Are Children Learning

New rules push high schools to better prepare kids for college

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

A stubborn and costly problem for first-year students at Indiana colleges stems from a simple but frustrating fact: About 28 percent of them simply aren’t fully prepared to do college work, even if they got good grades in high school.

To solve that problem, those kids are shuttled into remedial courses that they pay for but which don’t result in college credit when students pass them. Many of those students fall behind and the risk grows that they will drop out of college, leaving them with student loans they will still have to pay off.

But in 2013, Indiana legislators passed a bill with a potentially game-changing idea in mind: require high schools to figure out which kids aren’t on track for college level work and get them the extra help they need while they’re still in high school.

“We have the tools to identify students who need remediation and the ability to address the need for remediation in high school,” bill author Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, said. “It’s just unacceptable to tell those students they are ready for colleges and careers when in reality, they’re not.”

The bill also designed to reduce graduation waivers, which have come under scrutiny from the state. The waivers allow students to graduate even if they’ve failed one of the state tests so long as they meet other criteria. Earlier remediation should help students pass their end-of-course assessments and graduate without the need for waivers, proponents of the idea believe.

This school year, high schools will begin using a test called Accuplacer — used by colleges to determine if students need remediation — to identify kids who appear to need that extra help. It’s been a challenge.

The logistics of going through student data and figuring out exactly who had to take the test has been the hardest part for Hendricks County’s Plainfield schools. The district began giving the test last spring, assistant superintendent Mary Giesting said. School districts are supposed to identify students who need to take Accuplacer based on their scores from Indiana’s end-of-course exams and national college placement and merit tests, like the PSAT, SAT and ACT. Not all of this data is easily accessible in one place, Giesting said, so compiling it was cumbersome.

“The problem is not as simple as some master spreadsheet that has all that information on it,” Brent Schwanekamp, vice principal at Plainfield High School, said. “And even if it was, you’re going line by line with 400 kids. That’s a really daunting task.”

A new strategy for kids who are behind

The state has two main goals with the new process: Do a better job identifying students who need help before they graduate, and help them more effectively in high school so they can start college taking classes that count toward their degrees, said Jason Bearce, Indiana’s associate commissioner on higher education.

“We heard these stories about students arriving on campus and that’s the first time they find out they’re not college-ready,” Bearce said. “Which is very concerning for the individual, but it also represents a pretty significant missed opportunity. I think that’s where this legislation came into play.”

The state chose the Accuplacer test to determine if students are meet the state’s expectations for what they should know in math and English. The test can pick out specific places where students need more help, and it is currently being used at Ivy Tech Community College, which cuts down on tests students would need to take if they enroll there later.

Indiana schools piloted the test in the 2013-14 school year for any school that wanted to give it, said Michele Walker, director of assessment for the Indiana Department of Education. This year, the testing begins in late January.

Once a district has identified the kids who need extra help, it has a few options for how to bring them back up to speed. Walker said the choice is up to the schools, not the state.

“How schools work with students is local — they know them best,” Walker said. “We want to leave that to a local decision because they may have particular programs in their communities, do something after school or weave it into their curriculum.”

At Plainfield, a student can take a course specifically designed to boost skills in Algebra 1 or sophomore English, the two high school courses that lead to end-of-course exams they must pass to graduate. The course helps them focus on skills they have struggled with in the past. These classes are taught by new and veteran teachers alike and are purposefully kept small with less than 20 students. Teachers work with the students to design a plan for what needs to be improved, and then they have a semester to build up those skills.

Plainfield students can also take additional classes alongside their main Algebra 1 or sophomore English classes that help reinforce the ideas from that week’s lessons and give the students a chance for extra help as they go.

But this method isn’t new for Plainfield, Giesting said. They’ve always had this support in place for students, it’s the extra data analysis that’s new.

Plainfield High School is almost 88 percent white and had a combined math and English ECA passing rate of about 90 percent last year, according to data from the Indiana Department of Education’s website. Giesting said that while the district puts a lot of work into its remediation programs, she knows schools with more struggling students will face a tougher road to meeting the state’s requirements.

“It’s a thorn in our side just from a detail standpoint and practical standpoint,” Giesting said. “But for some school corporations, this is a burden.”

Remediation costs students and the state

Almost one-third of incoming freshmen in the class of 2012 had to take remedial courses in college, costing Hoosiers about $78 million, according to a 2012 Commission on Higher Education report about college readiness.

In Marion County, 1,510 students needed to brush up basic skills in college, about 34 percent of graduates. Most of those student needed help in math, which was also true statewide. State officials hope this new process will cause those numbers start dropping.

A high school junior who either scores less than 46 on the PSAT or fails the English or math ECA twice must take Accuplacer, under the rules. However, if a student has a high enough ACT or SAT score, they can avoid it. Some students might only need to take the English version of Accuplacer, some might need math, and others, both, Walker said.

While schools will test students during junior year and then are expected to ramp up extra help, they are not required to re-test students before they graduate. So students could still enter college needing extra help. Ivy Tech has set up a type of course that offers remediation at the same time as regular instruction, Clere said, so students aren’t wasting time paying for extra classes they can’t use. Most Indiana students needing remediation take their classes at Ivy Tech or Vincennes University.

“Think about finishing your first semester at Ivy Tech and realizing that you’ve accomplished nothing in terms of completing your degree,” Clere said. “That can be very discouraging and it also has implications for financial aid if you’re burning up your financial aid eligibility on remediation.”

Going forward, Clere’s bill makes students who use a waiver to graduate because they could not pass state tests ineligible for some kinds of financial aid, including scholarships from the state’s 21st Century Scholars program, Bearce said. Now to even qualify for the program’s scholarships, Bearce said students must graduate with a Core 40 diploma, which has more difficult course requirements than the state’s general diploma.

“If you graduate with a waiver, you’re more likely to need remediation,” Bearce said. “We don’t want students to graduate with a false sense of readiness that has the unfortunate consequence of a dashed dream when you leave and think you’re ready and find out you aren’t.”

KaNeasha Koebcke, director of guidance in Plainfield, said it’s also hard to get the students to take the test seriously.

“It’s hard to explain to kids what it’s about and why they have to take it,” Koebcke said. “It’s hard to explain to parents what this test is. Does it prevent them from graduating? No. What does it do for my child?”

It will be a few years to find out the effects of this new approach, Bearce said. But so far, school districts have struggled to organize so much student test data to meet the law’s requirements.

“This is an example of the legislature in the room saying we need better evidence that our students are college- and career-ready, so they created this statute, which standing alone sounds really good,” Giesting said. “But I think what we all need to understand is that if we don’t walk in tandem and if different people make different rules, it just adds a lot of extra energy and resources being used not to educate, but to test.”

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.

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.