Future of Schools

A-to-F changes pass after more state board drama

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
State Superintendent Glenda Ritz and board members David Freitas and B.J. Watts at a 2015 meeting.

If schools don’t make sure all students are getting higher scores on state tests starting in 2016, they might find they can’t earn an “A” accountability grade — ever.

Following a painstaking, and at times acrimonious, debate about final revisions to Indiana’s A-to-F school grading rules, The Indiana State Board of Education voted on a change that will equally balance each school’s passing rate with student gains over the prior year to determine the grade.

That is expected to make it harder for schools to earn an A grade, but so will another change. Schools will be required to show any group of vulnerable children that score below the rest of the school — such as ethnic minorities, children in special education and English language learners — is catching up, or the highest grade they can earn is a B.

The changes passed 8-1, with board member and teacher Andrea Neal voting no.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz said she was pleased to see the new accountability system move forward.

“We are going to have a fair, transparent accountaiblity system,” Ritz said. “The great thing about the system is that it’s going to separate, totally, performance and growth.”

The decision didn’t come, however, without a lengthy, contentious debate about board procedures.

Board member Brad Oliver stopped Ritz’s presentation on the A-to-F rules to complain that the board had not had time to review late changes to some of the rule language made by the Indiana Department of Education this week. Since the public did not have the opportunity to comment on those changes, Oliver said he feared they could violate the intricate process for creating rules spelled out in state law.

“It does not feel transparent at this late hour,” Oliver said. “Whether they are right or wrong is irrelevant. The point is that there is a process for going before the board.”

But Ritz said the changes didn’t affect the overall policy — they mostly fixed typos and clarified language and terminology.

“My department needs clarification on the rules before we adopt the rules,” Ritz said. “I think you will see the are very simple word changes that give clarity to what we need to do.”

For more than an hour, Ritz and other board members debated back and forth about whether the revised rules should be given a vote or a prior version considered instead. Brian Murphy, an attorney for the state board, ultimately suggested a solution: once the rules finalized on April 29 were passed and signed by the governor, the state board could submit the education department’s latest proposed changes to the Legislative Services Agency. The agency, he said, can approve small changes as long as they don’t change the meaning of the rules.

This seemed to satisfy Ritz and most of the rest of the board, leading to the successful vote.

“I’m feeling pretty confident right now with the changes that I know that we wanted to see from the department,” Ritz said afterward. “I’m excited that we came to a conclusion about how we were going to do that.”

An A could be harder to get come 2016

A’s will be harder for schools to earn because of a new emphasis on vulnerable student groups by the U.S. Department of Education. Ritz said last year’s revised “waiver” agreement between Indiana and federal officials, which released the state from some sanctions of the No Child Left Behind Act, included a new requirement that could block some otherwise high-scoring schools from receiving A grades.

Federal officials wanted assurance that Indiana would require schools to show test score gains, even by a small margin over the prior year, for those students who have traditionally scored lower than the schoolwide average. If they can’t, the best score they can get is a B.

But Cynthia Roach, the state board’s testing and accountability director, said there is a lot of flexibility around what improvement means.

“So long as (schools) are showing any improvement in growth or performance in any category, we will consider that as moving toward closing the gaps,” she said.

The new model, which will be used for the first time after spring 2016 state tests, will also change to count test passing rates as half of a school’s grade and student test score improvement as the other half. Previously, the board considered weighting passing rates more — at 60 percent. The state’s current model doesn’t significantly factor in growth to determine a school’s grade.

Public comment drove that change, Roach said.

“The public comments that we received were sort of overwhelmingly pushing for more weight to be given to growth,” she said.

For high schools, a “college- and career-readiness” score and five-year graduation rate would account for 60 percent of the score. Another 20 percent of the A-to-F calculation would be based on test score gains over the prior year and 20 percent on the number of students who pass. Elementary and middle school measures will be based solely on ISTEP test scores.

Measuring student improvement

The new A-to-F rules were developed by a 17-member panel of state officials and educators appointed by State Superintendent Glenda Ritz and Gov. Mike Pence that began working in 2013.

The panel was originally charged with overhauling the A-to-F system — moving away from comparing students to their peers and toward looking at student test growth compared to a specific standard.

One option the state has considered for calculating student growth would be based on an “observed growth table” that would be revised each year based on that year’s test scores. The table uses percentiles to judge how much a student’s score has improved and awards growth “points” based on that improvement.

A draft version of how the table might work was shared with the board, although with the caution from staff that the final numbers on the table were likely to change:

So how would it work?

There are three possible outcomes — a student could do worse from one year to the next, the same or better. Each outcome brings with it a certain number of growth points.

During public forums, educators and community members were unhappy with how growth points were originally presented. The example said a student jumping from “do not pass” to a score in the highest percentile couldn’t earn the maximum number of growth points. A student making that much improvement should get the highest reward, they argued.

Similarly, there was concern with the example chart that a student who was “pass plus” one year but passed with a lower score than the year before could still earn growth points for a worse overall score.

State board testing director Cynthia Roach said the growth points were not at all final, and the chart as a whole could change extensively as the state works through concerns. Lotter said it would be finalized along with cut scores in the fall of 2016.

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.


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.