ESSA and Equity

Tennessee’s plan to ensure schools help students of all races raises red flags for advocates and feds alike

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Students attend class at Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, one of the Memphis schools honored this year as a reward school.

An unusual way that Tennessee wants to hold schools accountable for helping all students is drawing the same reaction from groups that ordinarily agree on little: skepticism.

Both U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and local advocates for students of color say they have concerns about the state’s proposal for measuring whether schools are helping students of all races.

Under the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, states must promise to intervene in low-performing schools — and they must show how the performance of various “subgroups” influences their decision making. The goal is to make sure that a majority-white school with low-performing black students, for example, does not escape the state’s scrutiny.

Tennessee is the only state to propose lumping several subgroups — black, Hispanic, and Native American students — together into a single “supergroup” when assessing schools. All of the other states that have submitted their plans to comply with the law say they will look at each group individually.

Tennessee is also the only state to propose not stepping in at a school unless at least 30 students who are poor, non-white, or have a disability are low-performing. Other states set a lower threshold in each category. (Michigan is using the 30-student threshold in some categories but not others.)

State education officials say the approach — which Tennessee used recently under a waiver from the previous education law — makes sense because in schools where black students are doing well, Hispanic students, for example, are also very likely to be doing well, too.

They also point out that the current accountability system has excluded tens of thousands of students whose schools are so racially segregated that subgroups are too small to be measured. More than 40,000 additional students would factor into the state’s accountability system under the proposal, according to state officials, who note that the larger threshold for each school would prevent situations where a tiny number of struggling students could trigger disruptive consequences for an entire school that is otherwise doing well.

PHOTO: Philip Murphy/Conexión Américas
Mary Batiwalla, executive director of accountability for the Tennessee Department of Education.

“These are really high-stakes decisions,” said Mary Batiwalla, the state department’s executive director of accountability. “The more steps you throw into your system, the more subgroups you look at, the more volatile the data could be. And the likelihood for error from random chance increases. We want to feel certain when we make these decisions.”

But critics of the approach say lumping students from different groups together could make it easy to miss nuances in how to better educate each of those racial and ethnic subgroups.

“They are not the same population just because they are being underserved,” Emily Philippone, an ESL teacher at Sheffield High School in Memphis, said at a recent training session for Memphis educators and advocates hosted by the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition. “We need to look to see what individual needs those students have.”

Others have raised similar concerns. A group that favors tough accountability for schools gave Tennessee’s plan strong marks — except when it came to the subgroup issue. The Campaign for School Equity, a school choice advocacy group in Memphis, made the same point in its first report this week. And Conexión Américas, a group that lobbies for immigrant students in Tennessee, is pushing for a different approach.

It appears that the critics have an ally in DeVos, who is responsible for approving states’ accountability plans. She has said she will approve any plan that complies with the law — and feedback from her department suggests that Tennessee’s does not.

“It is not clear whether each of the individual racial and ethnic subgroup of students is also separately included in the state’s accountability system,” education department officials wrote in their response to Tennessee’s proposal. The law “requires a state to include in its accountability system each major racial and ethnic group as well as the subgroups of economically disadvantaged students, children with disabilities, and English learners.”

PHOTO: PhilipMurphy/Conexión Américas
Gini Pupo-Walker, Conexión Américas’ senior director of education policy

Tennessee officials did not change their approach when they resubmitted their proposal in mid-July. But they did explain that they plan to analyze the performance of each group and use a smaller student threshold in its annual school report cards, which are meant to inform people in the state.

That’s a good step, according to some advocates, but not enough to ensure that vulnerable students are adequately served by their schools.

“There’s no immediate behavioral changes based on what comes out of reporting,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, Conexión Américas’ senior director of education policy. “I don’t think schools are going to realign resources from information coming out of reporting. They will for accountability.”

ESSA Wrap up

Colorado bows to federal pressure, adopts second school quality system that penalizes schools for testing opt-out

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
State Board of Education members Angelika Schroeder and Steve Durham met with lawmakers to discuss the nation's new education law.

In an effort to keep federal dollars flowing to Colorado classrooms, the State Board of Education voted Wednesday to create two quality systems for the state’s schools — the existing one designed in 2009 by state lawmakers, and a new one that meets federal requirements.

The unusual arrangement amounts to a compromise between the state education department and the U.S. Department of Education.

After Colorado became a national epicenter for the opt-out movement in 2015, the State Board of Education adopted a policy that forbid the state from lowering a school’s quality rating if they missed the 95 percent participation requirement.

That proved to be a sticking point when state officials submitted Colorado’s plan for complying with the nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. Federal officials sent the plan back, saying the opt-out provision didn’t comply with the new law.

In the compromise, the state will continue to issue state school quality ratings that don’t penalize schools for high opt-out rates.

