Schuldt reacts to DOE school ‘report cards,’ shares concerns over evaluation model

During the October 31 State Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Dr. Tony Bennett announced more than 61 percent of Indiana schools received A or B letter grades for the 2011-2012 school year. Of the 16 schools graded in Marshall County, only two had a D (Argos Elementary and Jefferson Elementary in Plymouth), while none had an F.

Culver Community High School was given a C rating, while Culver Elementary received an A, the same grade as Culver Academies.

Culver Community Schools superintendent Brad Schuldt lauded the work of teachers and students towards "all kinds of improvements."

Schuldt's however, is one of a great many voices in public education expressing concerns over "bugs" in the system used by the state to evaluate schools' performances. He notes a number of schools "are bouncing around between an A and a D, and they have the same staff. About the only change is the grade level of the kids moving around. To have those kinds of swings is not indicative of a stable kind of grading system."

Culver Elementary itself, for example, received a D rating in the 2011 AYP (Average Yearly Progress) report, while this year it's score shot up to an A. Culver's high school, meanwhile, appealed its initial grade in 2011 to receive an A ranking, while this year it slips to a C, despite few changes in staff and students.

Schuldt is quick to point out he's not looking to make excuses for the schools' performances.

"I certainly understand and believe in accountability," he says. "I just think the grading system has some issues with it where a certain number of kids will be forced to be in the bottom of the growth measurement process because, by definition, they're taking a third of the kids and making them 'low growth,' whether they improve or not."

Changes on the part of various states in the U.S. in terms of where scores are cut to determine student proficiency levels have resulted in wide ranging scores for individual schools.

"Basically," says Schuldt, "they're trying to take the scores of kids and measuring whether or not they're improving or growing, and they cut it into thirds (to determine) 'high growth,' 'typical growth,' or 'low growth.' It doesn't matter how much growth you have; it's where you fall in the category of thirds."

He notes schools aren't notified in advance when cut score standards are changed, something which occurs every year.

Another change this year is the timing of the report, which Schuldt says was originally slated for release two months ago. Delays and changes left schools with just six days -- as opposed to 30 days as in the past -- to appeal the grade given. He notes Argos' school was one affected by the change.

Argos Superintendent Dr. Jennifer Lucht also said the system in which the state uses to grade school is ineffective.

“We appealed that rating,” said Lucht. “If you go through the actual computation page, we should have gotten higher. We were graded low for two areas. Low participation rate was one. We actually had 100 percent participation. Four students were listed who were no longer our students.”

Lucht said the corporation received a letter stating the appeals had been denied at 6 p.m. Tuesday (the scores were released to the media the next day).

Lucht said her job was to now engage parents about the grades. But she said the grading system remains flawed. “A school has to get an F for six years in a row before anything is done by the state,” said Lucht. “They don’t assist until six years have gone by. If this was such a serious issue wouldn’t they intervene sooner?”

Schuldt notes school size also appears to have an effect on the overall grade of the school.

"In our size school, one or two students can mean several percent points (on the AYP grade), because our sample is so small. Clearly, the more students you have, the higher grade you have. The smaller schools are getting lower grades and the bigger schools are getting A's."

Another concern of Schuldt's echoes a state and even nationwide complaint about the increasing proliferation of standardized testing.

"Generally speaking, it's caused all of us to focus in on math and language arts. For one, we test kids too much. And two, as the state puts too much emphasis on math and language arts, we're not having enough emphasis on music, art, and science. That, to me, is detrimental."

Culver's school system is contending with a higher than average percentage of special education students, whose scores also make up the report card figures.

The corporation continues to struggle with declining enrollment, Schuldt added, and now has the highest number of free and reduced lunch qualifying students of 20 to 25 schools in the area, including some surrounding counties which had previously been higher than Culver.

"The kids are trying hard and the teachers are trying hard, too," he says. "That's all we can do at the local level. And we're seeing many success stories."