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

ESSA Wrap up

Colorado bows to federal pressure, adopts second school quality system that penalizes schools for testing opt-out

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
State Board of Education members Angelika Schroeder and Steve Durham met with lawmakers to discuss the nation's new education law.

In an effort to keep federal dollars flowing to Colorado classrooms, the State Board of Education voted Wednesday to create two quality systems for the state’s schools — the existing one designed in 2009 by state lawmakers, and a new one that meets federal requirements.

The unusual arrangement amounts to a compromise between the state education department and the U.S. Department of Education.

After Colorado became a national epicenter for the opt-out movement in 2015, the State Board of Education adopted a policy that forbid the state from lowering a school’s quality rating if they missed the 95 percent participation requirement.

That proved to be a sticking point when state officials submitted Colorado’s plan for complying with the nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. Federal officials sent the plan back, saying the opt-out provision didn’t comply with the new law.

In the compromise, the state will continue to issue state school quality ratings that don’t penalize schools for high opt-out rates.

However, the state will create a separate list of schools based on the federal requirement that students who opt out are counted as not proficient.

Some state board members worried two systems would create additional work for teachers, create confusion among the public or misidentify schools.

State officials said Wednesday, teachers, students and parents shouldn’t notice much difference. No school or district will be responsible for submitting more data. The state will be responsible for slicing and dicing results from annual tests as they have in the past.

Because Colorado students who opt out tend to be white and more affluent, this change could flag schools for financial support to boost learning that really don’t need it.

State education officials assured the board that it had discretion in identifying whether a school is truly low-performing or if its scores are deflated from low participation.

Earlier this fall, the state took a voluntary step toward the two-system approach when it published a list of schools that qualify for federal grants. The state adopted some, but not all of the federal requirements, when it created that list.

Board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican, said he hoped the state would not publicize the results from the federal identification system.

“It should not be given equal weight with the data that we find appropriate,” he said.

Durham also asked the state education department to remind schools that it is still illegal to penalize students who opt out of state tests. (It’s also against the law to incentivize students to skip the English and math exams.)

The state must resubmit its plan to the federal government by Oct. 23.

Correction: This post has been updated to clarify how the state previously penalized schools for missing the 95 percent participation rate before the state board took action. 

diploma discussions

Educators to state officials: ‘Indiana needs just one diploma’

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
College acceptance letters in the main entrance at Tindley Accelerated School.

For years, Indiana has been grappling with how to re-imagine high school diplomas. Today, educators made a seemingly simple suggestion to state officials: Condense Indiana’s four-diploma system down to just one.

“Indiana needs just one diploma,” said Richard Arkanoff, superintendent for Center Grove schools. “But it’s critically important that we provide students with many multiple pathways to get to that one diploma.”

In a community meeting Tuesday night at Noblesville East Middle School, Ken Folks, chief of government affairs at the Indiana Department of Education, said the department is also interested in looking at a single diploma with different “gradations” depending on student needs.

Arkanoff was one of several educators who addressed the graduation pathways committee, led by the Indiana State Board of Education. The group is charged by Indiana lawmakers with creating pathways that will help determine students’ readiness for life after high school.

Currently, Indiana students have a single graduation requirement outside of what’s needed to earn a diploma — passing end-of-course exams in math and English. But next school year, that changes. Instead, to graduate, students will need to complete the pathway, which will replace the two tests, and earn a diploma. It’s not yet clear what those pathways will look like.

Byron Ernest, a state board member and the chairman of the committee, urged members to stay focused on the pathways.

“The purpose of this panel is to create a new system for determining if a student is ready to graduate high school,” Ernest said, adding later that the committee is not responsible for revamping the state’s diploma structure.

Multiple previous efforts to redo diploma requirements have resulted in little action and several false starts. The main impetus behind this flurry of discussion is the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which states that the general diploma can no longer count in the graduation rate Indiana must report to the federal government starting as early as 2018.

The general diploma is a pared-down option that only about 12 percent of Indiana students receive.

To many at the meeting, any conversation about graduation would naturally include diplomas, especially when there is so much urgency around the ESSA changes.

Because of the change, many schools across the state — as well as the state as a whole — would see graduation rates drop, a main factor in high schools’ A-F grades. If a school’s rate falls below 67 percent, the school could also be identified as needing extra support from the state. Folks said 275 Indiana high schools could face that reality going forward.

Laura Hammack, superintendent of Brown County Schools, is one example. She said the ESSA change would have gotten her below or close to the two-thirds mark in 2016 and 2017.

“The news about Indiana’s diploma options and connections to ESSA hit Brown County very hard,” she said.

Indiana lawmakers both at the state and federal level wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos asking for some time to deal with change before consequences would take effect.

Mary Burton, director of the Northeast Indiana Special Education Cooperative, said a single diploma could also offer benefits for students with special needs, who disproportionately receive general diplomas.

“It’s clear to students that the general diploma is of lesser value,” Burton said. “How about one diploma with (extra certifications)? This option would allow for the rigor we expect from all of our students while respecting and valuing each student’s learning differences.”

According to 2015 data compiled by Achieve, a nonprofit that helps states work on academic standards and tests, 27 states offer multiple high school diploma options. A 2016 analysis from the Virginia Department of Education found that of the 10 states with the highest percentages of graduates going to college, most had moved from multiple diplomas to just one.

Indiana has convened numerous panels and spent scores of hours discussing diplomas and post-high school options for students, with very little action taken.

The discussion around graduation pathways is a variation on that theme. So far, what a pathway is and how it might be structured has not been clearly defined. Mainly, the meetings have brought together educators, community members and business leaders to have wide-ranging conversations about preparing kids for life after high school, whether that’s college, career, military or other options.

After today, the group has six more meetings scheduled through early November.