hurdle cleared

Indiana’s federally required education plan wins approval

PHOTO: Courtesy of the Indiana Department of Education
State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick greets elementary school students in Decatur Township.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has signed off on Indiana’s federally required education plan, ushering in another era of changes — although not exactly major ones — to the state’s public school system.

The U.S Department of Education announced the plan’s approval on Friday. Like other states, Indiana went through an extensive process to craft a blueprint to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which was signed into law in 2015.

“Today is a great day for Indiana,” state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in a statement. “Our ESSA plan reflects the input and perspective of many stakeholders in communities across our state. From the beginning, we set out to build a plan that responded to the needs of Hoosier students. From our clear accountability system to our innovative, locally-driven approach to school improvement, our ESSA plan was designed to support student success.”

The federal government highlighted two aspects of Indiana’s plan. One is a pledge to close achievement gaps separating certain groups of students, such as racial and ethnic groups, from their peers by 50 percent by 2023.

Another is a staple of other states’ plans, as well: adding new ways for measuring how ready students are for attending college or starting their careers. Indiana education officials and lawmakers have made this a priority over the past several years, culminating in a new set of graduation requirements the Indiana State Board of Education approved late last year.

Under Indiana’s plan, high schoolers’ readiness will be measured not just by tests but also by performance in advanced courses and earning dual credits or industry certifications. Elementary school students will be measured in part by student attendance and growth in student attendance over time. Test scores and test score improvement still play a major role in how all schools are rated using state A-F letter grades.

In all, 35 states’ ESSA plans have won federal approval.

Advocates hope the law will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

Indiana officials struggled to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, such as graduation requirements and diplomas.

Under the state’s ESSA plan, A-F grades would include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and, in the case of chronic absenteeism, attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

Because the Indiana State Board of Education passed its own draft A-F rules earlier this month — rules that deviate from the state ESSA plan — it’s possible Hoosier schools could get two sets of letter grades going forward, muddying the initial intent of the simple A-F grade concept parents and community members are familiar with.

The state board’s A-F changes include other measures, 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. The state board plan also gets rid of the test score improvement measure for high-schoolers.

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

The state can still make changes to its ESSA plan, and the state board’s A-F draft is also expected to see revisions after public comment. But the fact that they conflict now could create difficulties moving forward, and it has led to tension during state board meetings. Already, the state expected schools would see two years of A-F grades in 2018. If both plans move forward as is, that could continue beyond next year.

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

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

Every Student Succeeds Act

Indiana officials didn’t have to go far to find a new model for improving schools

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

Indiana is looking across state lines for inspiration as it revamps its school turnaround efforts.

State officials are creating a school improvement system based on Chicago’s “5 Essentials” to assist struggling schools across the state in building up leadership, academics, and operations. The highly regarded model was developed by researchers at UChicago Consortium and administered by UChicago Impact, a nonprofit group that creates research-based school improvement tools and is affiliated with the University of Chicago.

The 5 Essentials model focuses on five qualities that strong schools share — effective leaders, collaborative teachers, involved families, supportive environment, and ambitious instruction. The Indiana Department of Education has built its own evaluation around these attributes. The state will start using its model based on the 5 Essentials at low-performing schools in their annual school quality reviews, which begin in October and are done by a team of experts, local educators, and school administrators or board members.

“It’s a huge project,” said Robin LeClaire, the state’s director of school improvement. “We’re going in and doing this comprehensive review so that we can help make schools better by helping them determine which, and how many, of these that need to be focus areas.”

Schools in their second or fourth year of consecutive F’s based on their 2018 letter grades will receive the reviews. The grade could be delayed due to glitches in grading state tests, but schools are expected to be informed of their ranking before the reviews begin. This more intensive layer of state support is separate from what is required by the federal government for all F-rated schools and schools where certain groups of students, such as English-learners or those with disabilities, have particularly low test passing rates. Last year, 28 schools were reviewed.

According to the consortium’s research, if schools rate high on three of the five measures they are 10 times more likely to see student improvement than schools that are weak in those areas. And if one of those areas is consistently low, it can be very unlikely that a school will improve at all.

