Future of Schools

It looks like far fewer Indiana schools could earn an A after ISTEP changes

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Gov. Mike Pence and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz reached an agreement on how to handle a predicted drop in ISTEP passing rates for 2015.

It looks like ISTEP scores will dip considerably when they are released, probably later this year, and one result could be a sharp drop in the number of A-grades schools earn, paired with a big spike in the number of schools that earn D- or F-grades.

That’s what estimates from the Indiana Department of Education show now that the Indiana State Board of Education has set the passing cut-off scores for the ISTEP exams, which are the backbone of the school grading system.

The passing scores are expected to result in big drops for number of students passing ISTEP — down 16 percentage points in English and 24 percentage points in math. Using the passing rates on the 2014 ISTEP test, and the corresponding letter grades for schools, as a guide, drops that big could have a dramatic effect on school grades in 2015, education department spokesman Daniel Altman said.

On average, a 20 percentage point drop in ISTEP scores could move the state from almost 54 percent of schools earning A’s last year to as few as 7 percent earning an A for 2015. Consequently, D’s and F’s could rise from about 8 percent and 5 percent last year to just over 27 percent for both in 2015. School grades aren’t expected to be released until early 2016.

Today, the state board quickly approved the cut-off scores for the 2015 exam, which students took last March and May. The approval vote had been expected at a meeting earlier this month but was postponed at the last minute.

At the board’s Oct. 16 meeting, questions were raised about whether there was a difference between the difficulty of the paper version of  ISTEP, which fewer students took, and the online version that most students took. Board members were concerned that the paper version was easier and that the scores needed to be adjusted to equate to the online test. So the board called for an expert evaluation.

The expert report said there was a difference that will require an adjustment. But the work to make that adjustment can go on as the state prepares the scores for release. The board will discuss the adjustment at its Nov. 4 meeting.

Superintendent Glenda Ritz said the big drops in the number of students passing ISTEP were expected. She said she is planning to work with Gov. Mike Pence and legislators to soften the blow that otherwise could fall on teachers and schools, which must raise ISTEP scores or face sanctions such as pay freezes or state takeover.

Pence on Tuesday reversed his past opposition to softening accountability for a “transition year” as the state adjusts to a new, tougher ISTEP. He now says he favors an adjustment to the state’s accountability system so teachers aren’t unfairly penalized if their students’ test scores fall by big margins that are in line with a statewide decline.

“For quite some time I have been talking about Indiana will probably experience a drop in performance as a result of a more rigorous assessment,” Ritz said. “So I’m actually looking forward to the conversations with members of the General Assembly about what kind of flexibility Indiana might want to partake in to actually give relief for assigning of the grades this year.”

Pence said he hoped to help craft new state laws to ease testing sanctions on teachers, but it’s not clear exactly how that would work or whether schools would also get relief if their A-to-F grades drop.

Two key legislative leaders, House education committee chairman Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, and Senate education committee chairman Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, said earlier this week that they didn’t support a “pause” in the state’s accountability system. The state board has been similarly opposed to such a move.

Ritz has long championed pausing accountability. She has argued the state could skip accountability for a year by not assigning grades or enforcing sanctions, or it could hold schools “harmless” by only releasing school grades for 2015 if they are the same or better than in 2014.

If any part of the state’s accountability system changed, it would have to be approved by the U.S. Department of Education, Altman said, because Indiana has agreed to maintain accountability as part of an agreement that provides a waiver for the state from penalties from the federal No Child Left Behind law. Federal education officials have signaled a willingness to allow such flexibility in recent months.

But board member Gordon Hendry said Indiana students are still showing progress based on newly released scores on the National Assessment for Educational Progress at the same time ISTEP scores are expected to come in much lower. Indiana did as well or better than 2013 on NAEP when it came to math and reading scores. It also outranked most other states, most notably in fourth grade math where Indiana ranked fourth.

“Despite some of the bumps and starts and stops of what’s happened in Indiana education over the last few years, we are seeing significant progress,” Hendry said.”We’re seeing continued success and even improvement in our classrooms.”

'rigorous and realistic'

Some struggling New York City schools can lose ground and still hit performance targets

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio at Brooklyn Generation School — part of the Renewal program

Despite Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious promise to transform struggling schools, some of New York City’s bottom-ranked schools can backslide this year and still hit new goals that the city has set for them.

For the first time, the city has told schools in its $582 million “Renewal” program to aim for test scores, graduation rates, or attendance rates that fall within a certain range, rather than hit a specific target. But some ranges include goals that are below the schools’ current levels.

For instance, Bronx Collegiate Academy posted a 67 percent graduation rate last year. This year, its city-issued goal is to land between 63.6 and 81.9 percent — meaning its graduation rate can go down and still fall within its target range.

At the Bronx’s J.H.S. 123, the goal is for students to earn an average score on the state English tests of between 2.3 and 2.45 — despite already achieving a 2.42 average last year. (Students must earn a 3 or higher on the 4-point scale to be considered proficient.)

