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.

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.