Future of Schools

State senator: Legislature should pass a bill now to relieve ISTEP sanctions

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Sen. Mark Stoops, D-Bloomington, today called for the Indiana legislature to take the dramatic step of passing a bill next week during what is normally a mostly ceremonial session to protect schools and teachers from consequences of an expected steep drop in ISTEP scores.

Last school year’s ISTEP was connected to tougher standards, and preliminary data shows far more Indiana children could fail the 2015 exam than in prior years. That could send school A-F grades plummeting and knock down teacher ratings that are partly calculated based on how much students’ scores rise. Final ISTEP scores are expected in December.

Schools can face serious consequences if they are rated an F, including state takeover for those that can’t raise their scores. Teachers can have pay raises blocked or even be fired if they are rated ineffective.

But in an announcement this afternoon, Stoops said lawmakers can help the state avoid all that potential pain and drama. The legislature meets on Tuesday for Organization Day.

“We have shown that the legislature can pass a bill in a matter of hours,” Stoops said. “I think it’s critical we pass this as soon as possible.”

Bills are rarely passed on Organization Day, but it could happen if lawmakers suspend a few rules. Rumors have been circulating — and strongly denied by legislative leaders — that the legislature could pass a bill on Organization Day to expand civil rights laws to add protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. But this is the first suggestion that an education bill could be offered.

Stoops’ bill contains much of what state Superintendent Glenda Ritz has lobbied for over the course of the past few months. It would hold schools and teachers “harmless,” releasing them from any consequences, if ISTEP scores drop for their students. For 2015, schools’ letter grades would only change from what they were in 2014 if they are higher, for example.

The same logic would apply for teacher evaluations and pay bonuses — evaluations could only get better or stay the same but not drop because of lower ISTEP scores. Teacher performance bonuses also couldn’t be lowered because of poor ISTEP results, just raised or held the same.

Stoops argued for action in a letter to Senate President David Long, R-Fort Wayne, by pointing out that state law requires teacher bonus funds to be distributed to schools and districts by Dec. 5.

The cutoff scores to pass ISTEP that were approved by the state board last month are expected to result in big drops for percent of students passing ISTEP — down an estimated 16 percentage points in English and 24 percentage points in math.

Using the passing rates from the 2014 ISTEP test as a guide, and the corresponding letter grades for schools, drops that big could have a dramatic effect on school grades in 2015, education department spokesman Daniel Altman told Chalkbeat last month.

On average, a 20 percentage point drop in the ISTEP passing rate 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. Along with declines at the top, 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.

“As a legislature and a state board of education, you can’t be attempting to undermine schools,” Stoops said. “And if we allow these test scores that we know to be flawed to be used to assess and grade teachers and students and schools, I think that’s irresponsible on our part.”

Last month Gov. Mike Pence also announced he wanted to relieve the penalties on teachers for lower expected ISTEP scores, but he has not detailed whether specific legislation is in the works or what his plan might entail.

Long said he supported Pence’s efforts in a statement last month, reversing his own prior position, which was opposed to relieving schools and teachers accountability sanctions. A statement from Long today said he didn’t think legislation needed to be passed so soon to adjust the system.

“I am very mindful of the timeframe for making changes,” Long said in a statement. “If the legislature, the Department of Education and the State Board of Education work together, I believe we can find the flexibility necessary to adjust our systems in a timely fashion without passing legislation on Organization Day.”

This “pause” in accountability has been shot down several times by the Indiana State Board of Education, although final say rests with the General Assembly.

Stoops said that it’s lawmakers responsibility to fix the situation because it was one of their own making.

“We really expect an increase of failing and D-schools in the state,” Stoops said. “That’s a dramatic change and could have a really negative impact on state and local communities. If we as a state legislature truly want to show we really support schools, teachers and students, then we need to make sure that we correct this problem that is largely created by the state legislature.”

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.


Aurora recommends interventions in one elementary school, while another gets more time

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Aurora school district officials on Tuesday will recommend turning over management of some operations at one of their elementary schools to an outside management company.

The school, Lyn Knoll Elementary, is located in northwest Aurora near 2nd Avenue and Peoria Street and serves a high number of students from low-income families, with 4 percent of students identified as homeless. The school was one of three Aurora schools that earned the lowest rating from the state in 2017.

That rating automatically flags the school under a district process for school interventions. The process directs district officials to consider a number of possible improvement plans, including closure or turning the school over to a charter school.

Lyn Knoll has had good rankings in recent years before slipping dramatically in the past year, a change that put it on the turnaround list. The district did not recommend intervening at Paris Elementary, even though that school has been in priority improvement for years and will face state sanctions if it has one more year without improvement.

Annual ratings for Lyn Knoll Elementary

  • 2010: Improvement
  • 2011: Improvement
  • 2012: Performance
  • 2013: Improvement
  • 2014: Priority Improvement
  • 2016: Performance
  • 2017: Turnaround
Colorado Department of Education

The board will discuss the recommendation on Tuesday and vote on the school’s fate next month. In November, four union-backed board members who have been critical of charter schools won a majority role on the district’s school board. This will be their first major decision since taking a seat on the board.

In September, Superintendent Rico Munn had told the school board that among January’s school improvement recommendations, the one for Paris would be “the most high-profile.” A month later the district put out a request for information, seeking ideas to improve Aurora schools.

But in a board presentation released Friday, district officials didn’t give much attention to Paris. Instead, they will let Paris continue its rollout of an innovation plan approved two years ago. Officials have said they are hopeful the school will show improvements.

The recommendation for Lyn Knoll represents more drastic change, and it’s the only one that would require a board vote.

The district recommendation calls for replacing the current principal, drafting a contract for an outside company to help staff with training and instruction, and creating a plan to help recruit more students to the school.

Documents show district officials considered closing Lyn Knoll because it already has low and decreasing enrollment with just 238 current students. Those same documents note that while officials are concerned about the school’s trends, it has not had a long history of low ratings to warrant a closure.

In considering a charter school conversion, documents state that there is already a saturation of charter schools in that part of the city, and the community is interested in “the existence of a neighborhood school.” Two charter networks, however, did indicate interest in managing the school, the documents state.
The district recommendation would also include stripping the school’s current status as a pilot school.

Lyn Knoll and other schools labeled pilot schools in Aurora get some internal district autonomy under a program created more than 10 years ago by district and union officials.

Because Lyn Knoll is a pilot school, a committee that oversees that program also reviewed the school and made its own recommendation, which is different from the district’s.

In their report, committee members explained that while they gave the school low marks, they want the school to maintain pilot status for another year as long as it follows guidance on how to improve.

Among the observations in the committee’s report: The school doesn’t have an intervention program in place for students who need extra help in math, families are not engaged, and there has not been enough training for teachers on the new state standards.

The report also highlights the school’s daily physical education for students and noted that the school’s strength was in the school’s governance model that allowed teachers to feel involved in decision making.

Read the full committee report below.