Indiana should do more to hold schools accountable for serving vulnerable students, analysis says

A recent analysis calls out Indiana and more than a dozen other states for not doing enough to hold schools accountable for the performance of students of color and those with more intensive needs.

The report, from the Washington-based advocacy group Alliance for Excellent Education, analyzes states’ plans to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act. The federal education law seeks to ensure all states equitably educate students from different backgrounds, including students of color, those learning English and students with disabilities.

But, the alliance argues, some states aren’t meeting the law’s requirements when it comes to including vulnerable groups in school ratings or in identifying schools that need to better serve them. That could mean that students who have historically lacked access to a quality education might not have their needs met, and their schools might not receive support to improve.

In the analysis, states were rated green, yellow, or red, indicating they were completely, partially, or not at all meaningfully including the performance of students in certain “subgroups” — determined by race, ethnicity, English proficiency, income, or special needs — in their ESSA plans per the alliance’s interpretation.

“Indiana came across as a red rating on both indicators, so definitely not a high-performer on this analysis, but also not alone,” said Anne Hyslop, assistant director of policy development and government relations for the alliance.

The state’s ESSA plan does take into account the performance of students in the subgroups, specifically setting long-term goals for test score improvement and graduation rates and closing gaps between those students and their peers by 50 percent by 2023. It also considers English proficiency as 10 percent of a school’s rating. These components are required by the federal government, so Hyslop said states didn’t gain points for them in the analysis.

But the analysis found that just meeting that part of the law wasn’t enough, Hyslop said. Indiana is one of 12 states that doesn’t  consider the performance of vulnerable student subgroups as an independent factor in the A-F letter grade ratings that schools are given. Instead, grades are determined by five components: state test scores, test score improvement, graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools, English proficiency, and at least one non-test-based measure of school quality.

“That could potentially mean that you have schools who come out pretty great on those ratings, getting As or Bs, but actually, their black students’ graduation rates might be below 67 percent, or they might have really low growth for English-learners,” Hyslop said. “And you wouldn’t necessarily know that from looking at the school grade.”

In other states, such as Colorado and New Jersey, Hyslop said states are unable to get the highest rating if they have a subgroup that is low-performing.

Adam Baker, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education, said Indiana didn’t want the performance of a single subgroup to determine a school’s grade. In previous conversations about A-F grades, Indiana State Board of Education members have expressed similar concerns as well, particularly for schools in districts where a subgroup might contain just a handful of students.

“Tying the letter grade to a single subgroup does not accurately reflect a school’s performance,” Baker said in an email.

The analysis also says Indiana’s process for determining which schools need state intervention to better support certain low-performing students is too narrow. The process could leave out schools where certain populations of students might be struggling, but their performance is not yet at a crisis point that would automatically trigger more intensive state interventions.

Indiana is being criticized because its process only identifies schools with subgroups performing in the bottom 5 percent of state test-takers, for one year or two, rather than extending that support to schools that might still be low-performing, but less so.

In other states, for example, both the bottom 10 percent and 5 percent are identified, Hyslop said.

“Many schools could have low-performing subgroups but not ones doing as poorly as students in the bottom 5 percent,” Hyslop said. “It’s inconsistent with the law and not getting at the full scope of the issue.”

Baker said the state isn’t worried about under-identifying schools because a school that receives an A or B would still be identified if students in a particular group were struggling.

Indiana has already received the go-ahead from the federal government to carry out its ESSA plan. However, in a required review of the plan, reviewers noted there was confusion in how A-F grades would be calculated and schools would be identified for more support, echoing some of the alliance’s points.

Indiana can still amend its ESSA plan, but so far there are no details on when or if that will happen. It’s unclear partially because state officials are also in the midst of figuring out how the state-specific accountability plan should co-exist with the ESSA plan so that Indiana won’t have two grades indefinitely (more on that here).

Indiana is expected to identify the different categories of schools needing support later this year, based on test data from 2018 that is set to be released next week.