Every Student Succeeds Act

The basics of Indiana’s NCLB waiver: An ongoing debate

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
State Superintendent Glenda Ritz speaks with reporters after Indiana's request for a waiver from some rules of the federal No Child Left Behind law was approved in 2014.

(This story is one in a series exploring the basics of key issues in education in Indiana. For a list of the issues and links to the other stories, find a full index of all the Chalkbeat “basics” stories, go here.)

In 2012, Indiana negotiated a release from some of the sanctions of the federal No Child Left Behind law, making promises to the U.S. Department of Education in exchange.

Ever since, managing this “waiver” has been, to put it simply, a bit messy.

The back-and-forth over the waiver has included sparring between state Superintendent Glenda Ritz and the Indiana State Board of Education.

Ritz and her team at the Indiana Department of Education say they immediately faced a series of challenges when they came into office in 2013 that were not their doing — a need to verify the quality of new standards, design new tests to match them and improve the system to monitor low-performing schools —  and have been working to meet federal expectations from the start.

But Ritz’s critics, including current and former state board members, argued she mishandled major parts of the waiver requirements — namely in her plans to turn around failing schools — bringing on scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Education.

The state has taken many steps since 2013 to fall in line with requirements from the federal government to make sure Indiana doesn’t lose its waiver. Losing it could bring serious consequences: limitations on how schools can spend federal aid, and possibly even drastic changes such as firing school principals and other staff at low-scoring schools and requiring the district publicly notify parents that schools are failing.

Indiana submitted a request at the end of June asking to renew its waiver for up to three years. But the state’s A-to-F school grading system has also come into play — any changes to how grades are given in 2015 would need to be approved by the state board, the U.S. Department of Education and possibly even the General Assembly.

Schools struggle to carry out federal law

President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002 in hopes of guaranteeing schools were serving students from all backgrounds equally and holding schools to high expectations.

The law required schools to test students in English, math and science. No longer could schools hold back data on groups of students who consistently performed poorly. That was intended to allow parents and others to see if all students were passing tests, or if some groups of kids were falling short in greater numbers.

But schools struggled to meet a requirement in the law that all students be “proficient” on state tests by 2014. Some educators called NCLB an “unfunded mandate” that forced them to implement certain programs and processes, but gave them no extra money or other help to do so.

In 2012, President Barack Obama’s administration began offering waivers from aspects of the law. The waiver said that schools could escape NCLB’s sanctions if they agreed to change state laws to conform with federal expectations for tests, standards, teacher evaluation and oversight of the lowest scoring schools.

In Indiana, education leaders promised to publicly give schools letter grades based on test scores and other factors. The state also said it would adopt Common Core standards that would make sure kids were prepared for college and careers.

But when it abandoned Common Core standards just two years later, federal officials asked for assurance the state was keeping its promises.

Big policy changes throw wrench in waiver renewal plans

Ritz’s upset over then-Superintendent Tony Bennett in the 2012 election coincided with more than two years of sweeping policy changes in Indiana. Some were taking place at the same time the U.S. Department of Education did its yearly review of Indiana’s waiver compliance in 2013.

The largest battle was over Common Core. State leaders that year asked the General Assembly to pause the state’s plan to put the new standards into effect. Conservatives raised concerns over the quality of the standards, which were purported to be more challenging than existing ones, and worried about giving too much control over the state’s education system to the U.S. Department of Education.

In, 2014, the state voided its adoption of Common Core altogether. It happened quickly and followed Gov. Mike Pence’s decision to withdraw Indiana from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers testing consortium, or PARCC.

Indiana then decided to write its own standards and tests for the 2014-15 school year, with both Pence and Ritz supporting that approach.

But the switch brought questions from federal officials.

In May of 2014, the U.S. Department of Education told the state it wanted proof the new standards qualified as “college and career ready” that new state tests would measure those standards and that the state was effectively monitoring schools with consistently low test scores.

Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education Deb Delisle sent Ritz a letter giving her 60 days to draw up a plan explaining how Indiana would address the problem areas.

That worried the state board — the waiver was Ritz’s responsibility, board members said, and they questioned if she was doing enough to make sure Indiana didn’t jeopardize the waiver. Some also were critical of how she and the education department was monitoring low-performing schools.

But Ritz said it was entirely expected that the U.S. Department of Education would have questions after such big changes to Indiana’s standards and tests.