As states transition from school improvement models developed under the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act to ones updated for the newer federal Every Student Succeeds Act, the 5 Essentials was a better fit, LeClaire said. Not only is the model more streamlined than the previous “eight turnaround principles” the state used, but it also emphasized the supportiveness of school environments.

“We all know that social-emotional behavior wellness is a huge piece in school success,” LeClaire said, adding that if schools were not addressing that at all, it was unlikely they’d see the academic improvement they might expect, even if they make other changes to teacher training and leadership.

All members of the review team will be trained on how to do the reviews, which include a pre-visit analysis of the school during a planning meeting, an on-site observation, and follow-up visits.

During each review, the schools, which will be notified by the state some time in October per a state memo if they qualify for the intervention, will have all five areas assessed, but will choose two to focus on. At the end, they’ll get a final report from the review team with recommendations on how they can move forward and grow. The process will continue into the spring, with final follow-up visits occurring in May.

One area where Indiana’s efforts will differ from Chicago’s is officials here won’t use the 5 Essentials survey that Chicago schools have used for years. The survey of students, teachers, and parents resulted in so much progress in schools that Illinois voted in 2013 to include it in its state school rating system. The survey, which is proprietary and cannot be used without a fee, won’t be used in Indiana’s reviews. For that reason, state officials built their own rubric and contracted for a separate school climate survey.

The survey has been used in Indiana before — Indianapolis Public Schools piloted a version a few years ago, but the initiative didn’t take off. Indiana State Board of Education members also heard a presentation on it back in 2016 when the state began rewriting its grading system to comply with ESSA. Federal law now requires states to choose metrics that are not test-score-based as part of its school ratings, but the problem is that many of the indicators that have become most popular — attendance, surveys on “school climate,” and metrics on social-emotional learning — are hard to measure objectively.

The 5 Essentials survey could be one exception, said Patricia Levesque, CEO of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a nonprofit founded by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in 2008. The group consults with states about accountability systems and how to improve them.

“It is the only climate survey that I know of that has valid and reliable data attached to it,” Levesque told state board members at a work session last month.

Indiana has not made plans to use the 5 Essentials survey as part of its state A-F letter grades, although the board is in the process of revamping its grading system, and other school climate surveys will eventually be included, LeClaire said.

Read: Indiana schools getting 2 state grades? Too confusing for parents and educators, experts say.

On Wednesday, the education department will ask the the state board to approve the new review process, including the costs associated with it — $132,000, mainly to cover travel for the review team and substitute teachers for educators who need to leave their classes to do the reviews.

LeClaire said she hopes the updated reviews will be a resource to schools that have struggled. So far, past quality reviews have received good feedback, she said.

“I don’t want it to feel punitive,” LeClaire said. “We are going in strictly for support, to help (schools) identify the areas that predict school success.”

Correction: Sept. 11, 2018: A previous version of this story said UChicago Impact developed the 5 Essentials survey. It was developed by UChicago Consortium.

Every Student Succeeds Act

Indiana schools getting 2 state grades? Too confusing for parents and educators, experts say.

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

National experts told Indiana education leaders Thursday that the state’s plan to give schools two A-F grades for the foreseeable future is unsustainable — and that parts of both grade models could be problematic going forward.

Indiana ended up with two school grading systems after state education officials updated the state’s rating method in response to new federal law. But Indiana State Board of Education members decided they were ultimately unhappy with that combined system and decided to peel off a state version, a move that has complicated the entire process.

This year, both systems are in effect, meaning schools can expect two grades — one federal, one state — in 2018 and potentially longer. And experts testified Thursday that this will likely lead to a lot of confusion for schools, teachers, and parents.

“I don’t think it’s in the state’s best interest to go a really long time … with two grades,” said Patricia Levesque, CEO of the the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a nonprofit founded by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in 2008. The group consults with states about accountability systems and how to improve them.

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

State education leaders asked for the input from national experts in March, when they unexpectedly decided to pause the redesign of the state grading system. Leaders have been working to overhaul the grading system since the federal law passed in late 2015 but can’t agree if the state should keep its current model created in 2016, update that model, or merge with the federal model written in 2017 to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

Levesque said Indiana’s grading systems were pretty good, but they could use better measures for progress and avoid other methods that are less reliable.

