stuck in the middle

How changes to dual credit and federal law are affecting schools and putting Indiana education officials in a bind

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, Denver Post
Algebra teacher Jessica Edwards helps students with math problems during her 9th grade algebra class at Smoky Hill High School in Aurora, Colorado.

Dual credit classes are at the center of a trifecta of competing forces in Indiana education — and it’s a complex problem the state needs to solve sooner rather than later.

Essentially, Indiana officials are juggling rules from three separate groups:

  • The Indiana General Assembly, which says all high schools must offer classes where students could earn college credit.
  • The Higher Learning Commission, a regional group that accredits Indiana colleges, which now requires all dual credit teachers to have master’s degrees or 18 credit hours in their content areas by 2022;
  • And the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaces No Child Left Behind and wants states to have rigorous goals on how they expect schools to prepare kids for life after high school. It goes into effect for schools this coming school year.

Since 2006, Indiana schools have had to offer dual credit classes, but teachers weren’t required to meet more advanced education requirements. Indiana State Board of Education member Steve Yager, former superintendent in Fort Wayne, remembers that schools worked hard to carry out the new law on the ground.

“The legislature challenged us as educators across the state to provide more opportunities for academically able students to get more credit while they were in high school, and we did a darn good job of it,” Yager said.

But schools were handed a setback in 2015 when the Higher Learning Commission updated its policy for states it oversees, throwing Indiana educators into a tailspin. It was a problem because in the time schools had been increasing their dual credit offerings, the state as a whole was disincentivizing teachers from earning master’s degrees. A 2011 overhaul of teacher evaluation made advanced education count for much less in salary negotiations.

Now, about 75 percent of Indiana’s more than 2,500 dual credit teachers don’t completely meet the new dual credit teaching requirements, putting local teachers in a position where some must pay for thousands of dollars in college classes in a fairly short period of time.

State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said the department is working on a plan that brings together state universities and other partners to devise a solution that can get teachers the extra credits they need while keeping cost and time to a minimum.

“We are working diligently … regarding partnerships and how to put some of that expense back on the state to help move this along,” McCormick told Indiana State Board of Education members last week. “It is not something we are being stagnant on.”

Other proposed solutions have fallen through — lawmakers passed a bill in 2016 that created a “dual credit teaching” fund to help support teachers pay for more credentials, but when the budget was created in 2017, the fund received no money.

Complicating the problem further is ESSA, which the state board is busy incorporating into its new education plan, due to be delivered to federal officials in September.

There are a number of options on the table, but essentially the board can take one of two paths: It can ask schools to ensure more students take dual credit classes, pass Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes and earn industry certifications, which would satisfy the new federal requirements for statewide goals and make earning top marks for state A-F grades more challenging.

Or, given the uncertainty around new dual credit teaching requirements, it could stop counting dual credit in letter grades entirely.

That move could put schools in an even worse position, ensuring that only a fraction of them can meet the goal at all.

Currently, 25 percent of graduates must meet the state’s college and career readiness goal for schools to earn full points in their A-F grade, a threshold that most schools easily hit. But U.S. Department of Education officials say a goal most schools can easily meet doesn’t tell the state much about how schools are doing or fulfill the requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act. Federal officials are pushing states to develop their own goals, but have indicated they should be rigorous — few specifics have been offered.

One reason why so many schools meet the goal is explicitly because they offer dual credit classes. For a number of those schools, the points earned from students completing dual credit classes far outweigh those earned in the other areas of AP, IB and industry certifications. And unlike other advanced courses, more low-income students and students of color take advantage of dual credit.

Ultimately, as part of the new state education plan the board can decide to:

  • Swiftly increase the percentage of students who must meet the college and career readiness goal, and expect far more schools to miss the mark;
  • Keep the same 25 percent requirement Indiana has now, with a note to federal officials that the rate will be adjusted in the future — a move that could put the entire ESSA plan’s approval at risk;
  • Take a phase-in approach, where the rate incrementally rises over the next several years, also a potentially risky move if federal officials don’t like it;
  • Remove dual credit from the A-F grade formula.

At last week’s state board meeting, board members were unsure about whether a swift change to how dual credit is measured would be fair to schools that have tried to stay afloat as state law has told them to first offer the classes, and then external policies now demand they change them.

Bluffton Principal Steve Baker said that while he knows there’s been a lot of work started to solve the dual credit teaching issues, he hopes state officials are aware of the very real problems schools could be facing in the near future and how important dual credit is to their accountability grades.

“Dual credit is where we get a lot of those (A-F grade) points,” Baker said. “I just wanted to caution them that in 2022, dual credit credentialing is going to get much more difficult and we need to be prepared for that.”

The board is expected to have further discussions on ESSA in August.

double take

Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Students work on assignments at Indianapolis Public Schools Center For Inquiry at School 27.

Imagine a scenario where Indiana schools get not just one A-F grade each year, but two.

One grade would determine whether a school can be taken over by the state. The other would comply with federal law asking states to track student test progress and how federal aid is spent. Both would count, but each would reflect different measures of achievement and bring different consequences.

This could be Indiana’s future if a state board-approved plan moves ahead at the same time the state is working on a conflicting plan to comply with a new federal law.

If it sounds complicated, that’s because it probably would be, said state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. Originally, A-F grades were intended to be an easy way for parents and community members to understand how their school is doing.

