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September 21, 2011

P.L. 221 letter grades confuse educators

Some believe law has unrealistic standards

ANDERSON, Ind. — When the Indiana Department of Education established a new system of letter grades for evaluating schools, the intention was to make the board’s standards easier to understand.

The problem is, some administrators are now more perplexed than ever — about what the grades are supposed to mean, and what they need to do to remedy low scores.

“The whole thing is very confusing,” South Madison assistant superintendent Sandra Hudson said. “It’s almost impossible to figure out what we need to do to fix things.”

Hudson made a short presentation on her district’s performance under the new Public Law 221 grading scale at the most recent school board meeting. Her findings suggest that South Madison schools earned a better grade than was actually assigned.

Pendleton Heights High School earned a “C” on the A-to-F grade scale, but according to Hudson, the school’s actual performance merited an “A.”

However, because Pendleton Heights failed to meet certain standards the last two years under the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) standard, the maximum grade possible was a “C” regardless of how well the school performed otherwise.

Similarly, Pendleton Heights Middle School earned a “D” when actual performance warranted a grade of “B.”

To meet AYP, 95 percent of Pendleton Heights High School students would have had to finish required coursework and tests last year. The school fell just short of that goal, with a 94.3 percent mark in English and 94.7 in math.

The AYP score is part of the federal “No Child Left Behind” act of 2001. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has fallen under considerable debate in recent months, most notably because of AYP reports.

In June, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the system a “slow motion trainwreck” and estimated that 82 percent of the nation’s schools would be considered failures in 2012 as NCLB standards continue to rise.

By 2014, NCLB would require 100 percent of children in public schools to test proficient in math and reading if not revised.

Hudson said the decision to link AYP scores to the P.L. 221 letter grades was a controversial aspect of the new system and hotly debated by the state board.

“There were a lot of arguments about tying these letter grades to AYP but they decided to forge ahead with it,” she said. “I feel with the way the scores are now they don’t truly reflect the school’s performance.”

Elwood Community Schools Superintendent Glenn Nelson said that the grading system has become a “touchy subject” among educators.

“Teachers obviously have a lot of passion, and you think you’re doing a good job and then somebody calls you in and tells you you’re not,” Nelson said. “That’s a little hard to swallow.”

Nelson said he still hadn’t gotten a real explanation why his school district earned a failing grade, one of only seven in the state. Overall, the district was assigned an “F” despite its three member schools earning grades of C, C and D.

“We’re all trying to figure out what to do,” Nelson said. “I do now have a little better understanding of the Department of Education’s intent in assigning these grades, and we’re working to see what it will take to change things.”

According to his own analysis of the data, Nelson estimated that Elwood schools would have needed to see improvement in about 20 individual students’ ISTEP+ test scores last year to avoid a failing grade.

“It is all in the eye of the beholder, I guess,” he said. “It certainly does require some work on our part. But are these goals realistic? I don’t know. It’s all a little hard to understand.”

Contact Michael D. Doyle: 640-4847, michael.doyle@heraldbulletin.com

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