Every Student Succeeds Act

The demise of NCLB could make it easier for Indiana to kill ISTEP

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Indiana State Superintendent Glenda Ritz speaking at Shortridge High School late last year.

The federal No Child Left Behind law is dead, replaced by a less-restrictive law last month, and the change might give Indiana enough wiggle-room to wrest free from its unpopular statewide ISTEP test.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, which will fully take effect for the 2017-18 school year, allows states more flexibility when developing tests. In fact, up to seven states will be picked for an experiment to pioneer the development of next-generation state exams. State Superintendent Glenda Ritz wants Indiana to ask to be part of the experiment.

“That is a strong possibility to be able to do that,” Ritz said. “I think the federal government is lessening the control over assessment systems.”

Ritz said today she wants to form a panel, much like the panel formed in 2013 to develop a new A-F school grading system, to address needed changes in ISTEP. She said she hopes lawmakers will sign on to the idea to develop a plan for the future before the state’s two-year contract with testing company Pearson to create ISTEP is finished in 2017.

“We have a two-year contract to do ISTEP here, but I want to make sure that we have time to actually get our system correct, making sure we are seeing growth of students over time,” Ritz said. “What informs instruction is knowing where students are and knowing where they are over the course of the year.”

Ritz’s vision for a new state test, she told reporters last week, would be a series of shorter tests that would track students’ progress, followed by a final test that would take a “snapshot” of their skills at the end of year, much like ISTEP does now.

This strategy would reduce the amount of time kids spend taking tests, she argued, and could better provide teachers and parents with quicker turnaround of test scores that could help directly guide changes to the way kids are taught.

Such a plan would be allowed by ESSA, so long as scores from the smaller tests could be combined to form one final year-end score. States are still required under the new law to give yearly tests that show how students are performing in English and math. But going forward, they will have more freedom to choose how they do it.

The once-per-year statewide tests must capture student scores at one moment in time, designed to essentially sum up where they stand. To prepare for ISTEP, Indiana students often take tests that measure student growth over time, an approach many teachers prefer. One such exam many Indiana schools use is created by the Oregon-based Northwest Evaluation Association.

Last year, the Indiana General Assembly’s budget bill included funds for schools to choose their own growth-oriented exams, like NWEA, rather than requiring all schools to use the same test as was done in the past. Ritz said that change would have to be addressed if the state were to use such tests as part of a larger state test series.

But a transition to a different testing timeline might not be so easy, education policy experts said.

Danielle Gonzales, assistant policy director for The Aspen Institute’s education program, said work done by other states, such as New Hampshire, to create a unique test isn’t always a smooth process.

For example, if Indiana were to give a few small tests throughout the year, rather than one big one, the state would have to make sure teachers across the state were teaching roughly the same things at the same time. That’s big challenge. In a state like Indiana, where local control of schools is even more prized, such a move might get resistance from educators and others, she said.

It took “tons of work and resources in getting New Hampshire where they are,” Gonzales said. “Frankly, it’s a significant challenge for other states to take that on.”

Changes are still a ways off

Guidance from the U.S. Department of Education for how to put elements from the new ESSA law in place is expected later this year, which means state policymakers can’t do much to prepare for now. That could be a barrier to ditching ISTEP, as a growing number of legislators have said they’d like to do.

“The big question that everyone has that I’ve heard is what will the regulations look like?” said Marc Lotter, spokesman for the Indiana State Board of Education.

Waivers that federal officials have awarded to states to release them from sanctions they could have faced for not measuring up under NCLB would be void in August of 2016. So far, the U.S. Department of Education has advised states to stick with the testing systems they have now until 2017. In the meantime, federal and state officials will try to figure out how to adapt testing and accountability systems to any changes required by the ESSA law.

Lotter said he doesn’t expect Indiana will have to change much, given the years of work already put into the state’s new standards, testing and A-F school grading model. ESSA still requires states to test students every year and measure how schools perform, just like NCLB. And Indiana’s upgraded standards got the OK from the U.S. Department of Education in 2014.

“The good thing is that, from what I understand, our standards are not going to need to change,” Lotter said.

Another big change that could affect Indiana is that ESSA voids a mandate from the Obama administration that required states receiving federal poverty aid to evaluate all teachers every year. Indiana made that requirement state law in 2011, but the change has been controversial.

Some educators bristled that student test score growth was required to be part of the evaluation score. But proponents of higher expectations for teacher performance have been disappointed that nearly all Indiana educators have been rated effective under the new system, just as they were before 2011.

Ritz said she doesn’t think Indiana should give up teacher evaluations, but she said there might be suggestions for ways to change the system based on feedback from her 49-person panel on teacher hiring that met this past summer.

“I am a strong proponent of annual evaluations of our teachers,” Ritz said. “What we do want to see is local control over how (teacher evaluation) works so we can have some fair evaluation systems going on in the state of Indiana.”

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.

hurdle cleared

Indiana’s federally required education plan wins approval

PHOTO: Courtesy of the Indiana Department of Education
State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick greets elementary school students in Decatur Township.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has signed off on Indiana’s federally required education plan, ushering in another era of changes — although not exactly major ones — to the state’s public school system.

The U.S Department of Education announced the plan’s approval on Friday. Like other states, Indiana went through an extensive process to craft a blueprint to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which was signed into law in 2015.

“Today is a great day for Indiana,” state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in a statement. “Our ESSA plan reflects the input and perspective of many stakeholders in communities across our state. From the beginning, we set out to build a plan that responded to the needs of Hoosier students. From our clear accountability system to our innovative, locally-driven approach to school improvement, our ESSA plan was designed to support student success.”

The federal government highlighted two aspects of Indiana’s plan. One is a pledge to close achievement gaps separating certain groups of students, such as racial and ethnic groups, from their peers by 50 percent by 2023.

Another is a staple of other states’ plans, as well: adding new ways for measuring how ready students are for attending college or starting their careers. Indiana education officials and lawmakers have made this a priority over the past several years, culminating in a new set of graduation requirements the Indiana State Board of Education approved late last year.

Under Indiana’s plan, high schoolers’ readiness will be measured not just by tests but also by performance in advanced courses and earning dual credits or industry certifications. Elementary school students will be measured in part by student attendance and growth in student attendance over time. Test scores and test score improvement still play a major role in how all schools are rated using state A-F letter grades.

In all, 35 states’ ESSA plans have won federal approval.

Advocates hope the law will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

Indiana officials struggled to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, such as graduation requirements and diplomas.

Under the state’s ESSA plan, A-F grades would include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and, in the case of chronic absenteeism, attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

Because the Indiana State Board of Education passed its own draft A-F rules earlier this month — rules that deviate from the state ESSA plan — it’s possible Hoosier schools could get two sets of letter grades going forward, muddying the initial intent of the simple A-F grade concept parents and community members are familiar with.

The state board’s A-F changes include other measures, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan. The state board plan also gets rid of the test score improvement measure for high-schoolers.

While that A-F proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

The state can still make changes to its ESSA plan, and the state board’s A-F draft is also expected to see revisions after public comment. But the fact that they conflict now could create difficulties moving forward, and it has led to tension during state board meetings. Already, the state expected schools would see two years of A-F grades in 2018. If both plans move forward as is, that could continue beyond next year.

Read: Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Find more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.