Panel to take on virtual charter schools

The State Board of Education’s committee on virtual charter schools will have its first meeting today. It has a formidable task – figuring out how to bring effective oversight to the online schools that have become the fastest-growing education sector in Indiana.

“I think there’s just a real concern about accountability,” said Gordon Hendry, the state board member who will chair the committee. “Virtual charter schools should be accountable for their performance. We spend tens of millions of dollars on them, so we want to make sure the state of Indiana, as well as the parents and students, are getting the very best education possible.”

So far, they don’t seem to be. All four virtual schools that were in operation in 2016-17 received F’s in the state’s school grading system. Test scores and graduation rates were uniformly low, even though virtual schools generally serve less disadvantaged populations than public schools. Critics have referred to the sector as the Wild West for its anything-goes ethos. Continue reading

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‘A Nation at Risk’ redefined purpose of education

A common take on “A Nation at Risk,” the government report on education issued 35 years ago, is that it had its flaws but at least it provided much-needed attention to America’s schools. But it sure didn’t look that way from the trenches, said Ray Golarz, a long-time Indiana school administrator.

“The end result of ‘A Nation at Risk’ was that teachers, administrators and schools were seen as the enemy,” he said. “Now tell me that was a good result. I don’t think so.”

The 1983 report, by a commission created by Secretary of Education Terrel Bell, claimed the United States was falling behind foreign economic competitors for the first time since World War II and laid the blame on the nation’s substandard educational system.

“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today,” read one of its best-known lines, “we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.”

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Comment period wrapping up on A-to-F rule

There’s nothing more snooze-inducing than the adoption of state administrative rules. It features technical language, choreographed hearings, public comment periods, legalistic processes – and a sneaking suspicion that the people making the rules have already decided what will happen.

But rules can be important: case in point, the new school accountability rule that the Indiana State Board of Education is in the process of approving. It will set criteria for awarding A-to-F school grades and ultimately have a big influence on the reputations of schools and communities.

So it’s good that some of the people who will be most affected by the rule – teachers, school administrators and school board representatives – have been making clear what they think is wrong with the proposal the board is considering:

  • They say a plan to put less emphasis on test-score growth and more on test-score performance will handicap high-poverty schools and provide an inaccurate picture of school effectiveness. The board’s proposal would cap math and language-arts growth points for elementary and middle schools and eliminate growth as a factor in high-school grades.
  • They worry that adding accountability for science and social studies could lead to more emphasis on testing and test prep if it isn’t handled properly.
  • They question details of the state’s move to a national college-admission exam, like the SAT or ACT, to measure of high-school performance. One official pointed out that students who aren’t college-bound may not take the test seriously, but schools will be judged on their scores.
  • They ask how the accountability rule, including the requirement of SAT or ACT exams, will mesh with new high-school graduation pathways requirements that the board has adopted.

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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.

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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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Selective outrage about testing

Indiana schools have finally received their preliminary 2015 ISTEP test results, and school officials aren’t happy. Superintendents, especially, are pushing back hard.

In media stories and statements to the public, they have called aspects of this year’s tests “not fair,” “a complete fiasco” and “almost unfathomable.” The setting of grades, they said, was arbitrary and invalid.

On the one hand, good for them. On the other, where were they when test scores and a similarly arbitrary process were being used to label other people’s schools as failing?

Were they pushing back against a state accountability system that was stacked against high-poverty schools? Or were administrators and school board members content with a system that delivered high grades and let them boast of running an A school corporation.

Yes, this year’s ISTEP exams were more difficult and stressful than in the past, with a new set of state standards and new tests to measure what students were learning. But the real issue seems to be the passing scores that the State Board of Education approved last month.

Under the new cut scores, the number of students who pass the tests is expected to drop by 20-25 percentage points. Lower tests scores will result in lower school grades. Continue reading

Glenda Ritz on NCLB waiver, accountability and literacy

Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz spoke recently to the Monroe County Democratic Women’s Caucus. (Men were allowed). Some highlights:

NCLB waiver

Ritz said the U.S. Department insists Indiana must test students on new “college and career ready” standards in 2015 to keep its waiver from the No Child Left Behind law. The new standards were just adopted by the State Board of Education, so teachers will have only about seven months to teach them before students are tested next spring.

Glenda Ritz

Glenda Ritz (Indiana Department of Education photo).

The superintendent said staff at her Department of Education are talking with officials in Gov. Mike Pence’s office about offering more flexibility in test-based school and teacher evaluations until everyone can get up to speed on the new standards.

“I’m concerned about the accountability,” she said. “We want to figure out how to lessen the impact.”

Giving up the NCLB waiver isn’t a good option, she said. Without the waiver, most schools would fail to achieve the 100 percent proficiency for all students required by the law. That means they would lose control of spending decisions for 20 percent of the federal dollars they receive.

School accountability

Ritz said she’s pleased with the work of a state Accountability System Review Panel, which includes 13 educators among its 17 members and was charged with creating new criteria for Indiana’s A-to-F school grading system.

“I’m all about a fair, transparent, strong accountability system,” she said.

Ritz said she doesn’t like using letter grades to label schools, but the grades are now required by state law. She worries, however, that a diploma from a high school that gets an F from the state will be worth less to employers than a degree from an A school.

“Students in these schools are getting less credit, and that’s just not right to me,” she said. Continue reading