To grade or not to grade?

Feds say Indiana can drop its A-F system. But does it want to?

PHOTO: Robert Scheer/IndyStar
Students work with a teacher at IPS #84, Indianapolis, Wednesday, May 18, 2016.

If Indiana wants to make changes to its A-F school grading system, new rules from the U.S. Department of Education announced today could make it much easier.

The question is: Does Indiana want to make a change? And what would an overhauled school rating system look like?

The new rules come with the Every Student Succeeds Act, passed last year by Congress as a replacement for No Child Left Behind. ESSA is designed to give states and local schools more control over education decisions.

Today’s announcements from federal officials about ESSA included two big changes. First, the law won’t go into full effect until the 2018-19 school year, which gives states more time to create their plans and transition. And second, the federal education department will no longer require a single rating, such as an A-F grade, for every school.

That could be a help to Jennifer McCormick, who earlier this month was elected state superintendent after defeating Glenda Ritz. McCormick said during the campaign she thought Indiana should consider more than a single A-F grade when considering school academic performance.

That’s also a position that Ritz has advocated for in her four years in office. But there are many unknowns about how, and even whether, changes will come.

The election of Donald Trump as president means a new administration will be in charge of interpreting and enforcing the ESSA law, so it’s possible some guidance from the federal government could change after he takes office in January.

And even if the flexibility to drop A-F grades remains, it would be up to the Indiana legislature to change state law if it wanted to follow McCormick’s advice that schools be labeled differently.

“There’s quite a bit of turmoil at the national level, as you might expect,” State Superintendent Glenda Ritz today told a committee of educators gathered to explore how Indiana accountability could change under ESSA. “I’d like to get some recommendations moving forward.”

Under the new rules, states actually don’t have to give schools specific ratings anymore. Now, they can do as little as categorizing schools based on how much support they need, something the law already requires they track.

For example, schools that fall in the bottom 5 percent based on state standardized test scores must be reported to the federal education department in a category indicating they need “comprehensive support.” Schools that need to improve the test performance of just some groups of students, like English language learners or those in special education, will be reported as needing “targeted support.” Under the education department’s categories, many Indiana schools that don’t fall into those two previous groups would simply be labeled as “other.”

Ritz said she wasn’t opposed to grouping schools “if it’s talking about support. That’s heading in a better direction at the federal level.”

But Indiana has its own laws, including the requirement that schools earn a single A-F grade, based mostly on test scores. There has been no signal yet from legislative leaders that they wish to change A-F grades.

A-F grade supporters say the grades are easy to understand for parents and community members looking to make decisions about their children’s education.

But while state law requires a single grade, it gives the Indiana State Board of Education and state superintendent the power to decide how the grade is calculated. The A-F model was overhauled during the past couple years to include more data that goes beyond test scores, such as measures of student participation in college entrance exams and advanced courses at the high school level.

Similar changes to add non-test-based measures, now required by the new federal law, are also in the works for A-F grades for elementary and middle schools.

Indiana Department of Education officials today proposed creating an index to combine data the state currently collects on discipline and chronic absenteeism, two areas Ritz says are “warning signs” that can indicate schools need more help. That could be one option of a measure to add to the A-F grade calculation.

Cari Whicker, an elementary school teacher on the committee who also is a state board member, said she knows that data is important to include, but sometimes those factors can be beyond a school’s control. She thinks a student survey, or a measure focused more on the quality of a school’s atmosphere or culture, could be a better tool.

“I can control the climate of a building,” Whicker said. “I’d like this to be one area where we be a little bit innovative and try something and ask kids.”

Part of the challenge of using a survey is that it would require the state to contract with an outside company, which takes time and costs more money than simply using data the state already collects.

This committee is set to have one more meeting in mid-December.

Every Student Succeeds Act

Proposed A-F grading rules would make test scores even more important in Indiana

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students at IPS School 39 work on an assignment earlier this fall.

Indiana state officials are again suggesting changes to the state’s A-F grading formula that would place even more importance on passing tests, and many were unaware about what was coming.

The proposed formula would factor in more strongly the number of students who pass tests and remove the measure of test score improvement for high schools, which educators have said they think is valuable. The changes come as Indiana works to create a plan comply with new federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Scot Croner, superintendent of the northern Indiana Wa-Nee School District, said he doesn’t understand why educators — particularly the 15-member committee that helped the state draft its plan — weren’t involved in the discussion.

