Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

Why Indiana's Replacement For 'No Child Left Behind' May Be A Tough Sell

Kyle Stokes / StateImpact Indiana

State Board of Education members discuss a plan to change the metrics used in determining Indiana's A-F school ratings. From left to right, board members Michael Pettibone and David Shane, state superintendent Tony Bennett, and board member Tony Walker.

The feds may have given Indiana a pass from a widely-criticized school accountability law less than a month ago, but its state-level replacement is so far proving no less controversial.

The Obama administration offered Indiana and ten other states waivers from the No Child Left Behind law on a key condition: state education officials had to find a better way to close the socio-economic achievement gap.

“The fact that the federal government really liked [Indiana’s proposal], I think, speaks volumes to the fact that we’re probably on to something here. People right, left, and center seem to have problems with the system, to which — in my contrarian nature — I say, ‘Maybe we should be trying this, then!'”
—Jonathan Plucker, IU Center for Evaluation and Education Policy

Indiana Department of Education officials believe they’ve done that. The State Board of Education approved a retooled A-F rating system for schools a mere 24 hours before federal officials announced they’d approved Indiana’s waiver.

But observers of diverse ideological stripes deeply doubt the new system is an improvement upon ‘No Child’ — including at least one of the Department’s traditional allies, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.

“I would contend the model we had is better than the model we have today,” says Derek Redelman, the Chamber’s vice president for education policy. “We’ve created a system now that’s worse than the one we had.”

What Changed & Why The State Says It’s Better

Indiana’s waiver threw No Child Left Behind’s controversial yearly progress goals, known as “AYP,” out the window. These goals were designed to ensure 100 percent of students could test as proficient in math and reading by 2014.

Instead of these goals, the waiver tied Indiana school ratings to the state’s recently-adopted “growth model.”

Under the new system, state education officials will still look at the rate at which students passed standardized tests when issuing a school a letter grade rating. But in addition, officials will look at how much each student’s test score changed from last year to this year — the more students who showed high increases in their scores, the better the school’s letter grade.

Dale Chu, assistant superintendent at the Indiana Department of Education, says the new growth model corrects flaws in the old system, which allowed schools with relatively low passage rates on statewide tests to still earn A’s and B’s. A growth model incentivizes schools to boost all students’ test scores, regardless of the students’ performance last year.

‘Parents Ought To Be Livid’

But the new system has also brought on a flurry of criticism from many educators and policy observers for the way it tracks student “growth.”

For example, under the new model, every student who scored a 467 on the prior year’s ISTEP exam will be grouped together. Then, this group’s scores on this year’s ISTEP exam will be compared on a bell curve. Based on these scores, the top third of these students will be labeled “high growth”; the bottom third, “low growth.” The state will then do the same thing for students who scored 468 last year, 469, and so forth.

“There has been almost nobody at the table… I don’t know of anyone who really likes it other than the state Department of Education.”
—Derek Redelman, vice president for education policy at the Indiana Chamber of Commerce

If schools have a lot of high growth students, it can help their state letter grade; but if schools have a lot of low growth students, it can hurt their state letter grade. It’s possible the system could be the difference between a B and an A, or a D and an F.

The Indiana Chamber’s Derek Redelman has long been a proponent of a growth model that tracks whether students have made “a year’s-worth of growth.” But, as Redelman points out, the new model doesn’t do this.

Redelman says the state’s new letter grading system pits student against student in a way that doesn’t help parents or schools know whether their students are learning:

“Parents oughta be livid about this, because if you’re a parent of a kid who’s behind, you don’t want your child compared to other kids who are behind. You want to know if your kid is catching up or not,” Redelman says. “And that’s the whole intent of having a growth model — ‘if you’re behind, are you catching up?’ Indiana’s new accountability rule will do nothing in that regard.”

Strange Bedfellows

Kyle Stokes / StateImpact Indiana

Roughly 70 people attended a public hearing on the state's "growth model" system in January. At the next State Board of Education meeting, the board voted 6-2 to adopt the new rules.

Opposition to the new rules has created some unlikely alliances, uniting strong critics of current state education policy with groups that have largely cheered the current administration, like the Indiana Chamber.

Lafayette Community Schools superintendent Ed Eiler joined Redelman in testifying against the new grading system at a public meeting in January. Eiler, who disagrees with the Chamber on issues such as charter schools and private school vouchers, was one of more than 30 speakers at the hearing. Most of the speakers opposed the new rules.

Like many educators, Eiler says the system has a key flaw: Under the new system, students can achieve very high scores on the ISTEP, but still be labeled “low growth,” potentially harming the school’s letter grade. He also says the new growth scores are not fair to use in evaluating teachers or schools because the testing itself is not designed for this purpose. Eiler tells StateImpact:

What we’ve done is substitute one unworkable set of laws, rules and regualtions, and deferred it to the decisions of the state — which has now an equally flawed set of rules and regulations. I think it’s rather curious that part of the rhetoric from Washington, DC, was that it would help reduce the importance of standardized tests, yet if you look at the state model in Indiana, if anything, the importance of standardized testing has been increased.

Eiler and Redelman both say the state has been dismissive of concerns they and others have raised.

“It’s almost like ‘Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,'” Eiler says.

Redelman say there are many who feel state education officials have shut down the conversation about the rules with outside interest groups. Redelman was part of the group that helped craft the original Public Law 221 school rating system a decade ago:

It was the same set of strange bedfellows that put into place PL 221 in the first place 12 years ago, and who worked on the rule and came to agreement 10 years ago. This is one of the other frustrations: It was not an easy agreement to come to, yet we had a broad spectrum of people at the table. This time, there has been almost nobody at the table. I think that’s been part of the problem. In the end, I’m not sure that we all would agree, but at this point, I don’t know of anyone who really likes it other than the state Department of Education.

‘Maybe We Should Try This’

Kyle Stokes / StateImpact Indiana

State superintendent Tony Bennett presides over an Indiana State Board of Education meeting on Wednesday, December 7.

State superintendent Tony Bennett says the concerns of critics that the system is unfair is overblown. He acknowledges the current system is complex and “not bulletproof,” but feels it does more than the original ‘No Child’ legislation to close the achievement gap.

“I don’t think anyone in Indiana believes that this administration does anything other than take accountability for achievement gaps and for the performance of our students very seriously. When we take a look at all the safeguards we have built into our waiver application and PL221 model… I think we’re going to be doing that better than every before,” Bennett says.

Jonathan Plucker, director of the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, says he agrees with Bennett. He says he’s seen the state’s data, and believes the fears about the growth model are overhyped.

“The fact that the federal government really liked [Indiana’s proposal], I think, speaks volumes to the fact that we’re probably on to something here,” Plucker says. “People right, left, and center seem to have problems with the system, to which — in my contrarian nature — I say, ‘Maybe we should be trying this, then!'”

Plucker says he’s surprised at how much criticism the growth model has taken, especially after the state received only “a little bit of input, but not a ton” during the rulemaking process.

“For the most part, I think that they’ve created something that should be given a shot,” Plucker says.


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