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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.

Every Student Succeeds Act

Indiana is working on a plan to make sure every school — not just white, affluent ones — has high-quality teachers

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Kathleen Cucci reads aloud to her students during group time.

Even though several years of teacher evaluation data have shown the vast majority of Indiana teachers are highly rated, poor students and students of color are still more likely to have ineffective, inexperienced teachers than their peers.

Indiana is examining how teachers are divided up among schools as part of its work on a new education plan to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. The new law focuses more on on equity and inclusivity, something civil rights advocates and state officials have praised.

“We have a lot of kids in Indiana who don’t have access to quality teachers,” said Indiana State Board of Education member David Freitas. “ESSA says we have to specifically address that.”

According to the state’s education plan, poor students and students of color in Title I schools (those that receive extra federal aid based on rates of poverty) are more likely than their affluent, white peers to have teachers who are ineffective, inexperienced and don’t meet Indiana certification requirements.

Here’s how the data breaks down.

  • Poor students are 3.7 times more likely to have ineffective teachers; Students of color are 8.5 times more likely;
  • Both poor students and students of color are slightly more likely to have teachers who don’t meet certification requirements;
  • Poor students are 1.54 times more likely to have inexperienced teachers; Students of color are 1.63 times more likely;
  • Both poor students and students of color are slightly less likely to have highly effective or effective teachers.

Despite the relative differences in teacher experience and quality in the list above, it’s worth noting that 88 percent of Indiana’s 68,386 teachers were rated “effective” or “highly effective” in 2015 (the most recent data available), with just 0.38 percent rated “ineffective.”

State officials said there could be many reasons why low-rated teachers tend to be more present in high-poverty, predominantly non-white schools. Those schools might not be able to pay teachers as much or offer them as much support, making it harder to attract more experienced educators.

But groups of educators, policymakers and community members who worked with state officials to draft the plan focused on issues of training and support, leading the state to develop a number of strategies to pursue going forward that could help keep good teachers in the classroom. Those strategies could include extending student teaching, overhauling performance evaluations to focus more on improvement rather than simple ratings and helping districts access funding to improve ongoing teacher training.

This struggle is not new to Indiana — teacher-related discussions for the past several years have focused on recruiting and retaining teachers. So far, legislative progress has been slow. Some bills championing prospective teacher scholarships and mentoring programs have won approval, but they have received relatively small amounts of funding, if any.

By 2023, Indiana education officials have a goal to cut the inequitable rates of teacher experience and quality in half.

The Indiana Department of Education submitted the ESSA plan to Gov. Eric Holcomb earlier this week. He can choose whether to lend his support. Either way, it is due to federal officials in September.

This story has been corrected to better reflect Holcomb’s role in the state ESSA plan. 

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Feds to Colorado: You must count students who opt out of standardized tests

Seniors at Fairview High School in Boulder protested a standardized test in November 2014. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado’s policy of not penalizing schools that fail to meet federal requirements for student participation in state tests isn’t going over well with the federal government.

The U.S. Department of Education told state officials in a letter Friday that the policy is not acceptable. Colorado faces losing millions in federal funding if it doesn’t change course.

Federal officials flagged the opt-out policy in a response to the state’s plan to comply with the nation’s new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The federal government’s feedback to states is being closely watched for signs of how the department, under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, enforces a law that was meant to shift more decision-making away from the federal government and back to states.

“It didn’t come as a surprise,” Pat Chapman, the Colorado Department of Education’s executive director of federal programs, said of the feedback. “There’s a need to reconcile state board, state legislature and federal requirements and policies.”

In 2015, Colorado became a national epicenter for the testing opt-out movement, with thousands of students refusing to take state-required tests they didn’t see as valuable.

The State Board of Education, reasoning that it wasn’t fair to punish schools for something not in their control, adopted a policy forbidding the state education department from lowering schools’ quality ratings or otherwise punishing them for high refusal rates.

Previously, schools and districts could have seen their quality ratings lowered if they failed to annually test 95 percent of students in math and English. Schools that receive the state’s lowest quality ratings for five consecutive years face state intervention.

Education Commissioner Katy Anthes is expected to brief the state board at its regularly scheduled meeting this week on possible responses. The state has until Aug. 24 to submit a revised state plan or ask for an extension.

State board Chairwoman Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat, said Monday she doesn’t expect the board to take any formal action on rethinking the board’s policy this week. She declined to elaborate further.

“The board should have an opportunity to talk about this before I publicly comment,” she said.

Board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican who championed the policy, also held back Monday.

“I’m not sure what all the options available are,” he said. “We’ll wait and see what the staff’s analysis is and go from there.”

The state’s unique opt-out policy wasn’t the federal government’s only criticism.

The U.S. Department of Education also raised concern about the state’s long-term academic goals, using an average of test scores to determine school quality and monitoring how well students are learning English as a second language.

The federal department is asking the state to resubmit long-term academic goals for particular student groups, including different ethnic groups and students with disabilities.

In the current version of the plan, all student groups are expected to have the same average test score in six years, which is slightly higher than the state’s current average. The goals seem confusing and unattainable. For example, students with disabilities would need to make unprecedented progress, while Asian students would need to lose academic ground in order for the state to meet its targets.

As part of its plan, Colorado also proposed rating schools based on averages from English and math test scores, not how many students met grade-level proficiency as it did in the past.

While the use of average test scores was applauded by some, it isn’t flying with the federal education department. It wants Colorado to better explain how using average scores relates to measuring whether students are at grade level.

Moreover, U.S. officials want an assurance from Colorado that students who are far above grade-level won’t “overcompensate” for students who are not proficient. In other words, the department wants to make sure high-performers aren’t masking serious problems.

Dale Chu, vice president of policy and operations for America Succeeds, a nonprofit of business leaders that support education reform, helped a coalition of education groups review state plans independently of U.S. education department. The group, the Collaborative For Student Success, was critical of Colorado’s switch to using an average of test scores.

“There’s no sense of proficiency,” he said. “There has to be some sort of sense that kids are coming out school being able to read and compute and be on a successful path.”

Finally, the U.S. education department is also seeking more clarity on how the state is tracking the progress of students learning English as a second language. It said the state needs to provide a clear timeline on when it can provide specific goals and more detail about how the state will use data to determine school quality.

Chapman said the state education department did not have the data available to provide the federal government the information it needed. However, that’s changing and he expects that portion of the plan to be accepted.

The Every Student Succeeds Act was signed by President Barack Obama in 2015. The law required states to develop plans to outline how it would use federal dollars to improve schools, teacher quality and boost language proficiency for students learning English as a second language.

Pushback from the U.S. education department to states has been more stern than many education policy observers expected given DeVos’s support of school choice and local control.

Chapman said the federal department has been helpful.

“They’re asked to uphold the letter of the law, he said. “I do think they’re approaching it in anyway that they’re being helpful to states to write a plan that’s consistent with statue.”