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

Every Student Succeeds Act

Indiana is working on a plan to make sure every school — not just white, affluent ones — has high-quality teachers

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Kathleen Cucci reads aloud to her students during group time.

Even though several years of teacher evaluation data have shown the vast majority of Indiana teachers are highly rated, poor students and students of color are still more likely to have ineffective, inexperienced teachers than their peers.

Indiana is examining how teachers are divided up among schools as part of its work on a new education plan to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. The new law focuses more on on equity and inclusivity, something civil rights advocates and state officials have praised.

“We have a lot of kids in Indiana who don’t have access to quality teachers,” said Indiana State Board of Education member David Freitas. “ESSA says we have to specifically address that.”

According to the state’s education plan, poor students and students of color in Title I schools (those that receive extra federal aid based on rates of poverty) are more likely than their affluent, white peers to have teachers who are ineffective, inexperienced and don’t meet Indiana certification requirements.

Here’s how the data breaks down.

  • Poor students are 3.7 times more likely to have ineffective teachers; Students of color are 8.5 times more likely;
  • Both poor students and students of color are slightly more likely to have teachers who don’t meet certification requirements;
  • Poor students are 1.54 times more likely to have inexperienced teachers; Students of color are 1.63 times more likely;
  • Both poor students and students of color are slightly less likely to have highly effective or effective teachers.

Despite the relative differences in teacher experience and quality in the list above, it’s worth noting that 88 percent of Indiana’s 68,386 teachers were rated “effective” or “highly effective” in 2015 (the most recent data available), with just 0.38 percent rated “ineffective.”

State officials said there could be many reasons why low-rated teachers tend to be more present in high-poverty, predominantly non-white schools. Those schools might not be able to pay teachers as much or offer them as much support, making it harder to attract more experienced educators.

But groups of educators, policymakers and community members who worked with state officials to draft the plan focused on issues of training and support, leading the state to develop a number of strategies to pursue going forward that could help keep good teachers in the classroom. Those strategies could include extending student teaching, overhauling performance evaluations to focus more on improvement rather than simple ratings and helping districts access funding to improve ongoing teacher training.

This struggle is not new to Indiana — teacher-related discussions for the past several years have focused on recruiting and retaining teachers. So far, legislative progress has been slow. Some bills championing prospective teacher scholarships and mentoring programs have won approval, but they have received relatively small amounts of funding, if any.

By 2023, Indiana education officials have a goal to cut the inequitable rates of teacher experience and quality in half.

The Indiana Department of Education submitted the ESSA plan to Gov. Eric Holcomb earlier this week. He can choose whether to lend his support. Either way, it is due to federal officials in September.

This story has been corrected to better reflect Holcomb’s role in the state ESSA plan. 

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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.”