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No Child Left Behind is gone. Here’s how new federal law could affect Indiana schools

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A second-grader in Wayne Township works on a reading assignment.

As Indiana tries to decide the future of testing in classrooms across the state, it’s also dealing with complicated new federal rules.

After years of adapting its testing program to meet the stringent requirements of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act, Indiana officials are figuring out how to take advantage of the new flexibility allowed under the new Every Student Succeeds Act.

The new education law doesn’t take full effect until next year, but state officials are starting to get ready.

Here’s what you need to know about the new law and how it could affect schools in the state:

How will this affect plans for replacing ISTEP?

As a panel of lawmakers and educators meet over the summer and into the fall to come up with a new plan for testing Indiana students after ISTEP is retired in 2017, the new law will give the panel more options.

Read: Getting rid of Indiana’s ISTEP test: What might come next and at what cost?

Like No Child Left Behind, the new law still requires states to give reading and math tests to every student in grades 3-8 as well as once in high school. The law also still requires states to measure whether students are meeting grade-level expectations.

The difference is that now individual schools will be able to petition the state to replace any state high school test with a national test, such as the ACT or SAT. But that option is contingent on state approval.

And up to seven states will have the freedom to request an “innovation pilot” that would let them dream up wildly different tests that could eventually be scaled up statewide, which is work New Hampshire has already led the charge on.

Is there an official way for parents to opt kids out of tests?

No, that hasn’t changed.

The new law keeps in place a requirement that 95 percent of students participate in state exams. Districts and schools must figure out how to handle cases when parents want to opt kids out of tests.

If more than 5 percent of students miss an exam, which hasn’t happened in Indiana at this point, the state must impose consequences for schools. That could means a losing points on the state’s letter grade school accountability system. Or the state could require a school with high opt-out rates to participate in a state improvement plan, which would be up to states to design on their own.

Will the new rules affect the state’s A-F school grades?

Yes. ESSA requires states to judge schools using more than just test scores. Already, Indiana is altering the formula it uses to assign letter grades, adding high school graduation rate, advanced classes and student test score improvement from year to year.

But expect the state to adjust the formula again to better meet the new federal rules. Indiana must add ways to measure how well English-learners are progressing and a “school quality or student success” measure in elementary and middle schools such as the results of parent, teacher and student surveys, something Indianapolis Public Schools is already exploring.

Will politics play a role?

Always. Like with most education policy battles in the state, this could come down to a standoff between state Superintendent Glenda Ritz and Republican lawmakers — assuming the 2016 election doesn’t bring in new players.

Ritz and her education department must create a plan by 2017 that tells the federal government how Indiana will change testing and accountability.

The plan has to go to the governor for a review, but there’s no requirement for any formal sign-off — which could make it seem like Ritz has the power here.

But it’s state lawmakers who have the most say in shaping the final testing and accountability plans.

A state test review panel is required by law to deliver recommendations to the General Assembly by Dec. 1. Then, lawmakers must introduce and pass legislation to actually change the parts of state law that deal with testing.

Along the way, federal rules could be adjusted, but current regulations from Congress should give Indiana and other states enough to at least get started with their plans.

For more information on the Every Student Succeeds Act, check out resources from the Indiana Department of Education and Education Week.

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.