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

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.

Every Student Succeeds Act

Plans for a single Indiana diploma advance with new rules that raise the bar for graduation waivers

In a move that might make it more difficult for some students to graduate, Indiana lawmakers are considering raising the threshold for allowing students to earn a diploma when they have fallen short of some state requirements.

A proposal to change the graduation waiver system is the latest attempt by the state to amend graduation requirements as part of a policy initiative to ensure that students are prepared for life after high school. The change in waiver policy could make it more challenging for students who struggle academically to complete high school.

“I want to make sure we have as few waivers as possible,” said Rep. Bob Behning, Republican chairman of the House Education Committee and author of House Bill 1426, which includes the waiver changes. And if a waiver is necessary, he said, he wants the requirements to be stringent enough to ensure post-graduate success.

The proposed waiver requirements are part of a sweeping effort by the state to align state law with the state’s new graduation pathways system. The bill, which passed its first major hurdle with the approval of the House Education Committee on Tuesday, would combine the state’s four diplomas into one to deal with the effects of a change in federal law that no longer counts the state’s less-rigorous general diploma in the federal graduation rate. With one diploma, Indiana would be more likely to pass muster under the new federal rules, but final approval from the federal government won’t come for several months.

An amendment to the bill proposed on Tuesday will change Indiana’s policy for allowing students to receive a waiver that, while controversial, is widely used. More than 8 percent of the more than 70,000 students who graduated last year received waivers from meeting graduation requirements.

Supporters say waivers provide opportunities to students who might face challenges that affect their ability to meet the basic graduation requirements. But critics say they allow high schools to push through students that lack the kind of skills needed to be successfully employed.

Waiver requirements for students with disabilities would not change under the new proposal.

The current system allows students who repeatedly fail required state tests in English and math to be granted a waiver that lets them graduate if they meet other criteria.

But under the new pathways system, which will affect students now in seventh grade, the state graduation exam will be replaced with one of several new graduation pathways requirements, which could include passing a college-entrance exam, taking career and technical education classes, or passing advanced courses.

Under Behning’s proposal, a waiver would be granted if a student had earned an average GPA of 2.0; maintained 95 percent attendance; or if he or she has been admitted to college, a job training program, the military or has an opportunity to start a career.

The bill allows a school’s principal to approve alternative requirements but doesn’t address how those would be developed. The new rules could also be used by students transferring from schools that are out of state or from private schools not held to graduation pathway rules.

The current criteria to receive a waiver do not call for students to be admitted to college, the military or a job. Students do have to maintain a 95 percent attendance record and a 2.0 grade point average, and also have to complete requirements for a general diploma, take a workforce readiness assessment or earn an industry certification approved by the state board. The standards also require students to obtain letters of recommendation from teachers (with approval of the school principal) and to use class work to show students have mastered the subject despite failing the graduation exam.

It’s not yet clear how many students might be affected by a change to the graduation waiver system. In the months since the Indiana State Board of Education approved the new graduation pathways, educators have raised concerns to state board staff members about the types of students who might not have a clear-cut pathway under the plan — for example, a student headed to college who might not have an exceptional academic record. A waiver outlined by HB 1426 could give them another shot. But for students without definite post-graduation plans, that waiver could be out of reach.

None of the educators or education advocates who testified on the bill spoke out specifically on the waiver changes. Mike Brown, director of legislative affairs for the Indiana Department of Education, said that based on a “cursory look,” the department didn’t have any issues with it.

Aside from the diploma and graduation waiver changes, the bill would also:

  • Make Indiana’s high school test a college-entrance exam, such as the ACT or SAT, instead of end-of-year tests in English and math.
  • Encourage the state board to look into alternatives for Algebra 2, currently a diploma requirement.
  • Ask the state board to establish guidelines for how districts and schools can create “local” graduation pathways and how they would be approved by the state board. It would also add $500,000 to fund development of local pathways that districts and schools could apply for.
  • Eliminate the Accuplacer exam, which schools now use to see if high school students need remediation in English or math before they graduate.

Because the bill includes a request for state funding, it next heads to the House Ways and Means Committee.