Reckoning for virtual schools

Is Indiana finally getting serious about cracking down on abuses by virtual charter schools? It sure looks like it, but we’ll have a better idea after Wednesday’s meeting of the State Board of Education.

The board will decide whether to try to recover tens of millions of dollars that two of the schools – Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy – received for students who were enrolled but apparently didn’t take classes or earn credits.

State officials estimate the schools inflated their enrollment figures and were awarded more than twice the appropriate funding in the past three years. The estimate comes from the head of the State Board of Accounts, which is auditing the schools’ books after they fell years behind in filing financial reports.

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Lawmakers take first steps on virtual schools

Finally, the Indiana General Assembly is taking steps to regulate “virtual” or online charter schools. But it has a way to go to make the regulations as tough as they should be.

Gordon Hendry

Gordon Hendry

“Right now, I’m encouraged that the legislature is taking the issue seriously,” said Gordon Hendry, a member of the Indiana State Board of Education. “I think it’s still early – my hope is some additional items make it into final legislation, and I hope the governor encourages that.”

Hendry chaired a committee of the board that drafted recommendations for the legislature to adopt. Some of those recommendations are included in legislation; others aren’t, at least not yet.

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Dysfunction and politics became a distraction, superintendent says

Jennifer McCormick ran for Indiana superintendent of public instruction in 2016 vowing to keep politics out of the office. She did her best, but it was too tall an order.

A state education governance system that McCormick calls “dysfunctional” has made it hard for her to do her job. And in recent months, her fellow Republicans have reportedly been talking among themselves about making the job an appointed one in 2020, likely removing her from office.

Jennifer McCormick

Jennifer McCormick

Last week, trying to calm the waters before the next legislative session starts in January, McCormick announced that she will not seek re-election when her term ends in two years.

“When we got into the race, I did it for sake of kids, for helping with the field and to try and calm things down and ease that disruption,” she said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “I said, if it ever came to where that wasn’t the case, I would need to re-evaluate.”

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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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Why the rush on graduation pathways?

Indiana appears to be in the vanguard when it comes to adopting “graduation pathways” that students can follow to earn a high-school diploma. But two states, Colorado and Ohio, have gone farther down this path. What could we learn from their experience?

In Colorado, lawmakers approved legislation in 2007 calling for a redesign of graduation requirements. Ten years later, it’s starting to implement a system in which schools can choose from a menu of options for earning a diploma. The new system takes effect with this year’s ninth-graders.

Colorado developed its graduation guidelines through a process that included nearly 50 stakeholder meetings across the state, in-depth conversations with most school superintendents, working groups with 300-plus representatives and two years of statewide discussion.

Ohio, by contrast, moved quickly to a system in which students could graduate by earning points on high-school end-of-course assessments, getting a “remediation-free” score on the SAT or ACT exam or acquiring industry or workforce credentials. It was supposed to take effect with this year’s seniors.

But the state changed course when officials realized many students weren’t going to meet the requirements, said Ken Baker, executive director of the Ohio Secondary School Administrators Association. For the class of 2018 only, it added pathways that students could use to graduate.

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Good news on school grading

Conflict and problems get most of our attention in Indiana school policy, and God knows there is enough of both. But we should also pay attention when policy makers get something right. And that’s the case with changes being made in the school grading system.

The state is shifting to a system that’s supposed to count student growth on test scores as much as it counts performance, a fairer approach if you’re going to grade schools — which we are. Indiana is also moving to a new method of measuring growth, relying on where student scores fall on what’s called a Growth to Proficiency Table.

The proposed table that staff presented to the board last year gave schools more grading points for students who passed the ISTEP exam and showed growth than for students who didn’t pass but showed comparable growth, tilting the formula in favor of high performing schools. That table was just for illustration purposes, officials said.

But the two options that state board and department staff will present at this Wednesday’s board meeting both get rid of that flaw. They award at least as many points for students who don’t pass the test and show high growth as for students who pass and show high growth. That’s an appropriate approach and staff members Cynthia Roach of the State Board of Education and Maggie Paino of DOE deserve credit for  it.

The state board could give preliminary approval to one of the options Wednesday and final approval in April, putting the new grading system into place for 2016 grades. Using test results from 2105, the new approach would award As to about 23 percent of schools, Bs to 32 percent, Cs to 27 percent, Ds to 12 percent and FS to 6 percent.

Here is the presentation for this week’s board meeting: http://www.in.gov/sboe/files/8a_Growth_Table_Recommendations_PowerPoint.pdf

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