Board members were mixed in their responses to Levesque’s critique. At Thursday’s board work session, they appeared ready to go back to the drawing board, but at times they fell into old debates about which was more important — the state’s system or the federal government’s.

That’s been typical of the whole overhaul process, which has been bumpy with little consensus. The state board and Indiana Department of Education officials, responsible for creating the federal plan, have frequently butted heads during A-F discussions about what to include and whether it ultimately matters if Indiana schools get two grades.

The state and federal grading methods for calculating school ratings have key differences. The federal grade would include school attendance rates and language proficiency of English-learners, while the state calculation would mainly rely on state test scores and test score growth. Additionally, Indiana’s calculation excludes certain students that the federal plan includes, such as those receiving credit recovery services, so 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.

State Superintendent and board chairwoman Jennifer McCormick urged the board to think about the difficulty of maintaining two separate grading systems and the importance of cooperating with the federal government. Whether Indiana chooses one model or two, she said, the federal rules can’t be ignored because they determine, among other things, significant grant funding for teachers and poor students.

“We don’t have the capacity to do it all and do it all well,” McCormick said. “That’s the benefit of one system.”

Tony Walker, a board member who represents parts of Northwest Indiana, said the federal system is “antiquated” and focuses too much on state tests, which can’t capture what’s really happening in schools.

Levesque said at the end of the day, state leaders need to figure out what they’re going to tell the public — especially in the likely scenario where one school gets two different grades in one year.

Her presentation also included advice on how the grade calculations themselves should change and what pitfalls Indiana can avoid.

Grades shouldn’t pit schools against each other

In Indiana, letter grades have two main components: Test scores and how much students improve on tests each year, known as growth. Levesque said Indiana uses what is called “normative” growth, which means a school’s growth scores are calculated in relationship to how other schools do. That’s a problem, Levesque said, because it makes schools responsible for things they can’t control.

“They are a zero-sum game,” Levesque said. “There are always winners and losers when you’re doing comparisons.”

Instead, the state should consider “criterion-based” growth, she said. That’s a measure of how well schools do based on a specific yardstick — every school could get top marks, and every school can see what it needs to do to hit the next level.

How to measure growth is not a new debate in the school ratings world — and it can get pretty controversial. Although Indiana’s switch from ISTEP to ILEARN next spring complicates its ability to change growth models, it’s not impossible if state officials start planning now, Leveque said.

Avoid metrics that can be “gamed”

Indiana’s federal ratings are determined, in part, from school attendance data, and could factor in surveys of parents, teachers, or students down the road. Levesque said these metrics, along with other participation-based measures for things like fine arts classes or advanced courses, can easily be manipulated and lead to harsh policies on the ground.

For example, if attendance is part of a school’s grade, principals could restrict excused absences. That can put a lot of pressure on parents and teachers if family events or other situations arise that require students or teachers to miss school.

Some surveys, though, can be useful tools for states interested in incorporating such measures in school grading. Back in 2016, researchers presented to Indiana’s board a survey used in Chicago called the Five Essentials, developed by UChicago Impact, a nonprofit group affiliated with the University of Chicago, but the survey hasn’t resurfaced in subsequent conversations about A-F grading, and Levesque said using a similar model could be costly.

A-F grades aren’t the ‘end-all, be-all’

Levesque, and Ryan Reyna, director at Education Strategy Group who also presented to the board, reminded board members several times that letter grades don’t have to include every facet of a student’s learning. There are other ways for the state to show it values things like work-based learning and social-emotional learning.

“Your accountability system doesn’t have to cure everything,” Levesque said.

The experts also cautioned the board to take things slowly — introducing new measurements into a state grading system should happen only after data has been collected for a few years and analyzed.

But Indiana policymakers aren’t necessarily known for taking things slowly. Almost every year since the state adopted new academic standards, there have been major changes to state tests, letter grades, or both.

McCormick said she appreciated the reminder that letter grades are just “one piece of a complex puzzle,” not “the end-all, be-all.”

The board is set to have up to four more work sessions on accountability in the coming months.