“It’s extremely confusing to have multiple accountability systems with multiple consequences,” McCormick told board members last week. “All along our message has been to get as much alignment as we can.”

Indiana would not be the first state to consider dual accountability systems — Colorado operated separate systems for years under No Child Left Behind and is now doing so again. Virginia, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have also had two models in years past. But this move would be a big departure from Indiana’s efforts over the past several years to simplify accountability, and education officials warn it could create more problems than it would solve.

Dale Chu, an education consultant who previously worked in Indiana under state Superintendent Tony Bennett, said it’s actually not common for states to have multiple systems, and doing so for political reasons, rather than what helps students and families, is concerning.

“We all know how confusing accountability systems can be when you just have one,” Chu said. “To create a bifurcated system, I don’t see how you gain additional clarity … I would certainly hope that if that’s the direction the state is going to move in, they are very thoughtful and intentional about it.”

The changes come as Indiana works to create a plan to comply with a new federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. McCormick’s education department has been working to align the federal system with Indiana’s grading system, and is struggling to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, most notably in the area of graduation requirements and diplomas.

At the same time the Indiana State Board of Education is negotiating this alignment, it is also revamping the A-F grade system.

A new grading proposal approved by the state board last week would put more emphasis on student test scores than the A-F system that now unifies state and federal requirements. Those new rules would include extra categories for grading schools, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan.

While that proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

Officials were already expecting to issue two sets of A-F grades to schools in 2018 — one state grade, and one federal — as the state continued to work all of Indiana’s unresolved education issues into the new federal plan. Figuring out how to ensure state graduation rates don’t plummet because of other federal rule changes dictating  which diplomas count and incorporating the new high school graduation requirements, for example, will take time — and legislation — to fix.

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

But ultimately, officials said, if some of the state board-approved changes make it into final policy, and Indiana’s federal plan doesn’t change to accommodate it, the state and federal accountability systems could remain at odds with each other — meaning schools would continue to get two grades after 2018.

The original intent was to have all Indiana’s state grading system line up with federal requirements before the plan was sent to federal officials in September. Then, once the federal government gave feedback, the state A-F revamp could continue.

But just this past fall, after the federal plan had been submitted, some members of the state board began adding in additional measures, some of which reflect their personal interests in how schools should be rated.

Those measures were added after board members had multiple chances to discuss the federal plan with the education department, conversations that were held in an attempt to ward off such changes this late in the game. Yet even last week at the state board’s monthly meeting, where the new grading changes were approved, some board members didn’t seem to realize until after the vote that the A-F systems would not match up.

David Freitas, a state board member, said he didn’t see the conflicting A-F grade rules as a problem. The board can make Indiana’s state A-F system whatever it wants, he said, and there will be plenty of time to iron out specifics as the rulemaking process unfolds over the next several months.

“We’re not banned from having two different systems,” Freitas said. “But we need to consider the implications and consequences of that.”

Read more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.

moving forward

State board OKs new A-F grade plan that ‘will affect every school in Indiana’

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
The state board met for its January meeting on Wednesday.

Student test scores would play a bigger role in determining school A-F grades under new draft rules approved by the Indiana State Board of Education, despite concerns from some board members and educators from across the state.

The rules, approved 7-4, are only proposals at this point. Next they go into a formal rulemaking process that begins with opportunities for public comment. After revisions, the state board will vote on final A-F grading rules so it can go into effect for 2018-19. The vote would probably be this summer.

Steve Baker, principal at Bluffton High School, said he was frustrated and disappointed that the board didn’t vet some of the changes with educators or have a public discussion before working them into the draft that would begin rulemaking.

“Not one educator I talked with knew about this,” Baker said. “Yet this plan will affect every school in Indiana.”

State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, who is a member of the board, voted in favor of the changes. But the rules are far from final, she said, and she doesn’t necessarily agree with them in their current form.

“Do I think it’s going to change? Yes,” McCormick said “I think it’s a good thing for people to know what the board’s thinking.”

The changes come as Indiana works to create a plan comply with new federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The vote followed a contentious conversation that took hours. Initially, board member Gordon Hendry suggested the board table their vote until they could discuss the grading changes further. Last week, educators and some board members were caught unaware by some of the grade formula changes, which hadn’t received a discussion in public.

“Some of the language didn’t receive the proper discussion before being crafted,” Hendry said. “The cart was a little bit before the horse, and there should have been, in my opinion, a full board discussion before pen was put to paper.”

Chad Ranney, an attorney for the board, said some board members asked him about making some changes in the A-F model. When he saw the number of changes coming through, Ranney said he decided to solicit feedback from the entire board.

It’s not clear which board member saw what email when, particularly over the winter holidays, but some did not offer input and were surprised when they learned the new rules would be up for a vote in January without additional discussion.

Ultimately, a majority of board members wanted to stick with the new proposed rules, arguing that they had plenty of time to weigh in.

The proposed formula would give more weight to the number of students who pass tests and stop measuring how much high school students improve their test scores. Also, two new measures would be added: “Well-rounded” for elementary and middle schools and “on-track” 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 either English, math, science or social studies. For high schools, improvement in test scores would be removed entirely in 2023, as would the “college and career-readiness” measure.