Election-year conversion on school grading pause

Everyone at the Statehouse was singing Kumbaya this week over the idea that Indiana should pause A-to-F school accountability as a result of the more demanding ISTEP exams that students took last spring.

Gov. Mike Pence announced that he was in favor of holding schools harmless for any drop in their grades. House Speaker Brian Bosma and Senate President Pro Tem David Long issued a statement saying they were on board with the plan.

So did Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, who declared her “strong support” for Republican-sponsored legislation to suspend school grades for the year.

Their vehicle of choice is Senate Bill 200, authored by Sen. Dennis Kruse, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, and scheduled for a committee hearing Wednesday. The measure says the State Board of Education, which issues grades for schools, can’t give any school a lower grade for 2014-15 than it received for 2013-14. The school grades are scheduled to be announced this month.

Kruse’s approach sounds reasonable. ISTEP scores plummeted in 2015 as a result of a shift to new state standards and a tougher test, and school officials across the state insist the resulting grades aren’t fair.

But it will be terribly disappointing if the state board doesn’t report the scores that schools would have received if accountability weren’t paused. At the very least, the public should know how much difference the testing changes made – and for which schools. We can expect that much transparency.

Remember that Ritz first called for an accountability pause a year and a half ago, knowing the new test would produce lower scores and worse grades. But Pence and legislative leaders would have none of it.

Their attitude started to change this fall when it sank in that over a quarter of Indiana schools could receive Ds and Fs. It’s an election year, after all, and the prospect of hundreds of thousands of parents, teachers and community members outraged that their previously exemplary schools would now struggle to get a passing grade … Well, it’s bound to concentrate a politician’s mind wonderfully.

 

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Pence’s 180-degree turn

Today is the day when dramatically lower ISTEP+ test scores could become a reality. Maybe that helps explain Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s surprising about-face on whether to pause accountability for schools and teachers based on spring 2015 test results.

As Shaina Cavazos with Chalkbeat Indiana documents, Pence had refused to consider a pause for over a year, even though Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz suggested the idea several times. In February, the Pence-appointed State Board of Education wouldn’t even discuss the topic.

U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan invited states to request a break from test-based school grades and teacher ratings when they shifted to new standards with tougher assessments. Many states jumped at the idea, but Pence and Indiana Republican legislative leaders insisted it wasn’t on the table. Continue reading

Three reasons Ritz made the right call

Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz announced last week that she’s dropping her short-lived campaign for governor and throwing her support to John Gregg. That’s good news for Indiana Democrats: It means Ritz and Gregg can campaign together instead of spending the nine months until the May 2016 primary tearing each other down.

Abandoning the bid for the governor’s office and instead seeking re-election to her current position is also the right decision for Ritz to make. Here are three reasons:

Superintendent is an important office. Ritz has been the most vocal and consistent advocate in state government for public education, for students and for teachers. She’s been a voice of sanity when it comes to testing, school grading, and teacher licensing and accountability. She has put a welcome focus on reading and literacy, and her frequent visits to schools around the state – while they may serve a political purpose – put a spotlight on education and its importance to Indiana.

She can do better. True, she has been hamstrung by feuding with Gov. Mike Pence and the State Board of Education and by efforts by Republican legislators to reduce her authority. I’ve been reluctant to blame Ritz, but board members’ complaints about communication may have some substance, based on my interactions with Department of Education staff. Now, however, the board has several new members, and two of Ritz’s most vocal critics are no longer part of the mix. It’s a chance to start fresh and an opportunity show herself to be an effective leader who can work across the aisle, a necessity for a Democrat in Indiana.

She wasn’t going to win. Ritz’s campaign for governor got off to a rocky start with disclosures that it accepted contributions during the 2015 legislative session, a violation of state law. But the real problem was the lack of contributions before and after the session. Ritz raised $30,529 in the first half of this year; Gregg raised $1.76 million. Campaign money isn’t everything – Ritz proved that when she beat Tony Bennett in 2012 – but you need a well-financed campaign to beat Pence, who will be rolling in election cash.

Gregg still faces a contest for the Democratic nomination with state Sen. Karen Tallian, who is courting the party’s progressive wing. Gregg, a former speaker of the Indiana House, had a reputation as something of a conservative in 16 years as a legislator. But lately he has been going after Pence over religious discrimination and other social issues.

And it’s possible for a politician’s views to evolve. After all, according to an Indianapolis Monthly profile, Glenda Ritz often voted Republican until 2008.

