Indiana’s NCLB waiver mess may not be as bad as it looks

Indiana’s rejection of Common Core standards and its foot-dragging over creating a new testing system earned it a stern rebuke from the U.S. Department of Education. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s about to lose its waiver from requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act.

New American Foundation policy analyst Anne Hyslop, who tracks NCLB waiver developments, said Indiana may be able to meet the conditions for keeping and extending its waiver. It depends on whether the feds want to play hardball. And there are some indications they may not.

For Indiana, the biggest hurdle may be a requirement that it administer tests aligned with “college and career ready” standards by 2015. State law says Indiana must continue to use the ISTEP exam next year, and ISTEP isn’t considered a measure of college and career readiness.

“This could be a problem, but it’s really anyone’s guess how the department will work with the states and what the next steps will be,” Hyslop told me.

The Education Department awarded Indiana an NCLB waiver in 2012 based on the state’s adoption of Common Core and its participation in the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, a consortium developing tests aligned with the new standards. But state lawmakers turned against Common Core and this year repealed their adoption. Indiana withdrew from PARCC to create its own tests.

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Indiana’s revised NCLB waiver request gives more attention to subgroups

Indiana appears to have made significant changes in its application for a waiver from No Child Left Behind act requirements in order to get the U.S. Department of Education to approve the request.

In particular, it added a lot of language spelling out that, no, it won’t walk away from holding schools accountable for subgroups of students that weren’t supposed to be left behind: racial and ethnic minorities, economically disadvantaged students, special-needs students and English learners.

The state’s original waiver application, filed hurriedly in November, wasn’t at all clear about this. But the revised request, posted on the USDOE webpage, says schools will be expected to raise the performance of all subgroups to keep them on track to meeting state goals.

It’s not obvious how this will work. The traditional No Child Left Behind subgroups aren’t referenced in the new A-to-F school grading criteria approved last week by the State Board of Education. Instead the grading system relies on two “super subgroups,” the bottom 25 percent of students at each school and the top 75 percent. Schools get bonus points if either group shows “high growth” on test scores.

But the Indiana NCLB waiver document says schools will also be graded on the performance of each of the traditional subgroups. This is arguably a good thing – making it harder for schools to ignore achievement gaps if their overall scores are decent. But again, it remains to be seen how it will work.

Another question about the state’s NCLB waiver is: What happens to the sanctions that have been imposed on schools that receive federal Title I funding and failed repeatedly to make “adequate yearly progress” under the law? Continue reading

Does Indiana’s grading system for schools leave some groups behind?

Arguably the best thing about the federal No Child Left Behind act was the way it focused attention on achievement gaps. Under NCLB, schools have been responsible for the performance of students who are poor, have disabilities, are from racial and ethnic groups, or aren’t proficient in English. They can’t hide low test scores for those subgroups behind overall averages.

Now Indiana and 10 other states are seeking waivers from NCLB’s requirements, and there’s reason for concern about whether the same level of accountability will continue for groups of students that have sometimes been left behind.

Indiana wants to use its proposed new A-to-F school grading system as a single accountability system for schools. If its waiver request is approved by the feds, no longer will schools face the confusing situation of being awarded letter grades by the state and having to worry about making “adequate yearly progress” under NCLB.

Under Indiana’s plan, instead of having to meet performance standards for each of the subgroups identified in NCLB, schools would focus on a “super subgroup” – the lowest-performing 25 percent of students.

The U.S. Department of Education suggested in a preliminary response that that may not be good enough. A letter from an assistant secretary of education, posted by the Associated Press, identified several “significant concerns” Continue reading

Indiana’s NCLB waiver plan calls for letter-grade gains, quicker state intervention

All Indiana schools will be at or above average by 2020. That’s the thrust of the state’s application to the U.S. Department of Education for waivers from complying with the federal No Child Left Behind law.

The waiver application says that, under Indiana’s A-to-F school accountability system, every school will be expected to either earn an A or improve by two full letter grades in eight years. In other words, every school in the state will get a C or better. On the way to that goal, schools are supposed improve by at least one letter grade by 2015.

It’s a high bar, maybe, but more realistic than the 2002 NCLB act’s requirement that all students be proficient on state tests by 2014.

