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Schools Are Leery of Rankings: Federal Evaluations Can Hurt Districts Doing a Good Job

A federal progress report on Indiana schools released this week sounded no immediate alarms for Hamilton County schools.

But it contains ominous portents because, beginning next school year, the state will incorporate the federal rankings as part of a new evaluation system that could affect the area's traditionally high-performing schools.

Coming in spring 2006, schools will be judged based on their fall 2005 Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress-Plus scores -- along with their federal rankings. Those rankings, part of the No Child Left Behind initiative, are based on ISTEP-Plus scores, plus attendance and graduation rates.

Under the new rating system, schools can be placed in one of five categories, ranging from "exemplary" at the top to "academic probation" at the bottom.

The hidden land mine for high-performing districts is a state requirement that schools cannot be placed in the top two categories unless they meet yearly federal standards for improvement -- which becomes progressively harder for schools already performing at a high level.

Schools that don't make those top categories, under the new system, won't be eligible for the state's coveted Four Star school designation, which districts have used for years to tout their excellence.

Educators are wary.

If the new system were in place this year, for example, Noblesville High School would have missed out on the chance to be either exemplary or commendable, and could not qualify as a Four Star school, because the school did not satisfy federal government guidelines for adequate progress.

The high school missed hitting the mark in just one subcategory, but one is all it takes when it comes to the federal government guidelines.

Noblesville Superintendent Lynn Lehman said he and most educators take the federal status seriously.

But he cautions against putting too much weight behind the ranking because, "it's a one-size-fits-all measure, and we know that education is not one-size-fits-all."

"We have lots of evidence to suggest that Noblesville High School is a high-performing school," Lehman said. "By every other measure, we think we're a high-performing school."

In anticipation of the federal rankings, Lehman said, the district has spent time talking with parents, residents, local business owners, "almost anybody who would listen," trying to explain just what the listings mean.

"My opinion would be that the parents we have in Noblesville Schools understand that there are other measures of performance," Lehman said.

Including, he said, the relationship parents have with a child's teacher and principal.

"We know that the kids in our school are performing well."

Educators in Lawrence Township in Marion County share that sentiment.

There, Harrison Hill Elementary School made the "needs improvement" list on the federal rankings released this week. Harrison Hill has been on that list for two out of the three reports issued since the federal program took effect in 2001.

But Jan Combs, district director of elementary education, said despite missing the federal mark, students at Harrison Hill made 19 points worth of gains on their ISTEP-Plus scores during the last two years.

"That's what can be disheartening about this," Combs said of the No Child legislation. "They are making tremendous gains."

And, despite the federal mandate that families be given the choice to transfer out of a school that's deemed inadequate, not a single parent has stepped forward.

"We didn't have anybody come to the meetings," Combs said.

Like Noblesville, Combs said, Lawrence Township takes the federal status seriously but doesn't use it as the only measure of whether kids are learning.

"We try to keep the emphasis where it belongs," Combs said. "And that is, 'How do we help all children be successful?' "

In Pike Township, the entire district was flagged as having not made appropriate progress from one year to the next.

Phone calls to and messages left for district administrators were not returned before deadline Friday.

School Board member Larry Metzler said the status is a concern.

But he notes the district already has programs and plans in place to try to make sure all kids are receiving the education they deserve.

"A big part of our middle school rigor program we went through last year is a direct response to (the federal rankings)," Metzler said, referring to a program that boosted the amount of math and English that middle school students were offered.

"All of our summer school was remediation, and we have a couple of grants for remediation where we're bringing people in to (tutor) kids."

Metzler also noted the addition of the International Baccalaureate program to the high school, where he said the emphasis will be getting a "wide variety of students in that."

"Our goal is to get anybody who is remotely interested in it to apply for it and get in," Metzler said.

As to the federal rankings, he said that although they are important, he questions their motivation.

"I think they are just giving lip service to local control of public schools," Metzler said, because local schools have no choice but to respond to the federal rankings. "The local people have a better idea of what's best for their students."

Call Star reporter Lisa Renze-Rhodes at (317) 444-2604.

— Lisa Renze-Rhodes
Indianapolis Star


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