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.

in contempt

This lawmaker was jailed after trying to get his child out of a state test. Will he remain on the House education committee?

PHOTO: Denver Post File

One of the newest Republican members of the House Education Committee was sent to a Jefferson County jail on Friday for violating the terms of his divorce by attempting to opt out one of his children from the state’s English and math tests.

A spokesman for House Republicans told Chalkbeat Friday after the news of State Rep. Tim Leonard’s 14-day jail sentence that party leadership has not discussed stripping Leonard of his seat on the committee that vets proposed education legislation.  

House Democrats did not hesitate to weigh in.  

State Rep. Tim Leonard
PHOTO: Denver Post
State Rep. Tim Leonard

“It is absurd to imagine Rep. Leonard taking a seat on the House Education Committee … and making important decisions for Colorado’s students when a judge has prohibited Rep. Leonard from making educational decisions regarding his own children,” Speaker of the House Dickey Lee Hullinghorst said in a statement.

Leonard, a Republican from Evergreen, was ordered Friday to spend two weeks in jail after being found in contempt of court for attempting to make decisions for his children — something that is prohibited in his divorce.  

The Colorado Independent first reported Leonard’s sentence.

Leonard was found in contempt in September on two counts:

One charge concerned his attempt to opt a child out of a federal standardized test. He had previously been found in contempt for attempting to opt another child out of another test in 2014. The magistrate said she found it “mind-blowing” that Leonard would think he could try again because it was a different child and a different test.

The second charge was related to his refusal to allow one of his children to use an iPad at school, though all students in that class were issued tablets. Leonard said he was concerned about the amount of screen time his kids experienced.

Incoming House Minority Leader Patrick Neville issued the following statement to 7News after learning about Leonard’s situation:

“This must be a very difficult time for Representative Leonard and his family. I know he cares deeply for his children and my thoughts and prayers are with the Leonard family.”

Looking ahead

Michael Johnston, architect of Colorado’s teacher evaluation system, considering bid for governor

PHOTO: Denver Post File
State Sen. Michael Johnston

State Sen. Michael Johnston, a former principal who designed the state’s landmark teacher evaluation law and is a prominent figure in Colorado’s education reform movement, is considering joining what could be a crowded Democratic primary field for the 2018 governor’s race.

Johnston’s name has appeared in early reports speculating about potential candidates, and he has confirmed to Chalkbeat and other media that he is weighing a run.

Other Democrats whose names have been floated as possible candidates are former U.S. Sen. and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, and former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy. Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, first elected in 2010, is term-limited. 

“The question for me is, ‘Where can you make the most impact on the issues you care about?’” Johnston said in an interview Thursday. “(It’s) not ‘What is it that you want to be?’ But, ‘What is it that you want to change?’”  

Johnston, whose state Senate tenure will end next month because of term limits, declined to identify possible positions or campaign themes. As a legislator, he focused on a variety of issues besides education, including criminal justice reform, and — to a lesser degree — energy and the state’s rural economy.

Johnston, a Denver Democrat, is considered a rising star in his party. He’s been recognized by TIME magazine and The New York Times. And he’s well-known in education circles inside and outside of Colorado. But his name recognition across the state can’t compare to Salazar’s or Perlmutter’s.

“I have tremendous respect for all the folks who are thinking about it,” Johnston said, but added that potential opponents would not factor into his decision on whether to run.  

Democrats in past election cycles have coalesced around one gubernatorial candidate and avoided prolonged primaries, said Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver.

“It’s been awhile since we’ve seen the Democrats go at it in a primary,” he said.

But that could change now that voters have approved an open primary system in which unaffiliated voters may be able to participate in primary elections. In Colorado, about 36 percent of registered voters are not affiliated with any political party. They make up the state’s largest voting bloc.

“I don’t think we have a good sense of what that means yet,” Masket said. “You may get a wider range of people with different backgrounds. We might see more outsiders throwing their hats into races.”

One challenge facing a potential Johnston candidacy is his work on teacher evaluations and other reforms, which has put him at odds with the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. The union and other labor groups play a large role in Democratic politics.

Johnston, 42, was born and raised in Vail.

After graduating from Yale, he joined Teach For America, a nonprofit that recruits college graduates to teach for two years, typically in low-income neighborhoods. Johnston taught in Mississippi and wrote a book about the students he met.

He later got a master’s degree in education from Harvard and a law degree from Yale. During this time he consulted on a number of political campaigns, including Tom Strickland’s unsuccessful 2002 Senate bid.  

In 2005, he was hired by Mapleton Public Schools to lead a new high school in Thornton, a suburb of Denver. The school served mostly low-income black and Latino students.

In 2008, he was an education adviser to Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Obama delivered a key education speech at Johnston’s school.

Johnston was  appointed to the state Senate in 2009. He won his seat in 2010 and was re-elected in 2012.

Johnston currently runs Traverse, a policy consulting firm. He also helps manage a nonprofit that focuses on training civic leaders. He lives with his wife, Courtney, and three children in northeast Denver.