The latest round of goals continues a pattern of modest targets for schools in de Blasio’s signature school-turnaround program, even as the city loads them with extra social services, extended hours, and bigger budgets. Some experts say the goals are appropriate for schools that started so far behind, and note that school turnaround can take years. But others say the goals set a low bar, and question whether they are designed to make it easier for the de Blasio administration to claim its pricey program was a success.

What’s more, the new goal ranges have created some confusion among school leaders about what they are expected to achieve and what will happen if they don’t.

“If [the goals] really are supposed to be guiding stars and shaping what schools are doing on a day-to-day basis,” said Teachers College professor Aaron Pallas, “fuzzy ranges with unclear accountability consequences is not the way to do it.”

The goals are one of the factors officials consider when deciding whether schools in the Renewal program have made sufficient progress or should instead be closed or merged with other schools.

But if they are meant to provide low-performing schools with clear targets and a sense of urgency, the new ranges have instead created some confusion. The city offered online trainings on the goals, but some school leaders remain unsure of what’s expected of them.

“What we’ve been told is: ‘You need to reach for the upper range of your benchmark,’ said an administrator at a Brooklyn Renewal school, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It’s not a fixed number, so what’s good enough and what isn’t?”

Eric Ashton, the education department’s executive director for accountability, acknowledged that the new goal ranges had left some people confused.

Still, he defended them as “rigorous and realistic,” and said schools are expected to aim for the upper end of the range. The ranges are meant to encourage schools to focus on making progress rather than fixating on a single number, he added

“If you just have one number as a target then it’s all or nothing,” Ashton said. “We don’t want it to be all or nothing.”

The tweaks partially reflect the political dilemma the education department faces when assigning goals to the city’s lowest-performing schools: Overly modest goals could invite criticism that such small gains do not justify the program’s hefty price tag, while overly ambitious goals could set the program up for failure.

Yet despite their caution, officials have fallen into both traps.

Early goals they set for Renewal schools required such slight improvements that a top state official called them “ridiculous.” Still, many schools have failed to meet those goals, providing ammunition to some critics who say the program has been a costly disappointment.

Some schools have made strides, including a group of 21 “Rise” schools that officials say have made enough progress to begin transitioning out of the Renewal program. Pallas, the Teachers College professor, said that officials may have assigned achievable goals to the program’s remaining schools as a way to ease even more out — raising questions about the city’s long-term plans for the program.

“Setting low targets could allow the department to shift more of the schools to the Rise category, which is the declaring-victory category,” he said. “I think we’re all still wondering what the future of this program is going to be.”

hurdle cleared

Indiana’s federally required education plan wins approval

PHOTO: Courtesy of the Indiana Department of Education
State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick greets elementary school students in Decatur Township.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has signed off on Indiana’s federally required education plan, ushering in another era of changes — although not exactly major ones — to the state’s public school system.

The U.S Department of Education announced the plan’s approval on Friday. Like other states, Indiana went through an extensive process to craft a blueprint to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which was signed into law in 2015.

“Today is a great day for Indiana,” state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in a statement. “Our ESSA plan reflects the input and perspective of many stakeholders in communities across our state. From the beginning, we set out to build a plan that responded to the needs of Hoosier students. From our clear accountability system to our innovative, locally-driven approach to school improvement, our ESSA plan was designed to support student success.”

The federal government highlighted two aspects of Indiana’s plan. One is a pledge to close achievement gaps separating certain groups of students, such as racial and ethnic groups, from their peers by 50 percent by 2023.

Another is a staple of other states’ plans, as well: adding new ways for measuring how ready students are for attending college or starting their careers. Indiana education officials and lawmakers have made this a priority over the past several years, culminating in a new set of graduation requirements the Indiana State Board of Education approved late last year.

Under Indiana’s plan, high schoolers’ readiness will be measured not just by tests but also by performance in advanced courses and earning dual credits or industry certifications. Elementary school students will be measured in part by student attendance and growth in student attendance over time. Test scores and test score improvement still play a major role in how all schools are rated using state A-F letter grades.

In all, 35 states’ ESSA plans have won federal approval.

Advocates hope the law will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

Indiana officials struggled to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, such as graduation requirements and diplomas.

Under the state’s ESSA plan, A-F grades would include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and, in the case of chronic absenteeism, attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

Because the Indiana State Board of Education passed its own draft A-F rules earlier this month — rules that deviate from the state ESSA plan — it’s possible Hoosier schools could get two sets of letter grades going forward, muddying the initial intent of the simple A-F grade concept parents and community members are familiar with.

The state board’s A-F changes include other measures, 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. The state board plan also gets rid of the test score improvement measure for high-schoolers.

While that A-F proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

The state can still make changes to its ESSA plan, and the state board’s A-F draft is also expected to see revisions after public comment. But the fact that they conflict now could create difficulties moving forward, and it has led to tension during state board meetings. Already, the state expected schools would see two years of A-F grades in 2018. If both plans move forward as is, that could continue beyond next year.

Read: Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Find more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.