Indiana schools could face sanctions under the federal No Child Left Behind law if the state cannot satisfactorily answer U.S. Department of Education concerns in 60 days about its plans for instituting its new standards.

On Thursday, Indiana State Superintendent Glenda Ritz received a letter from Deb Delisle, assistant U.S. secretary of education, spelling out concerns about “significant issues” with Indiana’s adherence to an agreement it made in with the federal government in 2012 that released the state from some NCLB rules.

The agreement included a promise to have high standards for all students, and federal authorities want proof that the standards the state recently adopted are as challenging as the ones they replaced, known as the Common Core.

Indiana State Board of Education member Brad Oliver said he has not seen the letter but he is alarmed.

“Based on what I know right now I am very concerned that our waiver could be in jeopardy,” he said. “The repercussions of losing our waiver are more than just financial. It would immediately have an impact on local districts.”

But Ritz’s spokesman, Dan Altman, said the letter was not a big surprise given dramatic changes in Indiana’s approach to standards and testing driven by new laws from the legislature. Bills that first paused Indiana’s implementation of Common Core standards and then voided them altogether required quick work by state education officials to stay on schedule to have standards and new tests in place for next school year, he said.

“There’s been whole lot of work happening at the department to put ourselves in compliance, not the least of which was the standards review process the superintendent just led,” he said. “That is a very big step in making sure we stay in compliance.”

The letter constitutes a lower level of notice from the federal government than other states have received, meaning the state’s NCLB waiver is in no immediate danger. Four states have been notified they are at “high risk” of losing their waivers, but Indiana was not added to that group yet.

Indiana is one of several states that asked U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for a waiver from some NCLB sanctions. The waiver was given partly on condition that the state adopt “college and career ready” academic standards. Indiana said in its application that it had already done that when it adopted Common Core standards in 2010.

But this March, state lawmakers, wary of federal involvement in state decisions about education, voided Indiana’s adoption of Common Core, making it the first of 45 states that had agreed to follow those standards to later pull out. The Indiana Education Roundtable and state board adopted new standards last month.

Those standards must be approved by a “state network of institutions of higher education” who can assert that Indiana’s graduates will not need remedial work in college after the change, Delisle wrote.

Indiana must also submit a detailed outline for how it will create and administer new state tests in the 2014-15 school year to assess student progress toward college and career readiness.

The  NCLB waiver allows Indiana to be judged on different criteria other than the law’s escalating goals for student test performance. Without the waiver, NCLB could have forced tough choices for making changes in numerous schools across the state that fell short of its expectations for improved test scores, like firing principals and replacing most of the teachers. It also would restrict how some federal dollars are spent, setting aside money for outside tutoring, and require notice to parents that the schools are failing under the federal definition.

Last month, Washington became the first state to lose its NCLB waiver.

“I believe you will have several schools failing under the federal model,” Oliver said.

Last fall, the U.S. Department of Education found Indiana was falling short on its waiver commitments. Among concerns it raised was that the state did not:

  • ensure low scoring schools were making changes that would raise test scores for groups of students that had fallen behind
  • make sure those schools were using multiple strategies to turn the schools around
  • adequately monitor and support implementation of new standards or teacher and principal evaluation systems in local schools

Federal officials, in their fall report, outlined several steps Indiana had to take to rectify those concerns. If all the steps are not taken, the state’s waiver could be jeopardized, according to Delisle’s letter to Ritz.

Oliver said he was frustrated that the state appeared to have slipped since its 2012 evaluation, which gave it high marks for compliance, to the point where the waiver could be threatened.

He wants answers from Ritz, he said.

“How is it we are so out of compliance?” he asked. “In one year’s time what has happened? It looks as if we’ve dropped the ball. I know the board hasn’t dropped it. We’ve been asking and we’ve been told everything is OK. That’s not adding up now.”

Altman said the concerns raised by federal officials when it comes to monitoring schools were based on a visit that happened last August, as Ritz’s school support network was just being put in place, and the department has made several improvements since then.

“It’s disappointing to see finger pointing,” he said. “We will report back to U.S. Department of Education and we will make sure that we will comply with what’s in the letter.”