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.

Rally

This Tennessee teacher spoke at a rally in support of trans students. Here’s what he wants lawmakers to know.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
More than 100 protestors attended a rally in support of the state's transgender students at the state Capitol.

Months after he began teaching at Tennessee’s second-largest high school, Westlee Walker started a student group for LGBTQ students and their allies in response to a string of three student suicides.

“Students were coming to me, and they needed a safe space (to talk),” said Walker, in his second year of teaching at Nashville’s McGavock High School. “It goes back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. … If a student doesn’t feel safe, they will not be able to learn.”

Walker joined more than 100 other Tennesseans Friday at a rally at the state Capitol in support of the state’s trans students. The Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition, with students from across the state, organized the rally over a decision by President Trump’s administration to pull protections that allowed transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice.

Sen. Mae Beavers of Mt. Juliet and Rep. Mark Pody of Lebanon have filed a bill that would limit Tennessee transgender students to using the bathroom that corresponds with the gender on their birth certificate. Asked Monday about their proposal, Beavers declined to comment, and Pody did not immediately respond. However, some other state leaders have said such a bill is unnecessary, and that decisions about bathrooms should be made at the local level.

Several Tennessee students, parents and educators, including Walker, spoke at the rally. Rep. John Ray Clemmons and Sen. Jeff Yarbro, both Nashville Democrats, also spoke, as did Nashville councilman Brett Withers.

Walker said he was glad to see state legislators at the event, and he extended an open for them to visit his class. He also extended the invitation to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. 

“Before I started teaching, I kind of assumed everyone had the same upbringing I did,” said Walker, who teaches agriculture science. “That’s just not the case. Students come from all different walks of life, not just LGBT students. I have students who are immigrants; I have students who are refugees. If I can just have one lawmaker sit in my class and hear the stories these kids are living at 14, 15 years old, it would completely change their perspective.”

Walker said that laws targeting any group of his students keep him from doing his job.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Nashville teacher Westlee Walker speaks in support of his transgender students at a rally last Friday by the state Capitol in Nashville.

“If I cannot create that environment in my building, where a student who feels like they are alienated doesn’t feel safe, then I am failing as a teacher at a very basic level,” he said.

In light of the Trump administration’s decision, Director Shawn Joseph issued a statement reaffirming Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools’ policies aimed at protecting students and employees who say their gender identities are different from the ones on their birth certificates.

Shelby County Schools officials said in an emailed statement on Monday that district officials “will continue to closely follow the development of the law on this subject and await guidance from the State’s General Assembly and Board of Education before issuing a formal opinion about whether changes should be made to the District’s current practices.”

Until then, the statement continues, “Shelby County Schools will continue working with families individually to ensure all of our students’ educational needs are properly addressed.”

STEM in Colorado

Colorado lawmakers are stepping in to help prepare students for the state’s booming tech sector

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Northglenn High School who are studying biomedical science work on an assignment. The class is part of the school's STEM offerings.

More Colorado students could be building smartphone apps by the end of next school year.

In an effort to prepare students for the state’s booming technology job market, lawmakers are considering three bills that would beef up access to computer science classes and provide students with new credentials after they leave high school.

A Chalkbeat analysis last year found that only about two out of every seven students in Colorado have access to courses in STEM — short for science, technology, engineering and math.

The bipartisan bills could change that, increasing access to computer science courses for the state’s black, Latino and rural students, and — for the first time — begin to define what a quality STEM program is.

The first bill scheduled to be debated by the House Education Committee on Monday would require schools to include technology in lessons alongside traditional subjects, such as English and civics.

It would also require the education department to create lessons to help educators teach computer science as a standalone course, and set up a $500,000 grant program to help train them.

“Kids need to be up to speed on these things in order to function in the current marketplace,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Canon City Republican and one of the bill’s sponsors, along with Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat. “The more they’re attuned to the technology of the times — all the better. It will help them in college and getting their job and careers.”

The technology sector is the fastest growing in Colorado. There are an estimated 13,517 open computing jobs in the state, according to Colorado Succeeds, an education reform advocacy group that represents the state’s business community.

Some states have already made the shift to include technology in their learning standards. In Arkansas, which made the change in 2015, officials say the new standards have already started to break down stereotypes about who can do computer science.

“What we’re trying to do is to make computer science a normal part of their academic lives,” said Anthony Owen, the state director for computer science education in Arkansas. “When we make it normal for everyone, it’s abnormal for no one.”

A second bill under consideration in Colorado would make mostly technical changes to the state’s new P-Tech schools, a model that mirrors a New York City school that partners with IBM to give students work experience and a path to an associate’s degree while in high school.

The model allows students to stay in high school for up to six years — which has caused schools that house P-Tech programs to worry about their graduation rates.

House Bill 1194 would change the way the state calculates graduation rates to avoid penalizing schools that have P-Tech students enrolled for an extra two years.

The third bill, House Bill 1201, would create a special kind of diploma that shows colleges and employers that its holder is proficient in STEM subjects. To get the diploma, students would have to take a variety of STEM classes, earn high marks on standardized math exams, and demonstrate their science skills through a special project they complete their senior year.

“I want to make sure, across Colorado, that we have clear expectations and that they’re equitable expectations,” said Rep. James Coleman, a Denver Democrat and sponsor of the bill. “All of our schools are doing a good job preparing our kids, but I want to be specific in terms of what our colleges and workforce is seeking in our graduates.”

The bill, however, stops short of defining what coursework students must complete. Local schools will decide that. That was important to Jess Buller, the principal of West Grand’s K-8 school who helped write the bill. He noted that different schools and districts offer different STEM courses.

“We want that STEM endorsement to be that sign of distinction, that a student completed a program and does not need the remedial work that might be required for other students,” Buller said. “The bill is specific enough, but flexible enough.”

Morgan Kempf, the STEM science specialist for Pueblo City Schools, said she is excited to offer such a credential.

In the absence of a special diploma, Pueblo Central High School, the city’s STEM school, has sought outside accreditation to give weight to its STEM courses. The school has also started handing out school letters, usually a tradition reserved for varsity athletes, to exceptional STEM students.

“It’s an extra stamp of approval that recognizes and appreciates what they’re doing and at the level of rigor they’re doing it at,” Kempf said. “That stamp of approval lets students and potential employers know they’re meeting expectations.”