Diploma rule a setback for Indiana schools, students

Parents and educators have pushed back for years against attempts to eliminate Indiana’s general high-school diploma, arguing it’s an important option for students who would struggle to earn the more rigorous Core 40 or academic honors diplomas.

Now the federal government has dealt their efforts a blow. Under guidance from the U.S. Department of Education, Indiana will no longer be able to include students who earn the general diploma in calculating school graduation rates.

The change will have an impact on high-school grades, which are partially based on graduation rates. Over 8,600 students earned the general diploma in 2015. That’s 12 percent of high-school graduates.

And for students who struggle to earn the general diploma and likely wouldn’t complete a more rigorous course of study, the change seems to send a message that their efforts aren’t good enough. About 30 percent of students who earn a general diploma are special-needs students.

“The value of the general diploma will be diminished for students who have worked very hard to receive that,” said Sandi Cole, director of the Center on Education and Lifelong Learning at Indiana University and a former high-school special education teacher and department chair.

Indiana schools will still offer the general diploma, and students who earn it can count themselves as high-school graduates. But if the diploma doesn’t figure into accountability, will schools put as much effort into making sure all students earn at least that degree? Continue reading

Board members favor counting test scores more than growth

Indiana education officials took a step forward by deciding in 2015 to count growth as equal to proficiency when using test scores to calculate school A-to-F school grades. Now it sounds like members of the State Board of Education want to turn back the clock.

At least five of the 11 members said last week that they favor giving more weight to proficiency – the number of students who pass state-mandated tests – than to year-to-year growth.

“I think we reached some consensus on some core values. Proficiency is more important than growth,” board member David Freitas said, according a story in to the Indianapolis Star.

“Growth, to me, is much less important than proficiency,” added B.J. Watts, another board member. Members Tony Walker, Byron Ernest and Kathleen Mote agreed, according to the Star.

Freitas and Watts made the same argument but didn’t prevail when the board approved the current A-to-F formula. Mote and Ernest weren’t on the board in at the time. Walker missed the meeting.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick favors keeping the equal weight for growth and proficiency, said Adam Baker, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education. But she would probably agree to a formula that gave a little more weight to proficiency than to growth, he said.

Until 2014-15, Indiana relied heavily on test-score proficiency in determining grades; growth wasn’t a factor. The result was what you’d expect: Low-poverty schools reliably were rewarded with As. High-poverty schools struggled to avoid getting Fs. Schools with poor students were labeled as failing schools. Continue reading

Another look at Indiana voucher study

Much of initial reporting on a groundbreaking study of Indiana’s school voucher program, including mine, suggested that voucher students do OK academically if they stay in private schools for four years. But a closer look raises questions about that narrative.

The study’s headline finding is that voucher students, on average, fall significantly behind their public-school peers in math performance while faring about the same in English/language arts. Given what we know, that’s really the message policymakers and the public should take from the research.

The study, by Joe Waddington of the University of Kentucky and Mark Berends of the University of Notre Dame, was released Monday. Its findings were covered by National Public RadioChalkbeatEducation Week, the Indianapolis Star and the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette. A headline in the Washington Post was typical: “School voucher recipients lose ground at first, then catch up to peers, studies find.”

But the students who “catch up” are only a handful among voucher students included in the study. The study analyzed test scores for 3,913 students who received vouchers during the first four years of the Indiana program, from 2011-12 to 2014-15. But they had four years of test-score data for only about 5 percent of those students.

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Study: Indiana voucher students fall behind in math

Students who use Indiana’s voucher program to transfer from public to private schools aren’t seeing the test-score gains they may have expected. When it comes to academics, they could be better off staying in their local public schools, according to a long-awaited study released today.

The study, by Joe Waddington of the University of Kentucky and Mark Berends of the University of Notre Dame, finds that voucher students experience significant losses in mathematics achievement after they transfer to private schools. Receiving a voucher did not have a significant effect on English/language arts test performance.

The findings are based on a detailed and rigorous analysis of ISTEP-Plus scores for students who received private school vouchers in the first four years of Indiana’s program.

The study follows a spate of negative evaluations of voucher programs in Ohio, Louisiana and Washington, D.C. But Indiana’s program is especially helpful to study. It’s the nation’s largest and most generous voucher program, enrolling more than 34,000 students; and it is unusual in that private schools that participate must administer state standardized tests the same as public schools.

You can read a detailed report on the study on the National Public Radio website.

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The problem with ‘public charter school’

Can we please banish the term “public charter school” from the education-writing lexicon? The language implies a value judgment about charter schools. To use it is to take sides. Journalists shouldn’t do that.

The obvious problem is that “public charter school” is either redundant or false. If charter schools are public schools, you don’t need to call them public. If they aren’t, calling them that won’t make it so.

The question is open to debate. Advocates insist charter schools are public schools, but critics argue otherwise, sometimes casting them as part of a movement to privatize education. Yet news media, from The New York Times on down, refer to “public charter schools” as if the question were settled.

The argument used to be that charter schools were public because they were publicly funded. But with the rise of tuition voucher programs, that’s also true of many private schools. In Indiana, some private religious schools rely almost exclusively on public funding via vouchers.

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Private schools that got voucher waivers were losing state funding

Four schools jumped to the front of the line when the Indiana legislature offered to waive accountability requirements for low-performing private schools that benefit from state-funded tuition vouchers.

And no wonder. Those four religious schools had seen their voucher funding drop by over $1.2 million in two years after being sanctioned for persistently low marks on the state’s A-to-F school grading system.

The law that legislators approved this spring says private schools can have the sanctions waived if a majority of their students demonstrated “academic improvement” in the preceding year. It doesn’t spell out what academic improvement means, leaving it to the State Board of Education to decide.

The board voted 6-2 last week to approve one-year waivers for the schools that requested them: Central Christian Academy, Trinity Lutheran and Turning Point School in Indianapolis and Lutheran South Unity School in Fort Wayne. As a result, the schools can resume adding voucher-funded students this fall.

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New law trusts charter schools on teacher hiring

Indiana lawmakers intended to clear up confusion about charter-school teacher licensing when they approved House Enrolled Act 1382. They did that, but they also opened the door for charter schools to hire some teachers with no requirements whatsoever.

The new law says 90 percent of the teachers employed by a charter school must have or be in the process of obtaining any Indiana teaching license or permit. That includes a so-called charter school license, a lower bar than the standard license required to teach in a regular public school. It could also include a substitute teaching permit; you can get one if you’re at least 18 and have finished high school.

For up to 10 percent of teachers in a charter school, however, the legislation did away with any requirements at all. They don’t need a teaching license, a college degree or even a high school diploma.

Rep. Robert Behning, author of HEA 1382 and chair of the House Education Committee, said it’s appropriate to give charter schools more hiring flexibility in exchange for being held to higher expectations. He doesn’t think they will hire unqualified teachers.

“The 10 percent of teachers could be qualified professionals who might be considered experts in their field, and who are able to work in a classroom, but who do not currently have a license to teach,” he said in an email response to questions. “Ultimately, staffing decisions fall on the school administrators, who I believe will hire an educator they believe best fits the needs of their students.”

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