrate Accountability?
By Dr. Terry McDaniel
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University
What does the letter grade of “A” mean to you? Does it mean excellence? Does it mean outstanding work well above the average expectation? One educational “fad” being promoted by many states, including Indiana is to grade schools and school districts by letter grades. According to the Indiana Department of Education website regarding the A-F school grading system, “Indiana’s A through F grading system gives parents, students, educators and communities a clear and concise assessment of how well their schools are doing. This system is a new and better way of measuring and reporting school performance each year, as required by state law.” But is it really providing a “clear and concise assessment”?
The recent scandal of the change of a school’s letter grade by Former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett has left many doubting if the letter grades are even an accurate measure of schools as was originally intended. This has tarnished an already-criticized system. Schools are left wondering if their scores are justified.
Additionally many school leaders will tell you the accountability formula had many issues that seemed to grade schools unfairly. High-performing schools could “lose” a letter grade if they simply maintained their high achievement, for the formula has a growth component, which affects the final grade. The formula was also built on a point system that rounded totals in certain areas that could affect a final outcome. What about primary grades one and two which are not tested, but dependent only on grade three for growth?
But even with these issues, the issue of accountability is sound. Schools need to be accountable. Yet, the true problem with the A-F grading system is simply,” What does an “A” or any letter grade mean?”
Do you know how the letter grade is formulated for your school? An informal poll will demonstrate that practically no parents can tell you the formula. Very few teachers and administrators can explain the formula. Legislators are very unlikely to be able to explain the details of the formula. So how can anyone really know what a school’s letter grade means?
Presently a study group is trying to revise the A-F grading system. But when something does not work, sometimes it is best to get rid of it. Throw away the A-F grading system for schools. This system tells the public absolutely nothing. It is flawed and antiquated. If you want to have an accountability system, stop making it so complicated that no one knows what it means. Make it simple.
How about this? Develop a Four Star system for accountability.
1. Set a standard of at least 90% of all students in a school passing Language arts assessments. This will be End-of-Course Assessments for highs schools and the ISTEP+ for middle and elementary schools. If a school reaches this standard, the school receives a star.
2. Set a standard of at least 90% of all students in a school passing math assessments. This will be End-of-Course Assessments for highs schools and the ISTEP+ for middle and elementary schools. If a school reaches this standard, the school receives a star.
3. For high schools set a standard of at least 90% graduation rate based on a five–year window. (The four-year graduation rate punishes students who may need extra time for reasons beyond their control. Besides are we so intent on a four –year graduation of students or do we really want student to graduate even if it takes an extra year?) If a school reaches this standard, the school receives a star.
4. For elementary and middle schools set an attendance rate of 97% school average for the academic year. (A 97% rate takes in account childhood illnesses and not pushing “sick” kids to come to school to affect others with their illness.) If a school reaches this standard, the school receives a star.
5. If a school meets all criteria, they receive a four-star designation.
6. Each school, for accountability with the public, will do the following:
a. Post the school’s total language arts grades for each grade level and overall for the school.
b. Post last year’s same scores for all categories.
c. Post scores of state averages so the public can see how their schools measure compared to the state averages in each category.
d. Ensure that the same would be done at the district level.
This Year’s Percentage
Last year’s Percentage
Percent of Students Passing Language Arts
Percent of Students Passing Mathematics
Elementary and Middle Schools Attendance Rate
High School Graduation Rates
It is simple, to the point, and easy to read. While critics and supporters may want to make adjustments to cover other areas, such as career readiness in high schools, certain adjustments could still keep a model that is understandable and would give the public a clear account of schools’ achievement levels. It is a standards-based model that simply provides a goal for schools.
Dr. Terry McDaniel has spent more than 30 years as a champion for public education in the State of Indiana. Please be encouraged to contact Dr. McDaniel at Indiana State University at firstname.lastname@example.org. There is no better friend to leadership!