She argued she had also overhauled the state’s school improvement and turnaround office, replacing it with 20 outreach coordinators to serve 300 troubled schools across the state to help assess their needs and shore up their programs. But that work came after the federal waiver review in 2013, she said.

Federal officials sided with Ritz. Indiana got its waiver extended in August of 2014 through June 2015.

A new federal law

In late 2015, the U.S. Congress passed a law replacing No Child Left Behind. It’s called the Every Student Succeeds Act. The biggest difference is that the new law gives states much more flexibility to make decisions about their testing and accountability systems that likely won’t as often require federal sign off.

So what does that mean for the NCLB waivers? Probably they will fade into memory. It’s likely that the U.S. Department of Education will work with states to transfer over control over many of the items that were stipulated in the waiver agreements.

It remains to be seen what Indiana will do with this new authority. Already lawmakers are saying they would like to look at changes to the state’s testing system, perhaps even exploring new state tests.

-Updated December 2015

The Colorado Way

Feds approve Colorado’s education plan after multiple revisions, but critics see more work to do

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Students prepare for statewide testing in Michelle Mugatha’s eighth-grade language arts class at Columbia Middle School in Aurora.

Colorado finally received approval for its federally mandated education plan Monday, one year and two revisions after the state first submitted it.

Colorado’s plan was held up longer than any other state’s by a series of disagreements over the best way to measure student achievement, including how to count students who opt out of state assessments. In most of those disagreements, the federal view prevailed, leaving Colorado with two divergent accountability systems, one state and one federal.

“We wanted to stick to our Colorado principles,” said Pat Chapman, executive director of the federal programs unit in the Colorado Department of Education.

Colorado wanted to use its state accountability system developed in 2009 to meet federal requirements, but ultimately the two were not entirely compatible. The state accountability system is more likely to identify schools that are not serving a large share of their students, while the federal system flags schools that aren’t serving certain subgroups, like students who qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty, or English language learners, even if their overall numbers look good.

“What we use the federal system for is to identify schools that need additional support and to get additional resources to those schools,” Chapman said.

Educational and civil rights advocates who have been involved in the development of the plan say that it’s improved in some ways, but they’re concerned that the existence of two accountability systems – or three in the case of districts like Denver that have their own school ratings – will lead to more confusion unless there’s a clear way of sharing information with parents.

Schools identified as “turnaround” or “priority improvement” status under state law won’t necessarily be flagged for improvement under ESSA, and vice versa.

“Our concern with having two different systems is that there may be confusion among parents about which system actually tells them how their school and district is performing,” said Leslie Colwell of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, a member of the Equity in Colorado Coalition.

And bilingual educators say the approved plan fails to address two key problems, the lack of assessments in students’ native language and inconsistent criteria for when students learning English keep receiving services or transition out.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which replaced No Child Left Behind in 2015, requires each state to submit a plan that lays out how it will measure student achievement and what it will do to improve performance among groups of students who aren’t meeting academic goals.

Without an approved plan, Colorado schools risked losing access to nearly $200 million in federal funds for children from low-income families, and other aid. ESSA also provides $10 million a year to Colorado schools that have been flagged as needing improvement.

Colorado has been a center of the “opt-out” movement of parents refusing to allow their children to be tested. In response, the State Board of Education forbid lowering a school’s quality rating if fewer than 95 percent of its students were tested. The U.S. Department of Education, meanwhile, insisted that Colorado treat students who don’t take the test as if they were not proficient, the lowest ranking. This became a key sticking point.

Under the approved plan, Colorado schools with high opt-out rates will need to come up with plans to test more of their students. This comes even as state lawmakers this year banned the use of rewards like pizza parties for students who take the tests. Instead, schools will have to make the case to parents and students that the tests are meaningful and important.

Two other key differences:

  • The federal government will rate schools based on four-year graduation rates, while Colorado lets schools use the best result from its four-, five-, six- or seven-year graduation rates.
  • The federal government will rate alternative high schools based on their graduation rate, while Colorado looks at completion rate, a broader measure that includes students who get a GED.

ESSA also lets states choose non-academic measures of student success against which school quality can be judged. In Colorado, one of those will be chronic absenteeism, and some schools are trying innovative programs to work with parents to help them get their kids to school.

Colorado’s student data privacy regulations means that the state won’t be reporting detailed information about small subgroups to federal regulators, an issue that advocacy groups say limits the public’s ability to understand how schools are doing.

