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.”

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.