Indiana graduation pathways

Indiana touts workforce readiness. But it could judge schools by a college prep test.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana’s Republican leaders have spent the majority of this year’s legislative session highlighting the importance of preparing students for the workforce. Why then, educators ask, is the state planning to use college entrance exams to measure schools?

That apparent contradiction was among the complaints raised Friday by teachers and administrators during a public comment session about Indiana’s proposed A-F grading rules for schools.

“The intent (of A-F grades) has always been to make school performance transparent and easily understood by students, staff, parents and community members,” said Liz Walters, principal at Beech Grove High School. “The proposed accountability rule does anything but that.”

This year, there are a few major proposals that could change how the state measures schools and student learning — plans for a new testing system for all grades, new graduation requirements, and preparations to change A-F grades to comply with new federal laws. Though technically separate, they are all related, and changes to one proposal can affect the others. It’s the different intentions behind these plans, said Walters and other educators, that send mixed signals.

First, Indiana is in the process of creating a new testing system to replace ISTEP, and the high school portion is still undecided. Plans are now in the works through House Bill 1426 to have high-schoolers take a college entrance exam, such as the SAT and ACT, instead of the 10th-grade ISTEP they take now.

Indiana is also creating new “graduation pathways” to replace the current English and math exams students must pass to earn a diploma. The goal, lawmakers and policymakers have said, is to make the criteria students will have to meet more valuable to their post-high school plans, such as earning a technical license or credits for college.

And finally, Indiana, like every state in the country, is re-thinking how it rates schools as a result of new federal education law. Those new federal rules mean the state has to rewrite its A-F grading policy, which includes rules around testing and graduation. The Indiana State Board of Education can use the feedback it gets from public comments to revise its proposed rules before taking a final vote sometime this summer.

At Friday’s meeting, Jeff Butts, superintendent in Wayne Township, said making the high school test worth up to 30 percent of a school’s grade just doesn’t make sense. Exams like the SAT and ACT weren’t designed to measure high school state academic standards, Butts said, and more importantly, of the Indiana students who did take them, 78 percent had average composite scores below the recommended cut-off for college readiness from testing companies. Holding schools to such a standard is unfair, he said.

And when Gov. Eric Holcomb and other legislative leaders have made workforce readiness a central part of their 2018 legislative agendas, he said, it sends a mixed message.

“Why determine 30 percent of a high school’s success on a single exam … designed as a predictor, not indicator, of college success, taken by all kids regardless of the path chosen?” Butts said.

Butts acknowledged that the college entrance exam plan will likely move ahead. Lawmakers are wrapping up the 2018 session next week, and the bill has received support from both houses.

Rep. Bob Behning, who wrote the bill with the college entrance exam proposal, said the change would help eliminate the many test retakes that occured with the current system. It also, he has told policymakers, could prove more useful and relevant for students than a state-specific content area exam. State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick has also supported the move to a college entrance test.

Indiana’s focus on workforce readiness is part of a broader national push to ensure students are prepared for life after high school, where college is just one of several options.

Yet the state’s policy changes have gone back and forth between prioritizing the importance of rigorous college-level coursework and freedom from regulations that can make it hard for less academically inclined students to be successful. But ultimately, federal law requires a uniform measure of student learning — in Indiana’s case, A-F grades.

Educators’ other concern with the A-F grading proposal was that it no longer factors in high school students’ improvement on tests and reduces the its importance for K-8 schools.

“Capping that growth really removes the part of the great job our teachers do in the classroom,” said Todd Terrill, a superintendent from Richmond. “I truly believe that growth is the greatest indicator of academic success and accomplishment.”

Overall, about 15 people showed up for the Friday morning meeting. Richard Arkanoff, superintendent in Center Grove, argued the low attendance reflected concerns from educators that their voices aren’t being heard. He mentioned the state board’s vote in December to approve the graduation pathways plan, where dozens of educators spent hours speaking against the sweeping proposal.

“I don’t remember the last time, and I’ve been doing this for 20 years, that that many people spoke against something and it fell on deal ears,” Arkanoff said. “People are feeling as if they are not going to be heard, so why bother?”

The state board is scheduled to hold another A-F grade rule public comment session from 4-7 p.m. on Monday, March 19, at Ivy Tech’s Illinois Fall Creek Center.

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

To reinvent career education, these Indiana districts are making up their own rules

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in Decatur Township work on physics problems. Decatur is one of seven districts in a new state initiative aimed at preparing kids for careers.

An Indianapolis school district will get more flexibility under a new state initiative that aims to change how students learn and prepare for jobs.

Decatur Township will join six other districts in a coalition that allows them to bypass certain state rules so students get more practical experience and share ideas to form more work-based study opportunities with local employers. The coalition was created by a law passed this year that is based on model law from one of the nation’s most influential conservative organizations, the American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC.

