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Feds to Colorado: You must count students who opt out of standardized tests

Seniors at Fairview High School in Boulder protested a standardized test in November 2014. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado’s policy of not penalizing schools that fail to meet federal requirements for student participation in state tests isn’t going over well with the federal government.

The U.S. Department of Education told state officials in a letter Friday that the policy is not acceptable. Colorado faces losing millions in federal funding if it doesn’t change course.

Federal officials flagged the opt-out policy in a response to the state’s plan to comply with the nation’s new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The federal government’s feedback to states is being closely watched for signs of how the department, under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, enforces a law that was meant to shift more decision-making away from the federal government and back to states.

“It didn’t come as a surprise,” Pat Chapman, the Colorado Department of Education’s executive director of federal programs, said of the feedback. “There’s a need to reconcile state board, state legislature and federal requirements and policies.”

In 2015, Colorado became a national epicenter for the testing opt-out movement, with thousands of students refusing to take state-required tests they didn’t see as valuable.

The State Board of Education, reasoning that it wasn’t fair to punish schools for something not in their control, adopted a policy forbidding the state education department from lowering schools’ quality ratings or otherwise punishing them for high refusal rates.

Previously, schools and districts could have seen their quality ratings lowered if they failed to annually test 95 percent of students in math and English. Schools that receive the state’s lowest quality ratings for five consecutive years face state intervention.

Education Commissioner Katy Anthes is expected to brief the state board at its regularly scheduled meeting this week on possible responses. The state has until Aug. 24 to submit a revised state plan or ask for an extension.

State board Chairwoman Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat, said Monday she doesn’t expect the board to take any formal action on rethinking the board’s policy this week. She declined to elaborate further.

“The board should have an opportunity to talk about this before I publicly comment,” she said.

Board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican who championed the policy, also held back Monday.

“I’m not sure what all the options available are,” he said. “We’ll wait and see what the staff’s analysis is and go from there.”

The state’s unique opt-out policy wasn’t the federal government’s only criticism.

The U.S. Department of Education also raised concern about the state’s long-term academic goals, using an average of test scores to determine school quality and monitoring how well students are learning English as a second language.

The federal department is asking the state to resubmit long-term academic goals for particular student groups, including different ethnic groups and students with disabilities.

In the current version of the plan, all student groups are expected to have the same average test score in six years, which is slightly higher than the state’s current average. The goals seem confusing and unattainable. For example, students with disabilities would need to make unprecedented progress, while Asian students would need to lose academic ground in order for the state to meet its targets.

As part of its plan, Colorado also proposed rating schools based on averages from English and math test scores, not how many students met grade-level proficiency as it did in the past.

While the use of average test scores was applauded by some, it isn’t flying with the federal education department. It wants Colorado to better explain how using average scores relates to measuring whether students are at grade level.

Moreover, U.S. officials want an assurance from Colorado that students who are far above grade-level won’t “overcompensate” for students who are not proficient. In other words, the department wants to make sure high-performers aren’t masking serious problems.

Dale Chu, vice president of policy and operations for America Succeeds, a nonprofit of business leaders that support education reform, helped a coalition of education groups review state plans independently of U.S. education department. The group, the Collaborative For Student Success, was critical of Colorado’s switch to using an average of test scores.

“There’s no sense of proficiency,” he said. “There has to be some sort of sense that kids are coming out school being able to read and compute and be on a successful path.”

Finally, the U.S. education department is also seeking more clarity on how the state is tracking the progress of students learning English as a second language. It said the state needs to provide a clear timeline on when it can provide specific goals and more detail about how the state will use data to determine school quality.

Chapman said the state education department did not have the data available to provide the federal government the information it needed. However, that’s changing and he expects that portion of the plan to be accepted.

The Every Student Succeeds Act was signed by President Barack Obama in 2015. The law required states to develop plans to outline how it would use federal dollars to improve schools, teacher quality and boost language proficiency for students learning English as a second language.

Pushback from the U.S. education department to states has been more stern than many education policy observers expected given DeVos’s support of school choice and local control.

Chapman said the federal department has been helpful.

“They’re asked to uphold the letter of the law, he said. “I do think they’re approaching it in anyway that they’re being helpful to states to write a plan that’s consistent with statue.”

hurdle cleared

Indiana’s federally required education plan wins approval

PHOTO: Courtesy of the Indiana Department of Education
State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick greets elementary school students in Decatur Township.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has signed off on Indiana’s federally required education plan, ushering in another era of changes — although not exactly major ones — to the state’s public school system.

The U.S Department of Education announced the plan’s approval on Friday. Like other states, Indiana went through an extensive process to craft a blueprint to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which was signed into law in 2015.

“Today is a great day for Indiana,” state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in a statement. “Our ESSA plan reflects the input and perspective of many stakeholders in communities across our state. From the beginning, we set out to build a plan that responded to the needs of Hoosier students. From our clear accountability system to our innovative, locally-driven approach to school improvement, our ESSA plan was designed to support student success.”

The federal government highlighted two aspects of Indiana’s plan. One is a pledge to close achievement gaps separating certain groups of students, such as racial and ethnic groups, from their peers by 50 percent by 2023.

