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

The Indiana State Board of Education is hitting the brakes on a plan to overhaul A-F school grades

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in IPS School 91's multi-age first-, second- and third-grade classroom work on math activities.

The Indiana State Board of Education is pressing pause on a proposed overhaul of how schools are graded that drew criticism from educators and some education advocates.

Board members said they wanted more time to consider how the A-F proposal — initially created to address new federal accountability law — would work alongside new graduation requirements and to incorporate feedback from educators about how the school grades are calculated, especially for high schools.

That means for this year, the 2018-19 school year, and possibly longer, Indiana schools will be measured according to two different yardsticks — a state model introduced in 2016 and a federal system that complies with the new Every Student Succeeds Act.

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

The board met Wednesday to continue hammering out the new process for calculating state grades, a draft of which was approved in January. But just as the meeting started, board member Byron Ernest suggested pausing process, aiming instead for a new A-F grading model for the 2019-20 school year at the earliest.

“I would like for us to take a step back and do some research,” Ernest said. Four of the state board members were absent, including state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. The seven present board members quickly reached a consensus that they should postpone a decision on the A-F rules, though no official vote happened.

As it stands now, the state and federal grading methods for calculating school ratings have important differences. The federal grade calculation, for example, would include school attendance rates and language proficiency of English-learners, whereas the state calculation would mainly rely on state test scores and test score growth. Because Indiana’s calculation also excludes certain students that the federal plan includes, such as those receiving credit recovery services, the final ratings could differ significantly for the same school. Although state and federal accountability metrics have differed in the past, the differences going forward would be more significant.

The differences ultimately add a lot of confusion to a state accountability system designed to be simpler to understand for teachers, parents, and the community.

Cari Whicker, a board member and principal, said the changes Indiana has made to testing and accountability have been exhausting and frustrating for schools.

“Either A-F accountability or testing has changed every year since 2011,” Whicker said. “That’s a lot for schools. What you consider tweaking is truly moving the target for people in the field.”

The pause is also an about-face from a meeting just a couple months ago, where board members shot down a similar proposal from Gordon Hendry to slow down. On Wednesday, Hendry said he was glad to hear Ernest’s proposal.

“That’s what I advocated for in January — wouldn’t it behoove us to take our time,” Hendry said.

In January, educators and education advocates came forward with concerns over the process for creating the new school grades, which they said was far too fast and not transparent. They also took issue with the substance of the state plan, which would have made test scores more important and limited how much test score improvement could have factored into high school grades.

It’s not yet clear exactly what changes the board wants to make in the state A-F grading model that haven’t already been discussed or considered. The Indiana Department of Education released its federal ESSA plan over the summer, and the board has had multiple opportunities to examine that plan and give feedback.

Further discussion is expected at the state board’s April meeting.

Every Student Succeeds Act

Plans for a single Indiana diploma advance with new rules that raise the bar for graduation waivers

In a move that might make it more difficult for some students to graduate, Indiana lawmakers are considering raising the threshold for allowing students to earn a diploma when they have fallen short of some state requirements.

A proposal to change the graduation waiver system is the latest attempt by the state to amend graduation requirements as part of a policy initiative to ensure that students are prepared for life after high school. The change in waiver policy could make it more challenging for students who struggle academically to complete high school.

“I want to make sure we have as few waivers as possible,” said Rep. Bob Behning, Republican chairman of the House Education Committee and author of House Bill 1426, which includes the waiver changes. And if a waiver is necessary, he said, he wants the requirements to be stringent enough to ensure post-graduate success.

The proposed waiver requirements are part of a sweeping effort by the state to align state law with the state’s new graduation pathways system. The bill, which passed its first major hurdle with the approval of the House Education Committee on Tuesday, would combine the state’s four diplomas into one to deal with the effects of a change in federal law that no longer counts the state’s less-rigorous general diploma in the federal graduation rate. With one diploma, Indiana would be more likely to pass muster under the new federal rules, but final approval from the federal government won’t come for several months.

An amendment to the bill proposed on Tuesday will change Indiana’s policy for allowing students to receive a waiver that, while controversial, is widely used. More than 8 percent of the more than 70,000 students who graduated last year received waivers from meeting graduation requirements.

Supporters say waivers provide opportunities to students who might face challenges that affect their ability to meet the basic graduation requirements. But critics say they allow high schools to push through students that lack the kind of skills needed to be successfully employed.

Waiver requirements for students with disabilities would not change under the new proposal.

The current system allows students who repeatedly fail required state tests in English and math to be granted a waiver that lets them graduate if they meet other criteria.

But under the new pathways system, which will affect students now in seventh grade, the state graduation exam will be replaced with one of several new graduation pathways requirements, which could include passing a college-entrance exam, taking career and technical education classes, or passing advanced courses.

Under Behning’s proposal, a waiver would be granted if a student had earned an average GPA of 2.0; maintained 95 percent attendance; or if he or she has been admitted to college, a job training program, the military or has an opportunity to start a career.

The bill allows a school’s principal to approve alternative requirements but doesn’t address how those would be developed. The new rules could also be used by students transferring from schools that are out of state or from private schools not held to graduation pathway rules.

The current criteria to receive a waiver do not call for students to be admitted to college, the military or a job. Students do have to maintain a 95 percent attendance record and a 2.0 grade point average, and also have to complete requirements for a general diploma, take a workforce readiness assessment or earn an industry certification approved by the state board. The standards also require students to obtain letters of recommendation from teachers (with approval of the school principal) and to use class work to show students have mastered the subject despite failing the graduation exam.

It’s not yet clear how many students might be affected by a change to the graduation waiver system. In the months since the Indiana State Board of Education approved the new graduation pathways, educators have raised concerns to state board staff members about the types of students who might not have a clear-cut pathway under the plan — for example, a student headed to college who might not have an exceptional academic record. A waiver outlined by HB 1426 could give them another shot. But for students without definite post-graduation plans, that waiver could be out of reach.

None of the educators or education advocates who testified on the bill spoke out specifically on the waiver changes. Mike Brown, director of legislative affairs for the Indiana Department of Education, said that based on a “cursory look,” the department didn’t have any issues with it.

Aside from the diploma and graduation waiver changes, the bill would also:

  • Make Indiana’s high school test a college-entrance exam, such as the ACT or SAT, instead of end-of-year tests in English and math.
  • Encourage the state board to look into alternatives for Algebra 2, currently a diploma requirement.
  • Ask the state board to establish guidelines for how districts and schools can create “local” graduation pathways and how they would be approved by the state board. It would also add $500,000 to fund development of local pathways that districts and schools could apply for.
  • Eliminate the Accuplacer exam, which schools now use to see if high school students need remediation in English or math before they graduate.

Because the bill includes a request for state funding, it next heads to the House Ways and Means Committee.