All Indiana schools will be at or above average by 2020. That’s the thrust of the state’s application to the U.S. Department of Education for waivers from complying with the federal No Child Left Behind law.
The waiver application says that, under Indiana’s A-to-F school accountability system, every school will be expected to either earn an A or improve by two full letter grades in eight years. In other words, every school in the state will get a C or better. On the way to that goal, schools are supposed improve by at least one letter grade by 2015.
It’s a high bar, maybe, but more realistic than the 2002 NCLB act’s requirement that all students be proficient on state tests by 2014.
The Department of Education invited states to apply for waivers while Congress appears stuck over reauthorizing NCLB, the latest incarnation of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Indiana is one of 11 states that met the Nov. 14 deadline for a first round of applications. (Indiana’s application can be downloaded from the department’s NCLB flexibility website).
The state says the single accountability system spelled out in the waiver request will eliminate the confusing mismatch between the federal law’s expectation that schools make “adequate yearly progress” each year and Indiana’s Public Law 221 program, in which schools get letter grades.
The request goes hand-in-hand with a couple of state rule changes now being considered by the State Board of Education. One sets new criteria for awarding letter grades to schools and districts. The other makes it easier for the state to intervene in under-performing schools.
Currently, the state can take over schools and hand them over to “turnaround school operators” if the schools get an F for six straight years. Under the proposed changes, the state can take over if a school gets an F for four straight years or an F or D for five straight years.
In place of AYP, adequate yearly progress, the new system makes use of AMOs, annual measurable objectives, that schools will need to achieve in order to make the expected grade improvements.
In place of No Child Left Behind’s attention to test scores for an array of subgroups – racial and ethnic groups, students with disabilities, English language learners, kids on free and reduced-price lunch – the new approach focuses on one “super subgroup,” the 25 percent of students in each school with the lowest scores on state tests. Schools in which the bottom quartile of students show “high growth” on test scores will get bonus points in the state’s new grading system.
And in keeping with U.S. Department of Education guidelines for the waivers, Indiana’s application sets out plans for high- and low-performing schools that receive federal Title I funding. Title I schools that do an exemplary job of improving students’ test scores will be designated “reward schools,” eligible for flexibility in meeting state requirements and other perks. Those that get low grades are “priority” and “focus” schools, facing state intervention and eventually the possibility of state takeover.
Indiana’s waiver application runs 89 pages, plus numerous attachments. As a writing exercise, it could probably use some tightening up. The rhetoric about Indiana’s “Putting Students First” education reforms, the paeans to freedom and competition, the repeated references to state Superintendent Tony Bennett’s high expectations – those don’t seem likely to carry much weight with the DOE’s peer reviewers.
As an accountability system, what Indiana is proposing may have some advantages over the No Child Left Behind system that schools have labored under for nearly a decade. It depends a lot on the perceived fairness, accuracy and transparency of the new A-to-F grading system. And on whether state interventions are seen as an honest effort to guide and support struggling schools, as assistant state superintendent Dale Chu tells the Indianapolis Star, or just another way to frustrate and punish them.