A-to-F grade 'pause' won't harm NCLB waiver renewal, Ritz's team says

Indiana state Superintendent Glenda Ritz on Wednesday again will propose a shift in the way A-to-F grades should be applied to schools next year, this time suggesting grades issued this fall should only be made public if they improve over last year.

The move would need approval from state and federal officials, but it is allowed under the state’s federally-approved waiver from sanctions under the No Child Left Behind law, Ritz’s team said in a memo.

But the first step is to ask the blessing of the Indiana State Board of Education at its meeting Wednesday. The board has resisted Ritz’s suggestions in the past that the state “pause” the effects of A-to-F grades.

State board member Sarah O’Brien said the move would be changing direction from what Indiana just promised it would do when it asked for its waiver.

“I think it’s important for us to note in the first place that with the application we have submitted that we will be holding schools accountable through the last testing session,” O’Brien said. “It’s important that we respect that.”

Ritz said last month that the state had submitted a request for a three-year renewal of its waiver from sanctions of the federal law, which she expected to be approved. Last year, the U.S. Department of Education raised concerns about whether Indiana was living up to its waiver agreement, putting the state on the equivalent of probation for three months.

That touched off a series of heated debates among Ritz and state board members about who was to blame before federal officials granted a one-year extension. A decision could come on the longer renewal any time after today’s U.S. Department of Education deadline passes.

In a memo to board members, Michele Walker, head of testing and accountability for the Indiana Department of Education, outlined options the board might consider for 2014-15 A-to-F grades. Ritz has cited changes in academic standards and the rigor of state tests as reasons to soften the blow for schools if they cause grades to fall.

“Many options would require Indiana General Assembly action and others would not,” Walker wrote. “However, all options require State Board of Education support since the board has final approval of placement of school grades.”

All the options would still allow the state to take over or order changes at schools that reached six straight years of F grades, Walker wrote, and also would meet federal requirements.

Grappling with federal law

No Child Left Behind, signed in 2002 under then-President George W. Bush, required states to annually test students in English and math, record school progress and make that data public.

It also required that all children earn a passing score on state tests by 2014 or face sanctions, a mandate states complained in 2012 were unrealistic and unfair. So President Barack Obama’s administration began offering schools waivers that released Indiana and most other states from sanctions if they agreed to make changes to their testing and teacher evaluation systems.

Indiana promised it would adopt more rigorous academic standards — aimed at making sure students are ready for college and careers — take action when schools repeatedly fail and use a new evaluation system to raise expectations for teachers.

But earlier this year, the U.S. Congress began discussing changes to NCLB that might accompany a re-authorization of the law.

One possible change could be looser requirements for how states must construct their state tests and flexibility for states that want to release schools from penalties for low test scores when standards and tests change.

Ritz has argued that Indiana’s tests should be more diagnostic — giving teachers more information about student skill gaps — and less focused on the bottom line of whether a student passed or failed. She said earlier this month she hoped NCLB changes could make such changes easier.

“It depends a bit on whether NCLB is reauthorized,” Ritz said. “If NCLB changed, our tests could be different. But this is heading in a direction I approve of.”

Ritz and O’Brien said they don’t expect any problems with the waiver renewal. Daniel Altman, spokesman for the education department, said the state thinks a decision could come in late summer or early fall.

“I think all along the board’s sole concern is just making sure the waiver application that was submitted would accurately represent the laws and policies that our legislature has enacted and our state board has supported,” O’Brien said. “We are hopeful we will have a favorable response, but it’s just kind of a wait-and-see at this point.”