The main rules that the coalition districts are looking for extra latitude on include allowing students to waive classes, such as Algebra 2, so they can gain work experience that might lead to a job or industry credential. The coalition would also like extra flexibility with teacher licensure so they can bring into the classroom experts in subjects affiliated with career and technical education.

Read: Indiana school districts could sidestep state law under a new proposal encouraging ‘innovation’

Decatur Superintendent Matt Prusiecki said the coalition is working to put some of the new plans and programs in place for next school year. Being part of this collaborative group actively sharing ideas, he said, might help them stretch their resources and find new ways to give students more freedom to figure out their post-high school plans.

“Instead of saying, ‘We can’t do this because,’ it’s more of a, ‘Why can’t we do this? How do we get around these obstacles’?” Prusiecki said.

The Indiana State Board of Education gave the coalition, called the “Coalition of Continuous Improvement School Districts,” the go-ahead to start planning at its meeting earlier this month. Rep. Bob Behning, the bill’s author, said this effort goes beyond just Indiana, as extending opportunities for career and technical education is becoming increasingly popular nationwide.

“Work-based study is definitely a buzz word around the country,” Behning told state board members. “How do we make school, and develop those skills in students, where everyone is not necessarily going to get a baccalaureate degree, but certainly can come out of school with a skill that will provide them employment outside of K-12.”

Earlier this year, when lawmakers were debating the bill, several Hoosier educators testified that courses like Algebra 2, which lawmakers made a requirement for graduation in 2007, interfere with students pursuing other opportunities — particularly if they are not interested in earning a four-year college degree.

Some schools, such as Noblesville High School, have already created Algebra 2 alternatives that some educators say are just as rigorous as the course, but have more real-world applications. Batesville, one of the districts that championed the original legislation, has also already created the kinds of local business partnerships that Prusiecki said he and other coalition members are looking to as examples.

Prusiecki said students would still have to follow the state’s new graduation pathways requirements. But with the freedom the coalition allows, they could substitute traditional courses in math or science with experiences in internships that could lead to a career.

“How do we connect (students) with these partnerships and relationships with businesses so we can get them high-wage, high-demand jobs?” Prusiecki said.

The coalition is also requesting the ability to create its own district teacher licenses. The licenses don’t have to meet the usual accreditation requirements from the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation. Teachers would still have to follow rules for criminal background checks, but the coalition members hope the licenses would have fewer requirements and let more people teach classes in subjects affiliated with career and technical education.

“The current ways (to be licensed) just seem to be a little cumbersome,” Prusiecki said. “This coalition is just trying to make opening those doors a lot wider so we can get things done possibly more efficiently, faster, and even possibly on a larger scale.”

But the state already has a workplace specialist permit, which can be earned by a person with experience in skilled trades or areas relevant to classes in a career center or a high school career and technical education program. It doesn’t require a college degree, but it does require applicants to pass a training and a basic skills exam. The coalition district law waives those rules and others for prospective educators.

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said she’s confused by the licensure waiver, which was not discussed during the state board meeting earlier this month or during the legislative session.

“I’m not going to pass a lot of judgement until I know more, but I need to hear why they need a different path that isn’t already available,” Meredith said. “There’s already such flexibility, it’s not super rigid with a workplace specialist.”

The coalition would still require that teachers be allowed to negotiate pay and benefits through their union.

The coalition districts still need the state to sign off on specific plans for what class pathways, teacher license options, or credential partnerships and opportunities they want to offer.

There’s an accountability piece to the coalition as well, Behning said, that gives districts more flexibility if they can show their efforts are leading to students getting jobs. Each year, the coalition must make a report to lawmakers on teacher qualifications and how the coalition affects certain metrics, such as graduation rate. Those metrics also have to include how much coalition work is costing each district, what work-based study opportunities students get from employer partners, and whether students are ultimately employed by partner organizations full-time.

Prusiecki did not want to reveal who the district is considering partnering with, but those agreements are in the works, and plans will need to be made quickly before the next school year.

“There’s a lot of risk-taking in this, and the piece of it, too, is that we’re putting a spotlight on ourselves as a school district,” Prusiecki said. “We’re willing to step out there and take those risks so we can help our communities.”

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

What’s so hard about teaching ‘soft skills’? More than Indiana policymakers might think

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students at Robey Elementary School in Wayne Township.

Indiana schools have a long list of specific topics students must learn about before they graduate that are enshrined in state law — the U.S. Constitution, the Holocaust, the effects of alcohol and drugs. Soon, “employability skills” will join them.

Also known as “soft skills” and “21st Century Skills,” these are the intangible abilities that students might be expected to have once they graduate from high schools, and they have been part of the school experience for decades. Sometimes the skills in question focus more on character or morality, while other times — especially in high schools — they focus on job-readiness. But they all boil down to figuring out how to teach students skills that are academics-adjacent and, often, hard to measure.

