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. 

The Colorado Way

Feds approve Colorado’s education plan after multiple revisions, but critics see more work to do

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Students prepare for statewide testing in Michelle Mugatha’s eighth-grade language arts class at Columbia Middle School in Aurora.

Colorado finally received approval for its federally mandated education plan Monday, one year and two revisions after the state first submitted it.

Colorado’s plan was held up longer than any other state’s by a series of disagreements over the best way to measure student achievement, including how to count students who opt out of state assessments. In most of those disagreements, the federal view prevailed, leaving Colorado with two divergent accountability systems, one state and one federal.

“We wanted to stick to our Colorado principles,” said Pat Chapman, executive director of the federal programs unit in the Colorado Department of Education.

Colorado wanted to use its state accountability system developed in 2009 to meet federal requirements, but ultimately the two were not entirely compatible. The state accountability system is more likely to identify schools that are not serving a large share of their students, while the federal system flags schools that aren’t serving certain subgroups, like students who qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty, or English language learners, even if their overall numbers look good.

“What we use the federal system for is to identify schools that need additional support and to get additional resources to those schools,” Chapman said.

Educational and civil rights advocates who have been involved in the development of the plan say that it’s improved in some ways, but they’re concerned that the existence of two accountability systems – or three in the case of districts like Denver that have their own school ratings – will lead to more confusion unless there’s a clear way of sharing information with parents.

Schools identified as “turnaround” or “priority improvement” status under state law won’t necessarily be flagged for improvement under ESSA, and vice versa.

“Our concern with having two different systems is that there may be confusion among parents about which system actually tells them how their school and district is performing,” said Leslie Colwell of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, a member of the Equity in Colorado Coalition.

And bilingual educators say the approved plan fails to address two key problems, the lack of assessments in students’ native language and inconsistent criteria for when students learning English keep receiving services or transition out.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which replaced No Child Left Behind in 2015, requires each state to submit a plan that lays out how it will measure student achievement and what it will do to improve performance among groups of students who aren’t meeting academic goals.

Without an approved plan, Colorado schools risked losing access to nearly $200 million in federal funds for children from low-income families, and other aid. ESSA also provides $10 million a year to Colorado schools that have been flagged as needing improvement.

Colorado has been a center of the “opt-out” movement of parents refusing to allow their children to be tested. In response, the State Board of Education forbid lowering a school’s quality rating if fewer than 95 percent of its students were tested. The U.S. Department of Education, meanwhile, insisted that Colorado treat students who don’t take the test as if they were not proficient, the lowest ranking. This became a key sticking point.

Under the approved plan, Colorado schools with high opt-out rates will need to come up with plans to test more of their students. This comes even as state lawmakers this year banned the use of rewards like pizza parties for students who take the tests. Instead, schools will have to make the case to parents and students that the tests are meaningful and important.

Two other key differences:

  • The federal government will rate schools based on four-year graduation rates, while Colorado lets schools use the best result from its four-, five-, six- or seven-year graduation rates.
  • The federal government will rate alternative high schools based on their graduation rate, while Colorado looks at completion rate, a broader measure that includes students who get a GED.

ESSA also lets states choose non-academic measures of student success against which school quality can be judged. In Colorado, one of those will be chronic absenteeism, and some schools are trying innovative programs to work with parents to help them get their kids to school.

Colorado’s student data privacy regulations means that the state won’t be reporting detailed information about small subgroups to federal regulators, an issue that advocacy groups say limits the public’s ability to understand how schools are doing.

State education officials have embraced the “flexibility” offered by ESSA in comparison to No Child Left Behind, but during a panel discussion earlier this year, Alexandra Alonso of the Colorado Latino Leadership, Advocacy, and Research Organization, stressed that the new law needs to be understood as a piece of civil rights legislation.

“It’s not intended to create more autonomy for states,” Alonso said. “It’s intended to have more equitable outcomes for our students.”

In that regard, Colorado’s plan still needs work, said Jorge García, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. There still isn’t a consistent enough standard for promoting students out of English acquisition programs, García said. Students languishing in those classes too long suffer, he said.

“It denies them access to electives,” he said. “It denies them access to the entire schedule of classes. It denies them access to the full content of the classes. They don’t take the classes that prepare them for college and a career. This particular high stakes decision is hurting a lot of our students.”

Colorado’s ESSA plan also doesn’t indicate any intention to develop Spanish-language math assessments.

Colorado received wide praise for its work to reach out to community groups, advocates, and school districts as it developed its plan, and Colwell said community groups will continue to work with the Colorado Department of Education to shape implementation of the plan.

“I am incredibly thankful for the amount of time and effort that so many people put in to develop our state plan,” Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes said in a press release. “Colorado has had ambitious education strategies in place. This plan maintains our strong education laws while working together with the federal law to support all students.”

In a press release announcing approval for Colorado’s plan, U.S. Department of Education officials highlighted several features that other states don’t have. Those include a “one-stop process” for schools to apply for services and grants tailored for their specific challenges, a coordinated grant management system, and training for teachers in all subject areas.

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.