News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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November 4, 2012

B.J. RILEY: Indiana school grading system should be made clear to everyone

I have gotten my share of report cards. In my scholastic career, I received approximately 80 statistical measurements of my efforts in assimilation of the materials that were reviewed in class and in textbooks. It also reflected my efforts on various projects such as research papers and other homework assigned over the years. I was a pretty good student, not a great one, and my grades reflected my efforts. I was always told that if I did my best, my grades would reflect the effort, and I would be rewarded.

I guess times have changed.

While reading the Tribune-Star on Thursday, I saw that the grades were out from the Indiana Department of Education for each of the schools. In Vigo County, 23 of 27 schools were in the top three categories: A, B or C. There were two schools that received D’s, and two — including one school, Chauncey Rose Middle School, that is now closed — that got F’s. The other F was given to West Vigo Elementary School.

I was then drawn to a story written by the CNHI statehouse reporter, Maureen Hayden, that accompanied our local report. She wrote about a meeting of the state Board of Education on Wednesday, and reported comments made by the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tony Bennett. As he addressed the system by which the grades were determined, Bennett indicated that the new system has “some complexity” that will make it difficult for parents, students, teachers and others to understand how the grades are determined. He went on to state that we should compare the grades doled out to the safety rating given to cars. “You understand the rating, but not everything that goes into it,” Bennett said.

In full disclosure, I have two boys in the Vigo County school system; one attends Honey Creek Middle School and the other is a student at Terre Haute South Vigo High School. They both are getting a good education and are doing well, based on the grading system in place  — which is just like it was when I went to school and is one that I understand. At our house, we believe that educating our children is a collaborative effort among my wife and me and the teachers at the schools. The grading system has been explained to the children and we all understand how it works. We believe it to be a realistic measure of their efforts and the testing they are given. I’m certain that understanding the grading system helps in determining action plans to improve the grades with increased effort on the part of all involved. The kids understand why they were given the grade and what they did both correctly and incorrectly to receive the earned grade. It’s not a mystery.

That’s what really perplexed me when I read about the grades for the schools. First, by Bennett’s admission, the system is difficult for many of those involved in the educational process — parents, teachers and administrators — to understand. Second, since I don’t make cars, I don’t understand the comparison to the safety ratings of automobiles. I sincerely hope that carmakers understand the rating system; I have been under the impression that they would know what they needed to do to improve safety. Otherwise, how do the automakers make a safer vehicle? I trust that the automakers and the ratings organization routinely communicate to improve the safety. And if the safety improved on a car, the safety rating would be better as a result of that improvement. If the teachers, parents and administrators don’t understand how the schools’ grades are determined, how does improvement take place?

West Vigo Elementary was penalized for low growth and did not achieve comparable growth to peers in the state. In 2010, that school scored the equivalent of an A, but in two years plummeted to an F from “exemplary.” The improvements were not at the same pace as that of other kids in the state, so not only did the grade slip, but went from best to worst. Huh?

There needs to be a system by which the effort of those teachers, administrators, parents and students is measured fairly. Not every student learns the same way or at the same rate. In the elementary school in West Terre Haute, the student body reflects an 80 percent poverty rate and 30 percent of the students are special needs. There are some great teachers there, and throughout the school system, who are working hard every day to improve the lives of those kids. It will take some of the best teachers to overcome those obstacles. But how long will good teachers stay in a school that is unfairly graded? Will they continue to be branded as F for very long before they just give up and transfer to the schools where the challenges are fewer but the grades will be better and seemingly more reflective of their efforts?

To Principal Peggy Pfrank and the teachers at the school and throughout Vigo County, thank you for your dedication and hard work. The grading system is not a true measurement of your effort, commitment and time investment in helping to improve the lives of our kids.

I still choose to believe what many of my teachers and my parents taught me when I was in school: If I do my best, I will be rewarded. It was true then, and it should be true now.

B.J. Riley is the publisher of the Tribune-Star. He can be reach at bjriley@tribstar.com and 812-231-4297.

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