Future of Schools

Indiana dodges NCLB waiver bullet, for now

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Indiana today got a one-year reprieve from possible penalties from the U.S. Department of Education.

Those penalties, including the loss of control over more than $200 million in federal aid that goes to local schools, wouldn’t happen before June 30 of 2015.

“Its a good thing for students and schools,” said Claire Fiddian-Green, the co-director of Gov. Mike Pence’s Center for Education and Career Innovation.

State superintendent Glenda Ritz also hailed the decision, saying it signaled her department’s work met fedral standards and put Indiana clearly on a path toward a long-term renewal of the waiver.

“Today’s decision by the U.S. Department of Education validates the work that we done,” she said.

Losing the waiver, releasing it from some of the rules of the federal No Child Left Behind Law, would have meant a share of money that now funds programs, pays salaries and otherwise supports efforts to raise student test scores could be taken away to be used for other services, such as hiring outside tutors to work with low-scoring children. Schools would likely have had to cut back on some services.

No Child Left Behind, signed in 2002, required states to establish testing and accountability systems to raise all children to proficiency in math and English. But test score growth expectations in NCLB that many states complained were unrealistically tough led President Obama’s administration to permit “waivers” from some of those rules.

Indiana was approved to use its own A to F school grading system for accountability under the waiver and pledged to adopt the Common Core academic standards to meet a requirement to follow standards that would produce graduates who are “college- and career-ready.”

In May the federal education department raised concerns that Indiana was not staying true to the 2012 waiver agreement. State officials now have 10 more months to convince federal officials they are in line with the promises they made. If they can, they could get the waiver extended for more multiple years.

One issue the U.S. Department of Education wants more explanation about is how thoroughly Indiana’s teacher and principal evaluation system measures and rewards improved student test scores and whether it ensures all schools meet its standards.

Some advocates who pushed for tougher evaluation when a law overhauling teacher evaluation passed in 2011 were disappointed this year when nearly all teachers were rated effective, just as they generally were in the past. The first results of the new system in May showed 97 percent of teachers statewide were rated effective or highly effective. Critics said it was implausible that so few teachers were ineffective.

Two factors may have helped those numbers stay high. Ritz allowed school districts last year to measure teachers less on their students’ test results and more on observations and other factors, citing online testing problems in 2013. Also, there was an exception to the 2011 law that allowed some school districts to delay using the new evaluation system until their union contracts expired. About 40 of Indiana’s 290 districts are still operating under old contracts and following their prior systems.

The extension means the state was not raised to “high risk” status, as some feared it might be, suggesting federal officials have higher confidence that their concerns can be resolved here than they do in four states that have been placed on that highest level of alert.

One state, Washington, saw its waiver revoked earlier this year.

Indiana’s waiver concerns reignited an ongoing debate between state Superintendent Glenda Ritz and Republican elected leaders, especially Pence, over who controls, and should answer for, Indiana’s education policy decisions.

In May, Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education Deb Delisle sent a letter to Ritz giving her 60 days to explain how Indiana would resolve concerns by federal officials on three fronts: whether its new standards and new tests were in line with federal expectations, whether Ritz was adequately monitoring low-scoring schools and whether teacher evaluation was working properly.

It appears the first two questions are resolved, and while there are questions about teacher evaluation, no conditions were placed on the waiver.

The Indiana State Board of Education, an 11-member body chaired by Ritz but otherwise appointed by Republican governors, in July passed a resolution critical of the Indiana education department’s thoroughness and accuracy in crafting the waiver. Ritz has said she feels those complaints, along with a critique of the Indiana Department of Education’s waiver extension proposal submitted to federal officials by CECI, were unfounded and put Indiana’s chances of keeping the waiver in jeopardy.

The state board is expected to discuss next steps when it meets on Wednesday.

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.

turnaround

Aurora recommends interventions in one elementary school, while another gets more time

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Aurora school district officials on Tuesday will recommend turning over management of some operations at one of their elementary schools to an outside management company.

The school, Lyn Knoll Elementary, is located in northwest Aurora near 2nd Avenue and Peoria Street and serves a high number of students from low-income families, with 4 percent of students identified as homeless. The school was one of three Aurora schools that earned the lowest rating from the state in 2017.

That rating automatically flags the school under a district process for school interventions. The process directs district officials to consider a number of possible improvement plans, including closure or turning the school over to a charter school.

Lyn Knoll has had good rankings in recent years before slipping dramatically in the past year, a change that put it on the turnaround list. The district did not recommend intervening at Paris Elementary, even though that school has been in priority improvement for years and will face state sanctions if it has one more year without improvement.

Annual ratings for Lyn Knoll Elementary

  • 2010: Improvement
  • 2011: Improvement
  • 2012: Performance
  • 2013: Improvement
  • 2014: Priority Improvement
  • 2016: Performance
  • 2017: Turnaround
Colorado Department of Education

The board will discuss the recommendation on Tuesday and vote on the school’s fate next month. In November, four union-backed board members who have been critical of charter schools won a majority role on the district’s school board. This will be their first major decision since taking a seat on the board.

In September, Superintendent Rico Munn had told the school board that among January’s school improvement recommendations, the one for Paris would be “the most high-profile.” A month later the district put out a request for information, seeking ideas to improve Aurora schools.

But in a board presentation released Friday, district officials didn’t give much attention to Paris. Instead, they will let Paris continue its rollout of an innovation plan approved two years ago. Officials have said they are hopeful the school will show improvements.

The recommendation for Lyn Knoll represents more drastic change, and it’s the only one that would require a board vote.

The district recommendation calls for replacing the current principal, drafting a contract for an outside company to help staff with training and instruction, and creating a plan to help recruit more students to the school.

Documents show district officials considered closing Lyn Knoll because it already has low and decreasing enrollment with just 238 current students. Those same documents note that while officials are concerned about the school’s trends, it has not had a long history of low ratings to warrant a closure.

In considering a charter school conversion, documents state that there is already a saturation of charter schools in that part of the city, and the community is interested in “the existence of a neighborhood school.” Two charter networks, however, did indicate interest in managing the school, the documents state.
The district recommendation would also include stripping the school’s current status as a pilot school.

Lyn Knoll and other schools labeled pilot schools in Aurora get some internal district autonomy under a program created more than 10 years ago by district and union officials.

Because Lyn Knoll is a pilot school, a committee that oversees that program also reviewed the school and made its own recommendation, which is different from the district’s.

In their report, committee members explained that while they gave the school low marks, they want the school to maintain pilot status for another year as long as it follows guidance on how to improve.

Among the observations in the committee’s report: The school doesn’t have an intervention program in place for students who need extra help in math, families are not engaged, and there has not been enough training for teachers on the new state standards.

The report also highlights the school’s daily physical education for students and noted that the school’s strength was in the school’s governance model that allowed teachers to feel involved in decision making.

Read the full committee report below.