All-clear on ESSA

Tennessee and feds strike a balance in how to track historically underserved students

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Barret's Chapel Elementary-Middle is a diverse school in Shelby County Schools.

Among the first states to submit its plan under the new federal education law, Tennessee is also among the first to gain approval from the U.S. Department of Education — but with one key adjustment.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has tweaked Tennessee’s plan to try to keep certain groups of historically underserved kids from falling through the cracks under the Every Student Succeeds Act, known as ESSA.

In April, the state proposed lumping black, Hispanic and Native American students into a single “supergroup” when considering interventions in schools where those students were struggling more than their white peers. The approach raised red flags both in Washington, D.C., and some corners of Tennessee, for fear that differences between the various groups could be overlooked.

In July, the U.S. Education Department told Tennessee to revisit that point. It urged the state to put more teeth behind its plan to individually track those student groups, as well as Asian, Hawaiian and Pacific Islander and white students.

The plan that gained federal approval on Wednesday takes both approaches — enabling the state to intervene when any of those groups fall far behind their peers.

The change means that even schools with high test scores could be on the hook for big changes if at least 30 black, Hispanic and Native American students in that school aren’t keeping up.

And if, for example, a significant number of Native American students are performing worse than black or Hispanic students at a single school, the state will respond to that, too.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

“Ultimately, all of these approaches will help to shine a spotlight on all students’ performance and drive a conversation about the needs of individual students,” McQueen told superintendents in an email announcing the state’s ESSA plan approval.

She also assured them that the change will not significantly increase the number of schools being tracked. (For monitoring to kick in, schools have to meet the 30-student threshold for any group.)

A successor to the more restrictive No Child Left Behind law of 2001, the ESSA law of 2015 gives states latitude to come up with their own plans to improve student achievement and hold schools accountable for student performance.

Tennessee’s plan is the result of nearly two years of gathering feedback across the state. But a sticking point has been how to identify and rate schools in need of targeted support for certain groups of students.

The adjusted plan is getting good marks with groups advocating for a change.

“We are thrilled. We are celebrating that change,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, senior director of education policy for Conexión Américas and leader in the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition.

If schools are on the hook for how they serve all students, they are more likely to make meaningful changes to improve education for them, she said.

“People will adjust resources and staffing decisions based on performance in this new accountability framework. Our whole belief with accountability is it will inspire or spur action,” said Pupo-Walker.

Tennessee is among nine states and the District of Columbia that have now gotten the green light on their ESSA plans. The remaining states are expected to submit their plans in September.

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.

moving on up

With Holcomb’s support, Indiana’s next education plan heads to Washington

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Gov. Eric Holcomb address lawmakers and the public during his State of the State Address earlier this year. Today, he signed off on Indiana's ESSA plan.

Gov. Eric Holcomb has given his stamp of approval to Indiana’s next education plan under the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

In a tweet Monday afternoon, state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick thanked Holcomb for his support:

Holcomb was required to weigh in on the plan, but his approval wasn’t necessary for it to move forward. If he disagreed with the changes proposed by McCormick and the Indiana Department of Education, he could have indicated that today.

So far, it seems that the state’s top education policymakers — Holcomb, McCormick and the Indiana State Board of Education — have reached some level of consensus on how to move forward.

The state has worked for months to revamp its accountability system and educational goals to align with ESSA, which Congress passed in 2015.

Although there are many similarities between this plan and the previous plan under the No Child Left Behind waiver, several changes affect state A-F grades. Going forward, they will factor in measures that recognize the progress of English-learners and measures not solely based on test scores, such as student attendance.

However, the new plan also alters the state’s graduation rate formula to match new federal requirements, a change that has a number of educators, policymakers and parents worried because it means students who earn a general diploma no longer count as graduates to the federal government.

You can read more about the specifics of the state plan in our ESSA explainer and see all of our ESSA coverage here.