“It just seems like a lot of behind-the-scenes and not very transparent,” said Croner, who helped with part of the original plan’s development. “That’s unfortunate. It screams of politics.”

Read: Indiana has a curious plan to sidestep federal rules — give schools two A-F grades next year.

The state board is set to meet to consider the proposed A-F grade changes on Wednesday. If the board approves them, they will be posted for public comment.

In Indiana’s initial draft of its state plan, A-F grades were composed of four or five main parts. A school’s formula could look something like this (the percentages would change depending on the school’s population and the data available):

Elementary/middle school:

  • Test proficiency: 42.5 percent
  • Test score growth: 42.5 percent
  • Chronic Absenteeism: 5 percent
  • English Language Proficiency: 10 percent

High school:

  • Test proficiency: 15 percent
  • Test score growth: 15 percent
  • Graduation Rate: 30 percent
  • College & Career Readiness: 30 percent
  • English Language Proficiency: 10 percent

Adam Baker, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education, said the department was not aware of many of the changes the state board had proposed and was also disappointed that educators were not included.

“The concerns we are hearing from the field is the lack of transparency,” Baker said. “We’ve always believed in order to make good policy, you must have the involvement of practitioners. And given we were extremely transparent during the creation of our approach to meet ESSA requirements, those in the field expected the same.”

The education department and the state board of education have been separate since 2013. Generally, the education department deals with state and federal agencies and executes policy — the state board is tasked with creating or approving it.

When then-Gov. Mike Pence split off the state board from the department of education as part of his “innovative” Center for Education and Career Innovation, then-state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, a Democrat who headed the department and frequently butted heads with him, said it was a political ploy to take away her power. The board has 11 members.

The education department is in charge of the state’s plan to comply with new federal law, and state board members had several chances over the summer to give input and suggest changes before the plan was submitted to the federal government in August.

But even some state board members were unaware that new rules were being drafted. Steve Yager, a board member and former superintendent from Fort Wayne, said he was not part of the small group of four that made the rules, and he only became aware a week ago that they’d be up for a vote this month.

“In my two-and-a-half years on the board, this has never happened,” Yager said. “So I see it as a change in process or protocol or practice, and there are members of the board who are concerned about it.”

The new formulas could look something like this:

Elementary/middle school:

  • Test proficiency: 42.5 percent
  • Test score growth: 42.5 percent
  • Chronic Absenteeism: 5 percent
  • English Language Proficiency: 5 percent
  • Well-rounded (science and social studies test): 5 percent

High school (before the 2022-23 school year):

  • Test proficiency: 25 percent
  • Graduation Rate: 30 percent
  • College & Career Readiness: 30 percent
  • English Language Proficiency: 5 percent
  • On-track: 10 percent

High school (after the 2022-23 school year):

  • Test proficiency: 30 percent
  • Graduation Rate: 50 percent
  • English Language Proficiency: 5 percent
  • On-track: 15 percent

Indiana’s A-F grades aim to rate schools based on whether students are learning. Although grades are based primarily on how many students pass — which many educators feel are unreliable after several years of changes in the tests — tests still bring consequences. After four years of consecutive Fs, the state can replace staff, bring in charter managers or close schools.

The changes proposed by state board staff members add two new pieces to state grades: A “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools and an “on-track” measure for high schools.

The “well-rounded” piece is calculated based on state science and social studies tests given once in elementary and middle school. The “on-track” measure would be calculated based on whether high school students, by the end of their freshman year, have received at least 10 course credits and have received no more than one F in English, math, science or social studies.

For high schools, test score growth would be taken out entirely in 2023, as would the “college and career-readiness” measure. That piece was based on the number of students taking advanced courses or earning work-related certificates.

During recent A-F grade discussions, educators have stressed the importance of including measures that capture how much students improve, not just how they do at one moment in time. The board has gone back and forth on how to balance those factors. In this new proposal, growth for K-8 schools is also capped — previously, schools could earn extra points if they helped struggling students improve significantly.

Josh Gillespie, spokesman for the state board, said the test improvement piece was removed because of recommendations that Indiana move to using the SAT or ACT as its high school test. That change would mean growth could not properly be calculated as students went from an eighth-grade state-created exam to a national college entrance exam.

Read more of Indiana’s ESSA coverage here.

This story has been updated with the correct weights for high school graduation rate and high school test proficiency after 2023. 

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.