Voucher program growing – and changing

Indiana’s school voucher population is getting whiter, more affluent – and a whole lot bigger. That’s the conclusion to draw from a report on the voucher program released this week by the Indiana Department of Education. A few highlights:

  • More than 29,000 students are getting vouchers, seven times as many as when the program started in 2011-12 and a 46 percent increase from a year ago.
  • 61 percent of voucher students are non-Hispanic white, up from 46 percent in the first year. That’s despite the fact that most voucher enrollment is in urban areas.
  • Only 31 percent of voucher students are African-American or Hispanic, down from 44 percent the first year.
  • Three in 10 are from higher-income families that receive less than the full voucher amount, double the percentage in the first year of the program.

Indiana taxpayers are paying more than $116 million this year for tuition at 314 private schools – nearly all of them religious schools, and almost all of those Christian schools.

And vouchers are going to families that are far from poor.

For a family that makes up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level, students get 90 percent of what it would cost for them to attend the local public school, typically over $5,000 a year. (The amount is currently capped at $4,800 for grades K-8).

Students from families earning up to 277 percent of the poverty level qualify for 50 percent of the cost of attending the local public school. And they don’t lose the vouchers if the family’s income rises, up to 370 percent of poverty. Continue reading

Indiana isn’t the only state facing more testing

What if Indiana hadn’t dumped Common Core and fled the PARCC consortium? Would we still be having this brouhaha over how long our students are sitting for standardized tests? Yeah, probably.

Many of us were taken aback when we learned last week that the time it takes to complete the ISTEP+ exam has more than doubled since last year. But longer tests seem to go hand-in-hand with the more rigorous “college and career ready” standards that Indiana and other states are adopting.

Anne Hyslop, who follows testing and accountability issues as a senior policy analyst with Bellwether Education Partners, believes tests are getting longer because they include performance tasks and writing sections that attempt to better reflect whether students are learning the standards.

“In other words, if you want a high-quality test, you need high-quality items, and those may take longer to complete than a multiple choice question,” she said.

Back when Indiana had adopted Common Core and its teachers were preparing to implement the standards, it was part of PARCC, a consortium of states developing Common Core-aligned tests. And the PARCC exams that will be given this spring aren’t much shorter than the new Indiana ISTEP+.

Testing-Time

When the word came out that ISTEP+ was more than doubling in length, some parents and teachers were outraged. A pediatrician told the State Board of Education last week that forcing young children to sit for such lengthy tests amounted to child abuse. Continue reading

More students in A and B schools? It’s already happening

Gov. Mike Pence wants to see 100,000 more Indiana students enrolled in schools that earn grades of A or B by 2020. But guess what. Given recent trends, public schools are likely to surpass that goal way ahead of schedule

With no help from the policies the governor is promoting.

There were a little over 600,000 students in A and B public schools in 2012, the first year for the current grading system. By this year the number had jumped to over 750,000. Schools have made more progress in two years than Pence thinks they should be making in the next six.

Unveiling his 2015 legislative agenda last week, the governor lamented the fact that 100,000 of Indiana’s K-12 students attend schools with grades of D or F. That’s about 10 percent of students in public schools.

“My philosophy of executive leadership is pretty simple,” he said. “It’s to set big goals and offer solutions on how to achieve them, but also to stay open to other ideas that emerge in the legislative process or in conversations with Hoosiers.”

Let’s hope he means the part about staying open to other ideas. Because the solutions he proposes — expanding charter schools and increasing spending for Indiana’s private-school voucher program – seem irrelevant at best and counterproductive at worst. Continue reading

Pence education plan: Olive branch or club?

Gov. Mike Pence has got this feint-one-way-and-move-another business down to a science. Witness the education agenda that he unveiled yesterday, heading into the 2015 legislative session.

The blockbuster news – the headline generator – was the announcement that Pence is disbanding the Center for Education and Career Innovation, the super-agency that he created 18 months ago. The Republican governor spun this as an olive branch to Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz. Ritz heads the Indiana Department of Education, which CECI and the State Board of Education have been doing their best to elbow into irrelevance.

“It is time to take the politics out of education in Indiana, or at least out of the State Board of Education, and get back to the business of investing in our schools in ways that prepare our kids for the future that awaits them,” Pence said.

Never mind that the governor dialed up the politics by creating CECI and naming board members who seem determined to undermine Ritz. He wants credit for making peace. Continue reading