State board pushing late changes in ESSA plan

The Indiana Department of Education spent seven months holding community meetings, sitting down with teachers and school administrators and collecting public input for the state’s plan to implement the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

Now the State Board of Education is poised to upend that work and reconfigure a key section of the ESSA plan, one that describes how Indiana will calculate A-to-F grades used for school accountability.

The board could give preliminary approval to its version of the accountability rule Wednesday. Then it would conduct one public hearing and set a time for written comment, after which it could approve the rule effective for the 2018-19 school year.

The proposed changes, posted late last week, came as a surprise to Indiana Department of Education staff and the educators who had been working with the department. DOE spokesman Adam Baker said educators bought into the ESSA plan because they were involved in creating it.

“Now they’re just learning about these changes the same as we are,” he said.

The State Board of Education, with most of its members appointed by the governor, sets state education policy. The Indiana Department of Education, headed by the elected superintendent of public instruction, administers state education programs.

The board and department often clashed during the tenure of previous superintendent Glenda Ritz, a Democrat. Disagreements have continued under the current Republican superintendent Jennifer McCormick. Last month, the board pushed through new high-school graduation requirements despite opposition by teachers and parents and concerns raised by McCormick.

In the case of the accountability changes, even some board members were apparently kept in the dark. Board member Steve Yager told Chalkbeat Indiana that a “small group of four” drafted the proposal, and he wasn’t part of it.

Josh Gillespie, director of external affairs for the State Board of Education, said questions about the process and the rationale for the changes will be addressed at Wednesday’s meeting. He also pointed to a PowerPoint presentation on the agenda for additional information.

The proposed A-to-F changes are varied but, as Chalkbeat reported, a general thrust is to put more emphasis on test scores and high-school graduation rates and less weight on student growth or improvement – what students actually learn while in school.

For example, the board’s proposal would eliminate test-score improvement as a factor in high-school grades. And it would cap the points that elementary and middle schools could earn for student growth on test scores, which would appear to reduce the number of K-8 schools earning A’s by about half.

Board members may have good reasons for the changes they want to make, but it will be interesting to see how they address criticism related to process and transparency.

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