Another is a staple of other states’ plans, as well: adding new ways for measuring how ready students are for attending college or starting their careers. Indiana education officials and lawmakers have made this a priority over the past several years, culminating in a new set of graduation requirements the Indiana State Board of Education approved late last year.

Under Indiana’s plan, high schoolers’ readiness will be measured not just by tests but also by performance in advanced courses and earning dual credits or industry certifications. Elementary school students will be measured in part by student attendance and growth in student attendance over time. Test scores and test score improvement still play a major role in how all schools are rated using state A-F letter grades.

In all, 35 states’ ESSA plans have won federal approval.

Advocates hope the law will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

Indiana officials struggled to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, such as graduation requirements and diplomas.

Under the state’s ESSA plan, A-F grades would include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and, in the case of chronic absenteeism, attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

Because the Indiana State Board of Education passed its own draft A-F rules earlier this month — rules that deviate from the state ESSA plan — it’s possible Hoosier schools could get two sets of letter grades going forward, muddying the initial intent of the simple A-F grade concept parents and community members are familiar with.

The state board’s A-F changes include other measures, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan. The state board plan also gets rid of the test score improvement measure for high-schoolers.

While that A-F proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

The state can still make changes to its ESSA plan, and the state board’s A-F draft is also expected to see revisions after public comment. But the fact that they conflict now could create difficulties moving forward, and it has led to tension during state board meetings. Already, the state expected schools would see two years of A-F grades in 2018. If both plans move forward as is, that could continue beyond next year.

Read: Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Find more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.

double take

Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Students work on assignments at Indianapolis Public Schools Center For Inquiry at School 27.

Imagine a scenario where Indiana schools get not just one A-F grade each year, but two.

One grade would determine whether a school can be taken over by the state. The other would comply with federal law asking states to track student test progress and how federal aid is spent. Both would count, but each would reflect different measures of achievement and bring different consequences.

This could be Indiana’s future if a state board-approved plan moves ahead at the same time the state is working on a conflicting plan to comply with a new federal law.

If it sounds complicated, that’s because it probably would be, said state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. Originally, A-F grades were intended to be an easy way for parents and community members to understand how their school is doing.

“It’s extremely confusing to have multiple accountability systems with multiple consequences,” McCormick told board members last week. “All along our message has been to get as much alignment as we can.”

Indiana would not be the first state to consider dual accountability systems — Colorado operated separate systems for years under No Child Left Behind and is now doing so again. Virginia, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have also had two models in years past. But this move would be a big departure from Indiana’s efforts over the past several years to simplify accountability, and education officials warn it could create more problems than it would solve.

Dale Chu, an education consultant who previously worked in Indiana under state Superintendent Tony Bennett, said it’s actually not common for states to have multiple systems, and doing so for political reasons, rather than what helps students and families, is concerning.

“We all know how confusing accountability systems can be when you just have one,” Chu said. “To create a bifurcated system, I don’t see how you gain additional clarity … I would certainly hope that if that’s the direction the state is going to move in, they are very thoughtful and intentional about it.”

The changes come as Indiana works to create a plan to comply with a new federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. McCormick’s education department has been working to align the federal system with Indiana’s grading system, and is struggling to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, most notably in the area of graduation requirements and diplomas.

At the same time the Indiana State Board of Education is negotiating this alignment, it is also revamping the A-F grade system.

A new grading proposal approved by the state board last week would put more emphasis on student test scores than the A-F system that now unifies state and federal requirements. Those new rules would include extra categories for grading schools, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan.

While that proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

Officials were already expecting to issue two sets of A-F grades to schools in 2018 — one state grade, and one federal — as the state continued to work all of Indiana’s unresolved education issues into the new federal plan. Figuring out how to ensure state graduation rates don’t plummet because of other federal rule changes dictating  which diplomas count and incorporating the new high school graduation requirements, for example, will take time — and legislation — to fix.

Read: Indiana has a curious plan to sidestep federal rules — give schools two A-F grades next year.

But ultimately, officials said, if some of the state board-approved changes make it into final policy, and Indiana’s federal plan doesn’t change to accommodate it, the state and federal accountability systems could remain at odds with each other — meaning schools would continue to get two grades after 2018.

The original intent was to have all Indiana’s state grading system line up with federal requirements before the plan was sent to federal officials in September. Then, once the federal government gave feedback, the state A-F revamp could continue.

But just this past fall, after the federal plan had been submitted, some members of the state board began adding in additional measures, some of which reflect their personal interests in how schools should be rated.

Those measures were added after board members had multiple chances to discuss the federal plan with the education department, conversations that were held in an attempt to ward off such changes this late in the game. Yet even last week at the state board’s monthly meeting, where the new grading changes were approved, some board members didn’t seem to realize until after the vote that the A-F systems would not match up.

David Freitas, a state board member, said he didn’t see the conflicting A-F grade rules as a problem. The board can make Indiana’s state A-F system whatever it wants, he said, and there will be plenty of time to iron out specifics as the rulemaking process unfolds over the next several months.

“We’re not banned from having two different systems,” Freitas said. “But we need to consider the implications and consequences of that.”

Read more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.