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.

The Colorado Way

Feds approve Colorado’s education plan after multiple revisions, but critics see more work to do

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Students prepare for statewide testing in Michelle Mugatha’s eighth-grade language arts class at Columbia Middle School in Aurora.

Colorado finally received approval for its federally mandated education plan Monday, one year and two revisions after the state first submitted it.

Colorado’s plan was held up longer than any other state’s by a series of disagreements over the best way to measure student achievement, including how to count students who opt out of state assessments. In most of those disagreements, the federal view prevailed, leaving Colorado with two divergent accountability systems, one state and one federal.

“We wanted to stick to our Colorado principles,” said Pat Chapman, executive director of the federal programs unit in the Colorado Department of Education.

Colorado wanted to use its state accountability system developed in 2009 to meet federal requirements, but ultimately the two were not entirely compatible. The state accountability system is more likely to identify schools that are not serving a large share of their students, while the federal system flags schools that aren’t serving certain subgroups, like students who qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty, or English language learners, even if their overall numbers look good.

“What we use the federal system for is to identify schools that need additional support and to get additional resources to those schools,” Chapman said.

Educational and civil rights advocates who have been involved in the development of the plan say that it’s improved in some ways, but they’re concerned that the existence of two accountability systems – or three in the case of districts like Denver that have their own school ratings – will lead to more confusion unless there’s a clear way of sharing information with parents.

Schools identified as “turnaround” or “priority improvement” status under state law won’t necessarily be flagged for improvement under ESSA, and vice versa.

“Our concern with having two different systems is that there may be confusion among parents about which system actually tells them how their school and district is performing,” said Leslie Colwell of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, a member of the Equity in Colorado Coalition.

And bilingual educators say the approved plan fails to address two key problems, the lack of assessments in students’ native language and inconsistent criteria for when students learning English keep receiving services or transition out.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which replaced No Child Left Behind in 2015, requires each state to submit a plan that lays out how it will measure student achievement and what it will do to improve performance among groups of students who aren’t meeting academic goals.

Without an approved plan, Colorado schools risked losing access to nearly $200 million in federal funds for children from low-income families, and other aid. ESSA also provides $10 million a year to Colorado schools that have been flagged as needing improvement.

Colorado has been a center of the “opt-out” movement of parents refusing to allow their children to be tested. In response, the State Board of Education forbid lowering a school’s quality rating if fewer than 95 percent of its students were tested. The U.S. Department of Education, meanwhile, insisted that Colorado treat students who don’t take the test as if they were not proficient, the lowest ranking. This became a key sticking point.

Under the approved plan, Colorado schools with high opt-out rates will need to come up with plans to test more of their students. This comes even as state lawmakers this year banned the use of rewards like pizza parties for students who take the tests. Instead, schools will have to make the case to parents and students that the tests are meaningful and important.

Two other key differences:

  • The federal government will rate schools based on four-year graduation rates, while Colorado lets schools use the best result from its four-, five-, six- or seven-year graduation rates.
  • The federal government will rate alternative high schools based on their graduation rate, while Colorado looks at completion rate, a broader measure that includes students who get a GED.

ESSA also lets states choose non-academic measures of student success against which school quality can be judged. In Colorado, one of those will be chronic absenteeism, and some schools are trying innovative programs to work with parents to help them get their kids to school.

Colorado’s student data privacy regulations means that the state won’t be reporting detailed information about small subgroups to federal regulators, an issue that advocacy groups say limits the public’s ability to understand how schools are doing.

State education officials have embraced the “flexibility” offered by ESSA in comparison to No Child Left Behind, but during a panel discussion earlier this year, Alexandra Alonso of the Colorado Latino Leadership, Advocacy, and Research Organization, stressed that the new law needs to be understood as a piece of civil rights legislation.

“It’s not intended to create more autonomy for states,” Alonso said. “It’s intended to have more equitable outcomes for our students.”

In that regard, Colorado’s plan still needs work, said Jorge García, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. There still isn’t a consistent enough standard for promoting students out of English acquisition programs, García said. Students languishing in those classes too long suffer, he said.

“It denies them access to electives,” he said. “It denies them access to the entire schedule of classes. It denies them access to the full content of the classes. They don’t take the classes that prepare them for college and a career. This particular high stakes decision is hurting a lot of our students.”

Colorado’s ESSA plan also doesn’t indicate any intention to develop Spanish-language math assessments.

Colorado received wide praise for its work to reach out to community groups, advocates, and school districts as it developed its plan, and Colwell said community groups will continue to work with the Colorado Department of Education to shape implementation of the plan.

“I am incredibly thankful for the amount of time and effort that so many people put in to develop our state plan,” Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes said in a press release. “Colorado has had ambitious education strategies in place. This plan maintains our strong education laws while working together with the federal law to support all students.”

In a press release announcing approval for Colorado’s plan, U.S. Department of Education officials highlighted several features that other states don’t have. Those include a “one-stop process” for schools to apply for services and grants tailored for their specific challenges, a coordinated grant management system, and training for teachers in all subject areas.

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.