While schools have been trying to teach these skills for years, they have been highlighted recently by policymakers and employers as critical for post-high school success. But, education researchers and advocates worry, legislating these programs can be a challenge — and might not lead to noticeable changes.

“Good schools have always done this,” said Andrew Rotherham, co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit education consulting and policy firm. “But what often happens is it’s just one more thing that people have to do, and they end up checking that box.”

Under a law that passed this past spring with broad bipartisan support, all schools will have to incorporate these skills into their lessons beginning in 2019. The law comes as Indiana policymakers have made a big push to encourage “college- and career-readiness,” an education buzzword that has permeated conversations about recently adopted graduation requirements and city-led college access projects.

The bill itself is vague and says schools have to teach these skills across all subjects and occasionally create activities or special events on career awareness and development. The topics to be taught are specific to grade levels, spanning “basic employment concepts,” choosing careers based on interests and skills, job or higher education counseling, hands-on experiences, and workplace visits.

There is no method laid out for measuring schools’ performance or assessing the material.

The idea for the bill came from Indiana State Board of Education member David Freitas, who has long lobbied for such policies. The message could be as broad as encouraging conscientiousness and punctuality or as specific as teachers greeting each student in the morning with a firm handshake.

“These are core foundational skills that every person should have,” Freitas said. “It’s relevant today, it was relevant yesterday, and it’s going to be relevant tomorrow.”

The model that Indiana schools will have to eventually follow first requires the Indiana Department of Education to create employability skill standards, which the state board will eventually have to approve.

State officials won’t necessarily be starting from scratch — The U.S. Department of Education has developed an outline for teaching these skills and resources for schools, such as a checklist of academic and critical thinking skills that can be used to build lessons.

Indiana’s biggest challenges likely will be rolling the policy out in a way that ensures these skills are actually taught, taught well, and don’t become an “unfunded mandate.”

Jonathan Plucker, a professor and researcher at Johns Hopkins University who studies education policy and talent development, whose work has centered on designing assessments to measure topics like creativity and collaboration, said requiring schools to teach the skills can be a bigger obstacle than states realize.

“We don’t have great assessments for a lot of these things, so it is difficult to gauge whether you are doing a good job teaching students,” Plucker said. “There’s nothing in here about accountability, reporting, monitoring or assessment, and that’s how we ensure policies get enacted. You would never write a tax bill without any of those things.”

Plucker also thinks schools need to think long-term about what skills students may need in the future, not preparing them for the current job market.

“It would be much more powerful to take the longer-haul view of how are we educating them for the jobs of tomorrow, like where are we working in creativity and communication skills, collaboration skills?” Plucker said. “How are we helping them prepare for the jobs that we know are going to be the vast majority of career opportunities when they get out?”

Some schools already have programs in place. At Robey Elementary School in Wayne Township, their version of a soft skills program has focused on positive behavior. As the Robey Rockets, their motto is “BLAST” — Be Respectful, Lifelong learning, Active listening, Safety, Taking responsibility.

Most schools in the district have something similar, Principal Ben Markley said. The Garden City Gators have the three Gs, while the Bridgeport Knights have an “ARMOR” shield. In other districts, such as Franklin Township, South Creek Elementary School uses “GREAT” to encourage Generosity, Respect, Effort, positive Attitude, and Trustworthiness. It might seem simple, but Markley said he’s noticed its effects.

“You’ve got to have a common language,” Markley said. “When students go to physical education class or to art or to music … having a framework that they can count on, that they can improve upon over time, it is something that makes a difference for our kids.”

It’s unclear how much implementing the program will cost. Fiscal analysts from the Legislative Services Agency said the provisions in Senate Bill 297 would increase work for state education department employees, as well as districts carrying out another piece of the legislation — the Work Ethic Certificate program. The program is currently being tried out in 18 districts, and it partners districts and local employers together to create a credential students can earn if they demonstrate employability skills while in high school.

The Department of Workforce Development has issued grants to districts to support their work, but this year’s bill didn’t include any additional funding to expand the work ethic certificate program. It’s possible that could come next year, when lawmakers meet to craft the state’s next two-year budget.

Freitas said he’s really excited to see the plans take shape, and he knows some schools might already be working on these skills without the state requiring it. He said it’s not necessary that they hire any special teachers — it’s about focusing on the lessons and working soft skills into what’s already being taught.

“I see it embedded within the curriculum,” Freitas said. “Ten years from now, I think it’s important for everyone to be respectful to each other, civil to each other. So it has nothing to do with, ‘are they skills for the future’ — yeah, they are skills for the future. They are not going to change.”

This story has been corrected to reflect an updated description of Bellwether Education Partners.