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.

try try again

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.”

ESSA and Equity

Tennessee’s plan to ensure schools help students of all races raises red flags for advocates and feds alike

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

An unusual way that Tennessee wants to hold schools accountable for helping all students is drawing the same reaction from groups that ordinarily agree on little: skepticism.

Both U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and local advocates for students of color say they have concerns about the state’s proposal for measuring whether schools are helping students of all races.

Under the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, states must promise to intervene in low-performing schools — and they must show how the performance of various “subgroups” influences their decision making. The goal is to make sure that a majority-white school with low-performing black students, for example, does not escape the state’s scrutiny.

Tennessee is the only state to propose lumping several subgroups — black, Hispanic, and Native American students — together into a single “supergroup” when assessing schools. All of the other states that have submitted their plans to comply with the law say they will look at each group individually.

Tennessee is also the only state to propose not stepping in at a school unless at least 30 students who are poor, non-white, or have a disability are low-performing. Other states set a lower threshold in each category. (Michigan is using the 30-student threshold in some categories but not others.)

State education officials say the approach — which Tennessee used recently under a waiver from the previous education law — makes sense because in schools where black students are doing well, Hispanic students, for example, are also very likely to be doing well, too.

They also point out that the current accountability system has excluded tens of thousands of students whose schools are so racially segregated that subgroups are too small to be measured. More than 40,000 additional students would factor into the state’s accountability system under the proposal, according to state officials, who note that the larger threshold for each school would prevent situations where a tiny number of struggling students could trigger disruptive consequences for an entire school that is otherwise doing well.

PHOTO: Philip Murphy/Conexión Américas
Mary Batiwalla, executive director of accountability for the Tennessee Department of Education.

“These are really high-stakes decisions,” said Mary Batiwalla, the state department’s executive director of accountability. “The more steps you throw into your system, the more subgroups you look at, the more volatile the data could be. And the likelihood for error from random chance increases. We want to feel certain when we make these decisions.”

But critics of the approach say lumping students from different groups together could make it easy to miss nuances in how to better educate each of those racial and ethnic subgroups.

“They are not the same population just because they are being underserved,” Emily Philippone, an ESL teacher at Sheffield High School in Memphis, said at a recent training session for Memphis educators and advocates hosted by the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition. “We need to look to see what individual needs those students have.”

Others have raised similar concerns. A group that favors tough accountability for schools gave Tennessee’s plan strong marks — except when it came to the subgroup issue. The Campaign for School Equity, a school choice advocacy group in Memphis, made the same point in its first report this week. And Conexión Américas, a group that lobbies for immigrant students in Tennessee, is pushing for a different approach.

It appears that the critics have an ally in DeVos, who is responsible for approving states’ accountability plans. She has said she will approve any plan that complies with the law — and feedback from her department suggests that Tennessee’s does not.

“It is not clear whether each of the individual racial and ethnic subgroup of students is also separately included in the state’s accountability system,” education department officials wrote in their response to Tennessee’s proposal. The law “requires a state to include in its accountability system each major racial and ethnic group as well as the subgroups of economically disadvantaged students, children with disabilities, and English learners.”

PHOTO: PhilipMurphy/Conexión Américas
Gini Pupo-Walker, Conexión Américas’ senior director of education policy

Tennessee officials did not change their approach when they resubmitted their proposal in mid-July. But they did explain that they plan to analyze the performance of each group and use a smaller student threshold in its annual school report cards, which are meant to inform people in the state.

That’s a good step, according to some advocates, but not enough to ensure that vulnerable students are adequately served by their schools.

“There’s no immediate behavioral changes based on what comes out of reporting,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, Conexión Américas’ senior director of education policy. “I don’t think schools are going to realign resources from information coming out of reporting. They will for accountability.”