The Department of Education invited states to apply for waivers while Congress appears stuck over reauthorizing NCLB, the latest incarnation of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Indiana is one of 11 states that met the Nov. 14 deadline for a first round of applications. (Indiana’s application can be downloaded from the department’s NCLB flexibility website).

The state says the single accountability system spelled out in the waiver request will eliminate the confusing mismatch between the federal law’s expectation that schools make “adequate yearly progress” each year and Indiana’s Public Law 221 program, in which schools get letter grades.

The request goes hand-in-hand with a couple of state rule changes now being considered by the State Board of Education. One sets new criteria for awarding letter grades to schools and districts. The other makes it easier for the state to intervene in under-performing schools.

Currently, the state can take over schools and hand them over to “turnaround school operators” if the schools get an F for six straight years. Under the proposed changes, the state can take over if a school gets an F for four straight years or an F or D for five straight years.

In place of AYP, adequate yearly progress, the new system makes use of AMOs, annual measurable objectives, that schools will need to achieve in order to make the expected grade improvements.

In place of No Child Left Behind’s attention to test scores for an array of subgroups Continue reading

Rethinking whether it’s OK to leave children behind

Back in 1989, Bill Clinton, then the governor of a small Southern state, gave a speech at a meeting of journalists in which he defended the National Governors Association for approving education goals that included a pledge to make the U.S. No. 1 in math and science performance by 2000.

Maybe it was an unrealistically high bar to set, Clinton admitted. “But what are people saying? That we should shoot for being third or fourth?”

That bit of historical trivia comes to mind with current plans to rewrite the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

A Senate bill to reauthorize the law would essentially do away with the toughest accountability provisions in the last iteration of the law, the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act. It would drop the expectation that schools make “adequate yearly progress,” a measurement that takes into account whether low-income students, special-needs kids and racial minorities are passing standardized tests. It also eliminates the provision that all students should be “proficient” in math and English by 2014.

What are they saying? That we should leave some children behind?

The proposed ESEA rewrite, put forward by Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., drew generally positive reviews from the nation’s teachers unions, the Obama Administration and even some reform-minded education policy groups.

But a half-dozen civil-rights, education and progressive organizations chided the proposal for moving the government away from enforcing goals and targets for student achievement. “Yes, the states need and deserve more flexibility than NCLB afforded them,” the groups’ leaders wrote in a letter to Harkin and Enzi, “but our students need the federal government to establish an accountability framework that includes long-term statewide goals, interim goals, and an unambiguous demand for gap closing.”

It’s easy to focus on the bad things that NCLB did. It narrowed the curriculum, unfairly stigmatized schools and caused undue focus on the percentage of students who passed standardized tests, not whether all kids were making gains. And of course, the “100 percent proficient” requirement won’t be reached this side of Lake Wobegon.

But the law also changed the national conversation on education and brought long overdue attention to achievement gaps. It made it hard for schools to hide their disadvantaged students behind acceptable average scores. And it codified the expectation that, as Terry Spradlin of Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy said last week in a different context, there should be no “throw-away kids.”

Sure, Congress and the administration should fix what’s wrong with the law. But as Bill Clinton might say, let’s don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Why making adequate yearly progress can be a big deal

The Bloomington Herald-Times asked this question in a recent editorial: “With a vast majority of the state’s school corporations able to make AYP year after year — 94 percent made it this year — how is it that Monroe County’s public school systems aren’t?”

One part of the answer is that it’s a lot harder for large, diverse school corporations to make AYP (adequate yearly progress) under the No Child Left Behind Act than for small, homogenous school districts. Why? Because bigger and more diverse corporations have more opportunities to fail.

And compared to most Indiana school districts, the Monroe County Community School Corp. is big and diverse. It ranks No. 21 in enrollment among nearly 300 public school districts in the state.

Monroe County’s other public school district, Richland-Bean Blossom, did in fact make AYP year after year, for five years in a row, before missing it this year. The MCCSC made AYP this year after failing to do so for two previous years.

School corporations, in order to make AYP, must do two things: 1) meet required standards on state standardized tests for all students, or “overall AYP”; and 2) meet testing standards in at least one grade span – elementary, middle or high school – for each subgroup of students, such as special-needs students, minorities and those from low-income families.

But here’s the catch. Continue reading