However, the state will create a separate list of schools based on the federal requirement that students who opt out are counted as not proficient.

Some state board members worried two systems would create additional work for teachers, create confusion among the public or misidentify schools.

State officials said Wednesday, teachers, students and parents shouldn’t notice much difference. No school or district will be responsible for submitting more data. The state will be responsible for slicing and dicing results from annual tests as they have in the past.

Because Colorado students who opt out tend to be white and more affluent, this change could flag schools for financial support to boost learning that really don’t need it.

State education officials assured the board that it had discretion in identifying whether a school is truly low-performing or if its scores are deflated from low participation.

Earlier this fall, the state took a voluntary step toward the two-system approach when it published a list of schools that qualify for federal grants. The state adopted some, but not all of the federal requirements, when it created that list.

Board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican, said he hoped the state would not publicize the results from the federal identification system.

“It should not be given equal weight with the data that we find appropriate,” he said.

Durham also asked the state education department to remind schools that it is still illegal to penalize students who opt out of state tests. (It’s also against the law to incentivize students to skip the English and math exams.)

The state must resubmit its plan to the federal government by Oct. 23.

Correction: This post has been updated to clarify how the state previously penalized schools for missing the 95 percent participation rate before the state board took action. 

diploma discussions

Educators to state officials: ‘Indiana needs just one diploma’

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
College acceptance letters in the main entrance at Tindley Accelerated School.

For years, Indiana has been grappling with how to re-imagine high school diplomas. Today, educators made a seemingly simple suggestion to state officials: Condense Indiana’s four-diploma system down to just one.

“Indiana needs just one diploma,” said Richard Arkanoff, superintendent for Center Grove schools. “But it’s critically important that we provide students with many multiple pathways to get to that one diploma.”

In a community meeting Tuesday night at Noblesville East Middle School, Ken Folks, chief of government affairs at the Indiana Department of Education, said the department is also interested in looking at a single diploma with different “gradations” depending on student needs.

Arkanoff was one of several educators who addressed the graduation pathways committee, led by the Indiana State Board of Education. The group is charged by Indiana lawmakers with creating pathways that will help determine students’ readiness for life after high school.

Currently, Indiana students have a single graduation requirement outside of what’s needed to earn a diploma — passing end-of-course exams in math and English. But next school year, that changes. Instead, to graduate, students will need to complete the pathway, which will replace the two tests, and earn a diploma. It’s not yet clear what those pathways will look like.

Byron Ernest, a state board member and the chairman of the committee, urged members to stay focused on the pathways.

“The purpose of this panel is to create a new system for determining if a student is ready to graduate high school,” Ernest said, adding later that the committee is not responsible for revamping the state’s diploma structure.

Multiple previous efforts to redo diploma requirements have resulted in little action and several false starts. The main impetus behind this flurry of discussion is the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which states that the general diploma can no longer count in the graduation rate Indiana must report to the federal government starting as early as 2018.

The general diploma is a pared-down option that only about 12 percent of Indiana students receive.

To many at the meeting, any conversation about graduation would naturally include diplomas, especially when there is so much urgency around the ESSA changes.

Because of the change, many schools across the state — as well as the state as a whole — would see graduation rates drop, a main factor in high schools’ A-F grades. If a school’s rate falls below 67 percent, the school could also be identified as needing extra support from the state. Folks said 275 Indiana high schools could face that reality going forward.

Laura Hammack, superintendent of Brown County Schools, is one example. She said the ESSA change would have gotten her below or close to the two-thirds mark in 2016 and 2017.

“The news about Indiana’s diploma options and connections to ESSA hit Brown County very hard,” she said.

Indiana lawmakers both at the state and federal level wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos asking for some time to deal with change before consequences would take effect.

Mary Burton, director of the Northeast Indiana Special Education Cooperative, said a single diploma could also offer benefits for students with special needs, who disproportionately receive general diplomas.

“It’s clear to students that the general diploma is of lesser value,” Burton said. “How about one diploma with (extra certifications)? This option would allow for the rigor we expect from all of our students while respecting and valuing each student’s learning differences.”

According to 2015 data compiled by Achieve, a nonprofit that helps states work on academic standards and tests, 27 states offer multiple high school diploma options. A 2016 analysis from the Virginia Department of Education found that of the 10 states with the highest percentages of graduates going to college, most had moved from multiple diplomas to just one.

Indiana has convened numerous panels and spent scores of hours discussing diplomas and post-high school options for students, with very little action taken.

The discussion around graduation pathways is a variation on that theme. So far, what a pathway is and how it might be structured has not been clearly defined. Mainly, the meetings have brought together educators, community members and business leaders to have wide-ranging conversations about preparing kids for life after high school, whether that’s college, career, military or other options.

After today, the group has six more meetings scheduled through early November.