Every Student Succeeds Act

Proposed A-F grading rules would make test scores even more important in Indiana

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students at IPS School 39 work on an assignment earlier this fall.

Indiana state officials are again suggesting changes to the state’s A-F grading formula that would place even more importance on passing tests, and many were unaware about what was coming.

The proposed formula would factor in more strongly the number of students who pass tests and remove the measure of test score improvement for high schools, which educators have said they think is valuable. The changes come as Indiana works to create a plan comply with new federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Scot Croner, superintendent of the northern Indiana Wa-Nee School District, said he doesn’t understand why educators — particularly the 15-member committee that helped the state draft its plan — weren’t involved in the discussion.

“It just seems like a lot of behind-the-scenes and not very transparent,” said Croner, who helped with part of the original plan’s development. “That’s unfortunate. It screams of politics.”

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

The state board is set to meet to consider the proposed A-F grade changes on Wednesday. If the board approves them, they will be posted for public comment.

In Indiana’s initial draft of its state plan, A-F grades were composed of four or five main parts. A school’s formula could look something like this (the percentages would change depending on the school’s population and the data available):

Elementary/middle school:

  • Test proficiency: 42.5 percent
  • Test score growth: 42.5 percent
  • Chronic Absenteeism: 5 percent
  • English Language Proficiency: 10 percent

High school:

  • Test proficiency: 15 percent
  • Test score growth: 15 percent
  • Graduation Rate: 30 percent
  • College & Career Readiness: 30 percent
  • English Language Proficiency: 10 percent

Adam Baker, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education, said the department was not aware of many of the changes the state board had proposed and was also disappointed that educators were not included.

“The concerns we are hearing from the field is the lack of transparency,” Baker said. “We’ve always believed in order to make good policy, you must have the involvement of practitioners. And given we were extremely transparent during the creation of our approach to meet ESSA requirements, those in the field expected the same.”

The education department and the state board of education have been separate since 2013. Generally, the education department deals with state and federal agencies and executes policy — the state board is tasked with creating or approving it.

When then-Gov. Mike Pence split off the state board from the department of education as part of his “innovative” Center for Education and Career Innovation, then-state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, a Democrat who headed the department and frequently butted heads with him, said it was a political ploy to take away her power. The board has 11 members.

The education department is in charge of the state’s plan to comply with new federal law, and state board members had several chances over the summer to give input and suggest changes before the plan was submitted to the federal government in August.

But even some state board members were unaware that new rules were being drafted. Steve Yager, a board member and former superintendent from Fort Wayne, said he was not part of the small group of four that made the rules, and he only became aware a week ago that they’d be up for a vote this month.

“In my two-and-a-half years on the board, this has never happened,” Yager said. “So I see it as a change in process or protocol or practice, and there are members of the board who are concerned about it.”

The new formulas could look something like this:

Elementary/middle school:

  • Test proficiency: 42.5 percent
  • Test score growth: 42.5 percent
  • Chronic Absenteeism: 5 percent
  • English Language Proficiency: 5 percent
  • Well-rounded (science and social studies test): 5 percent

High school (before the 2022-23 school year):

  • Test proficiency: 25 percent
  • Graduation Rate: 30 percent
  • College & Career Readiness: 30 percent
  • English Language Proficiency: 5 percent
  • On-track: 10 percent

High school (after the 2022-23 school year):

  • Test proficiency: 30 percent
  • Graduation Rate: 50 percent
  • English Language Proficiency: 5 percent
  • On-track: 15 percent

Indiana’s A-F grades aim to rate schools based on whether students are learning. Although grades are based primarily on how many students pass — which many educators feel are unreliable after several years of changes in the tests — tests still bring consequences. After four years of consecutive Fs, the state can replace staff, bring in charter managers or close schools.

The changes proposed by state board staff members add two new pieces to state grades: A “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools and an “on-track” measure for high schools.

The “well-rounded” piece is calculated based on state science and social studies tests given once in elementary and middle school. The “on-track” measure would be calculated based on whether high school students, by the end of their freshman year, have received at least 10 course credits and have received no more than one F in English, math, science or social studies.

For high schools, test score growth would be taken out entirely in 2023, as would the “college and career-readiness” measure. That piece was based on the number of students taking advanced courses or earning work-related certificates.

During recent A-F grade discussions, educators have stressed the importance of including measures that capture how much students improve, not just how they do at one moment in time. The board has gone back and forth on how to balance those factors. In this new proposal, growth for K-8 schools is also capped — previously, schools could earn extra points if they helped struggling students improve significantly.

