Annual performance reports offer a window into school data, but they may not tell you what you think
Several weeks ago, the Indiana Department of Education released the annual reports for all public and charter schools in Indiana. Unlike school and corporation grades, whose release reliably raises the blood pressure of teacher and administrators and leads to a ritual enactment of celebration or dismay from public officials, these annual reports hardly register in the news media. They contain valuable information, however, and are worth scrutiny. It's simple to access the reports for the schools or districts that interest you; on IDOE Compass, go to the "Accountability" tab and select "Annual Performance Report."
Here are some of the categories of information that appear in the reports: the A-F grades, the number of certified teachers and the ratio of certified employees to students, rates of free and reduced lunch, numbers of special education and English language learners, and of course the passing rates on various required tests. There's more. Bullying and suspension and expulsion numbers are reported. So are intra district and inter district mobility--which are defined as the percent of students who moved within schools in a district (intra) or into or out of a school district (inter).
Here in Monroe County, we have looked through local schools' reports with interest. We've also discovered that some categories do not quite describe what you might think they describe. For instance...
Free and reduced lunch
There are categories in the annual reports labeled “Number of Students Receiving Free or Reduced Lunch” and “Percent of Students Receiving Free or Reduced Lunch.” Some charter schools, however, do not provide lunch at all. Online charters do not provide lunch. At least one brick-and-mortar charter school does not provide meals to its students: Seven Oaks Classical School, here in Monroe County.
It turns out that this category refers only to income-based eligibility for free or reduced lunch, not the actual provision of lunch to students.
Some of us assume that "certified teacher" has a real meaning which involves specific and rigorous preparation for teaching. Schools are required to provide their certified teacher counts.
While certification used to refer to teachers who had degrees in education (or had taken some other defined path to teaching) and had passed a licensure exam, this no longer seems to be the case when it comes to the definition used for the annual reports. According to the IDOE's School Accountability office, for the purposes of this report, not only does a charter license count, but so does an emergency permit. A charter school license can be given for a B.A. with a 3.0 or higher in the area of concentration (or passing the licensure exam in the area of concentration—no pedagogy coursework or student teaching required). An emergency permit can be given if a school cannot find a certified teacher in a given area.
Behind the scenes, different grading rubrics are being used for different categories of schools, but the annual report does not disclose that.
"New” schools (three years or younger) can be graded by growth only, which is a much more lenient criterion than 50% growth and 50% performance. As reporting by Steve Hinnefeld showed earlier this year, if all public schools in the state had been graded by growth only, 74% would have received an “A.” The high growth-based grades of “new” schools can mask serious performance problems. Nearly 1/3 of charter schools were classified as "new" in 2016-2017, but only 1% of public schools were.
Adult education charter schools are also being graded by their own separate criteria.
Bullying and suspension/expulsion data
Is this information missing from your school's annual report? Unlike public schools, charters are not required to report bullying or suspensions and expulsions. Many choose to anyway; some don't.
Students in gifted and talented education
Does your school report the number of gifted and talented students as zero? Unlike public schools, charters are not required to have a high ability plan.
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Private schools receiving public money through vouchers are not required to publish annual reports.
All public and charter schools are required by statute to publish their annual reports in their local newspapers (they tend to appear in the classified section) and also on a prominent page of their websites. Do check your district or school website to see if you can find the report there.
What exactly are the requirements are for online charters such as the Indiana Virtual School and Connections Academy, which have high student turnover, low test scores, alarming teacher-to-student ratios, and abysmal graduation rates? These schools recruit and enroll students across the state. Have you spotted their reports in the newspaper?
Fortunately, the reports are available through the Indiana Department of Education website.
--Keri Miksza and Jenny Robinson