State education officials have embraced the “flexibility” offered by ESSA in comparison to No Child Left Behind, but during a panel discussion earlier this year, Alexandra Alonso of the Colorado Latino Leadership, Advocacy, and Research Organization, stressed that the new law needs to be understood as a piece of civil rights legislation.

“It’s not intended to create more autonomy for states,” Alonso said. “It’s intended to have more equitable outcomes for our students.”

In that regard, Colorado’s plan still needs work, said Jorge García, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. There still isn’t a consistent enough standard for promoting students out of English acquisition programs, García said. Students languishing in those classes too long suffer, he said.

“It denies them access to electives,” he said. “It denies them access to the entire schedule of classes. It denies them access to the full content of the classes. They don’t take the classes that prepare them for college and a career. This particular high stakes decision is hurting a lot of our students.”

Colorado’s ESSA plan also doesn’t indicate any intention to develop Spanish-language math assessments.

Colorado received wide praise for its work to reach out to community groups, advocates, and school districts as it developed its plan, and Colwell said community groups will continue to work with the Colorado Department of Education to shape implementation of the plan.

“I am incredibly thankful for the amount of time and effort that so many people put in to develop our state plan,” Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes said in a press release. “Colorado has had ambitious education strategies in place. This plan maintains our strong education laws while working together with the federal law to support all students.”

In a press release announcing approval for Colorado’s plan, U.S. Department of Education officials highlighted several features that other states don’t have. Those include a “one-stop process” for schools to apply for services and grants tailored for their specific challenges, a coordinated grant management system, and training for teachers in all subject areas.

Every Student Succeeds Act

The Indiana State Board of Education is hitting the brakes on a plan to overhaul A-F school grades

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in IPS School 91's multi-age first-, second- and third-grade classroom work on math activities.

The Indiana State Board of Education is pressing pause on a proposed overhaul of how schools are graded that drew criticism from educators and some education advocates.

Board members said they wanted more time to consider how the A-F proposal — initially created to address new federal accountability law — would work alongside new graduation requirements and to incorporate feedback from educators about how the school grades are calculated, especially for high schools.

That means for this year, the 2018-19 school year, and possibly longer, Indiana schools will be measured according to two different yardsticks — a state model introduced in 2016 and a federal system that complies with the new Every Student Succeeds Act.

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

The board met Wednesday to continue hammering out the new process for calculating state grades, a draft of which was approved in January. But just as the meeting started, board member Byron Ernest suggested pausing process, aiming instead for a new A-F grading model for the 2019-20 school year at the earliest.

“I would like for us to take a step back and do some research,” Ernest said. Four of the state board members were absent, including state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. The seven present board members quickly reached a consensus that they should postpone a decision on the A-F rules, though no official vote happened.

As it stands now, the state and federal grading methods for calculating school ratings have important differences. The federal grade calculation, for example, would include school attendance rates and language proficiency of English-learners, whereas the state calculation would mainly rely on state test scores and test score growth. Because Indiana’s calculation also excludes certain students that the federal plan includes, such as those receiving credit recovery services, the final ratings could differ significantly for the same school. Although state and federal accountability metrics have differed in the past, the differences going forward would be more significant.

The differences ultimately add a lot of confusion to a state accountability system designed to be simpler to understand for teachers, parents, and the community.

Cari Whicker, a board member and principal, said the changes Indiana has made to testing and accountability have been exhausting and frustrating for schools.

“Either A-F accountability or testing has changed every year since 2011,” Whicker said. “That’s a lot for schools. What you consider tweaking is truly moving the target for people in the field.”

The pause is also an about-face from a meeting just a couple months ago, where board members shot down a similar proposal from Gordon Hendry to slow down. On Wednesday, Hendry said he was glad to hear Ernest’s proposal.

“That’s what I advocated for in January — wouldn’t it behoove us to take our time,” Hendry said.

In January, educators and education advocates came forward with concerns over the process for creating the new school grades, which they said was far too fast and not transparent. They also took issue with the substance of the state plan, which would have made test scores more important and limited how much test score improvement could have factored into high school grades.

It’s not yet clear exactly what changes the board wants to make in the state A-F grading model that haven’t already been discussed or considered. The Indiana Department of Education released its federal ESSA plan over the summer, and the board has had multiple opportunities to examine that plan and give feedback.

Further discussion is expected at the state board’s April meeting.