An ambivalent farewell to No Child Left Behind

Nearly everyone from the White House to conservative Republicans to teachers’ unions has been celebrating the new federal education law, called the Every Student Succeeds Act.

At long last No Child Left Behind is being left behind.

The simplified version is that ESSA reverses federal education policy by leaving it to the states to set standards, adopt curriculum and design systems for holding schools accountable and turning around low-performing schools. As if the states weren’t already doing most of that.

Yes, the U.S. Department of Education created leverage for certain accountability and teacher evaluation schemes when it began approving waivers because states could no longer comply with NCLB. But the real education action has always been in the Statehouse, not the Capitol.

No Child Left Behind, which took effect in 2002, required annual testing and determinations of whether schools were approaching the goal of 100 percent proficiency. But it wasn’t the testing that made the law unpopular; it was the conditions that states attached. High stakes led to tense debates over test prep, accountability and who was really looking out for children.

Here in Indiana, the big changes in education policy – vouchers, charter school expansion, A-to-F grades for schools, a third-grade retention test, mandatory teacher evaluations, limits on collective bargaining – were pushed through the legislature by then-Gov. Mitch Daniels, then-state Superintendent Tony Bennett and the advocacy group now called Hoosiers for Quality Education. Continue reading

Board faces weighty decision on rewarding test-score growth

Like it or not, the Indiana State Board of Education will be picking winners and losers in the A-to-F grades sweepstakes when it adopts a table early next year for awarding points for student test-score growth.

Under a new accountability system that the board adopted early this year, growth is supposed to count the same as performance – the percentage of students who pass the tests – in calculating school grades. And growth points will be awarded according to where students fall on a Growth to Proficiency Table.

The question for the board is what that table will look like. Will it award more growth points to students who passed the tests the previous year than to those who didn’t? Or will it award the same points to high-scoring and low-scoring students who show comparable growth on the current year’s tests?

According to discussion at last week’s state board meeting, staff from the board and the Indiana Department of Education will present up to four tables for members to consider in January. The board will give preliminary approval to the option it favors, touching off a 30-day public comment period.

Department of Education staff will then let local school officials know how their schools are likely to be affected. And when the comment period ends, the board will adopt the table of its choice at its next meeting, probably in March or April 2016.

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Scholarships a sweet deal at taxpayer expense

Indiana’s School Scholarship Tax Credit program is “almost too good to be true,” the head of the state’s Lutheran Scholarship Granting Organization tells the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette.

That may be true if you’re one of the rich people getting a 50 percent kickback from the state on your contributions to private K-12 schools. Two-thirds of the credits go to Hoosiers who make more than a half million dollars a year, the JG’s Niki Kelly reports.

And it’s also a good deal for private schools like those represented by the Lutheran group and the other four Scholarship Granting Organizations that dispense the tax credits. No one else gets such generous help from the state to help with their fundraising.

But it’s arguably not so good for the Indiana taxpayers who are paying more and more money every year to fund private schools, most of them religious. And it’s not a good deal for public schools that struggle as the state sends more money to private schools.

Betsy Wiley, president and CEO of the Institute for Quality of Education, another of the Scholarship Granting Organizations, suggests that paying for the program is a wash because the state isn’t paying to educating students who might otherwise be in public school.

But that’s bogus. It’s likely that most of the scholarships are going to students who would never have attended public schools. So their schooling is an added-on cost for the state.

More significantly, any student who receives a scholarship from a Scholarship Granting Organization for one year becomes eligible for taxpayer-funded vouchers for as long as his or her family remains income-eligible. And the student’s siblings get vouchers too.

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How will Indiana factor growth in school grades?

An easily overlooked report on Wednesday’s State Board of Education meeting agenda will point the way to significant changes in Indiana’s school accountability system. At issue is the awarding of points for student growth on standardized tests.

The board will get an update on the matter this week, but it won’t resolve the issue just yet. A decision will come in early 2016.

Indiana’s current system of awarding A-to-F grades to elementary and middle schools relies primarily on the percentage of students who pass the grade 3-8 ISTEP exams. Schools can get bonus points for student growth or be penalized for “negative growth,” but test scores are the main factor.

Under a new system scheduled to take effect in 2016, performance and growth are supposed to be weighted 50-50. And growth will be measured in a new way: on the basis of how many students show positive, static or negative growth according to a “growth to proficiency table.”

An issue the board must address is how to divvy up points for categories of growth.

Board spokesman Marc Lotter said it’s possible but not likely the board will discuss its preferences this week. He said the state’s independent testing experts will develop recommendations for how to weight test-score growth “based on the data and best practices.”

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