Josh Gillespie, spokesman for the state board, said the test improvement piece was removed because of recommendations that Indiana move to using the SAT or ACT as its high school test. That change would mean growth could not properly be calculated as students went from an eighth-grade state-created exam to a national college entrance exam.

Read more of Indiana’s ESSA coverage here.

This story has been updated with the correct weights for high school graduation rate and high school test proficiency after 2023. 

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.

Every Student Succeeds Act

Plans for a single Indiana diploma advance with new rules that raise the bar for graduation waivers

In a move that might make it more difficult for some students to graduate, Indiana lawmakers are considering raising the threshold for allowing students to earn a diploma when they have fallen short of some state requirements.

A proposal to change the graduation waiver system is the latest attempt by the state to amend graduation requirements as part of a policy initiative to ensure that students are prepared for life after high school. The change in waiver policy could make it more challenging for students who struggle academically to complete high school.

“I want to make sure we have as few waivers as possible,” said Rep. Bob Behning, Republican chairman of the House Education Committee and author of House Bill 1426, which includes the waiver changes. And if a waiver is necessary, he said, he wants the requirements to be stringent enough to ensure post-graduate success.

The proposed waiver requirements are part of a sweeping effort by the state to align state law with the state’s new graduation pathways system. The bill, which passed its first major hurdle with the approval of the House Education Committee on Tuesday, would combine the state’s four diplomas into one to deal with the effects of a change in federal law that no longer counts the state’s less-rigorous general diploma in the federal graduation rate. With one diploma, Indiana would be more likely to pass muster under the new federal rules, but final approval from the federal government won’t come for several months.

An amendment to the bill proposed on Tuesday will change Indiana’s policy for allowing students to receive a waiver that, while controversial, is widely used. More than 8 percent of the more than 70,000 students who graduated last year received waivers from meeting graduation requirements.

Supporters say waivers provide opportunities to students who might face challenges that affect their ability to meet the basic graduation requirements. But critics say they allow high schools to push through students that lack the kind of skills needed to be successfully employed.

Waiver requirements for students with disabilities would not change under the new proposal.

The current system allows students who repeatedly fail required state tests in English and math to be granted a waiver that lets them graduate if they meet other criteria.

But under the new pathways system, which will affect students now in seventh grade, the state graduation exam will be replaced with one of several new graduation pathways requirements, which could include passing a college-entrance exam, taking career and technical education classes, or passing advanced courses.

Under Behning’s proposal, a waiver would be granted if a student had earned an average GPA of 2.0; maintained 95 percent attendance; or if he or she has been admitted to college, a job training program, the military or has an opportunity to start a career.

The bill allows a school’s principal to approve alternative requirements but doesn’t address how those would be developed. The new rules could also be used by students transferring from schools that are out of state or from private schools not held to graduation pathway rules.

The current criteria to receive a waiver do not call for students to be admitted to college, the military or a job. Students do have to maintain a 95 percent attendance record and a 2.0 grade point average, and also have to complete requirements for a general diploma, take a workforce readiness assessment or earn an industry certification approved by the state board. The standards also require students to obtain letters of recommendation from teachers (with approval of the school principal) and to use class work to show students have mastered the subject despite failing the graduation exam.

It’s not yet clear how many students might be affected by a change to the graduation waiver system. In the months since the Indiana State Board of Education approved the new graduation pathways, educators have raised concerns to state board staff members about the types of students who might not have a clear-cut pathway under the plan — for example, a student headed to college who might not have an exceptional academic record. A waiver outlined by HB 1426 could give them another shot. But for students without definite post-graduation plans, that waiver could be out of reach.

None of the educators or education advocates who testified on the bill spoke out specifically on the waiver changes. Mike Brown, director of legislative affairs for the Indiana Department of Education, said that based on a “cursory look,” the department didn’t have any issues with it.

Aside from the diploma and graduation waiver changes, the bill would also:

  • Make Indiana’s high school test a college-entrance exam, such as the ACT or SAT, instead of end-of-year tests in English and math.
  • Encourage the state board to look into alternatives for Algebra 2, currently a diploma requirement.
  • Ask the state board to establish guidelines for how districts and schools can create “local” graduation pathways and how they would be approved by the state board. It would also add $500,000 to fund development of local pathways that districts and schools could apply for.
  • Eliminate the Accuplacer exam, which schools now use to see if high school students need remediation in English or math before they graduate.

Because the bill includes a request for state funding, it next heads to the House Ways and Means Committee.