Positive review for Indiana’s ESSA plan

Indiana gets high marks for its plan for complying with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, according to an evaluation by Bellwether Education Partners and the Collaborative for Student Success. Not that the plan is perfect, but it measures up well against other state plans, the evaluation found.

That’s a credit to Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick and her staff at the Indiana Department of Education, who put the plan together under a tight deadline and against ground rules that keep changing thanks to the Indiana legislature and the State Board of Education.

“Indiana’s plan was a strong one in many respects, particularly its plan for improving low-performing schools and determining when they can exit improvement status and for valuing students’ academic growth as well as well as academic proficiency,” Anne Hyslop, one of the authors of the evaluation, said in an email interview. Unlike some states, she said, “Indiana didn’t have any significant red flags.”

Indiana published its plan in August for meeting the requirements of ESSA, the December 2015 law that replaced the No Child Left Behind Act. The law gives more flexibility to the states but requires regular testing of students in math and English and measures to hold schools accountable for performance.

The Bellwether/CSS evaluation held Indiana up as an example for two features: providing details about how it would help low-performing schools improve and offering a clear explanation of what schools would need to do to escape state oversight and special assistance.

“Indiana stood apart because its plan was much more detailed, clearly explaining what both school districts and the state would be expected to do and how the interventions will be tailored and increase in intensity over time,” said Hyslop, an independent education consultant and former senior policy adviser at the U.S. Department of Education.

The report also identifies weaknesses in Indiana’s plan. One is that much of the plan is up in the air as Indiana moves from its 30-year-old ISTEP assessment system to a new testing regime labeled ILEARN and makes other changes, including new graduation requirements approved by the education board.

Indiana isn’t unique in having to write a plan in a shifting policy environment, Hyslop said. Rhode Island and New Hampshire are also adopting new state tests, and other states are changing their school accountability metrics. It means they’ll have to update their plans as new systems take shape.

The other flaw is that Indiana doesn’t account for the test-score performance of subgroups of students – racial and ethnic groups, children from low-income families, special-needs students, English learners, etc. – in its A-to-F school grading system. Schools will be targeted for extra support from the state if any subgroup performs at a low level. But theoretically, at least, a school could get a high grade from the state despite doing a lousy job of teaching subgroups.

After No Child Left Behind, ESSA gives the states more control over setting education policy, and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has suggested she may take a hands-off approach. But states should at least be using the ESSA framework, where they can, to help schools improve.

Yet some of them, Hyslop said, submitted only bare-bones plans for how they would implement ESSA, and some plans don’t even comply with the law. And that was disappointing.

“After two years,” she said, “I would have expected states to have a much clearer theory of action and set of goals to support all schools – and all students – to receive an excellent education.”

You can read the complete Q&A with Hyslop here.

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