double take

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

Students work on assignments at Indianapolis Public Schools Center For Inquiry at School 27.

Imagine a scenario where Indiana schools get not just one A-F grade each year, but two.

One grade would determine whether a school can be taken over by the state. The other would comply with federal law asking states to track student test progress and how federal aid is spent. Both would count, but each would reflect different measures of achievement and bring different consequences.

This could be Indiana’s future if a state board-approved plan moves ahead at the same time the state is working on a conflicting plan to comply with a new federal law.

If it sounds complicated, that’s because it probably would be, said state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. Originally, A-F grades were intended to be an easy way for parents and community members to understand how their school is doing.

“It’s extremely confusing to have multiple accountability systems with multiple consequences,” McCormick told board members last week. “All along our message has been to get as much alignment as we can.”

Indiana would not be the first state to consider dual accountability systems — Colorado operated separate systems for years under No Child Left Behind and is now doing so again. Virginia, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have also had two models in years past. But this move would be a big departure from Indiana’s efforts over the past several years to simplify accountability, and education officials warn it could create more problems than it would solve.

Dale Chu, an education consultant who previously worked in Indiana under state Superintendent Tony Bennett, said it’s actually not common for states to have multiple systems, and doing so for political reasons, rather than what helps students and families, is concerning.

“We all know how confusing accountability systems can be when you just have one,” Chu said. “To create a bifurcated system, I don’t see how you gain additional clarity … I would certainly hope that if that’s the direction the state is going to move in, they are very thoughtful and intentional about it.”

The changes come as Indiana works to create a plan to comply with a new federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. McCormick’s education department has been working to align the federal system with Indiana’s grading system, and is struggling to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, most notably in the area of graduation requirements and diplomas.

At the same time the Indiana State Board of Education is negotiating this alignment, it is also revamping the A-F grade system.

A new grading proposal approved by the state board last week would put more emphasis on student test scores than the A-F system that now unifies state and federal requirements. Those new rules would include extra categories for grading schools, 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.

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

Officials were already expecting to issue two sets of A-F grades to schools in 2018 — one state grade, and one federal — as the state continued to work all of Indiana’s unresolved education issues into the new federal plan. Figuring out how to ensure state graduation rates don’t plummet because of other federal rule changes dictating  which diplomas count and incorporating the new high school graduation requirements, for example, will take time — and legislation — to fix.

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

But ultimately, officials said, if some of the state board-approved changes make it into final policy, and Indiana’s federal plan doesn’t change to accommodate it, the state and federal accountability systems could remain at odds with each other — meaning schools would continue to get two grades after 2018.

The original intent was to have all Indiana’s state grading system line up with federal requirements before the plan was sent to federal officials in September. Then, once the federal government gave feedback, the state A-F revamp could continue.

But just this past fall, after the federal plan had been submitted, some members of the state board began adding in additional measures, some of which reflect their personal interests in how schools should be rated.

Those measures were added after board members had multiple chances to discuss the federal plan with the education department, conversations that were held in an attempt to ward off such changes this late in the game. Yet even last week at the state board’s monthly meeting, where the new grading changes were approved, some board members didn’t seem to realize until after the vote that the A-F systems would not match up.

David Freitas, a state board member, said he didn’t see the conflicting A-F grade rules as a problem. The board can make Indiana’s state A-F system whatever it wants, he said, and there will be plenty of time to iron out specifics as the rulemaking process unfolds over the next several months.

“We’re not banned from having two different systems,” Freitas said. “But we need to consider the implications and consequences of that.”

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

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.