Local educators and some state officials are worried about how new education guidelines may negatively affect their districts, as part of a federal law now in force.

They are especially worried about a new requirement that will lower the graduation rate for high schools by not including those students who graduate with a general diploma, instead of a Core 40 or an honors diploma. The graduation rate is one of the criteria used to grade schools and districts.

Indiana asked the federal government for a waiver Nov. 1 regarding those changes, and hopes to hear back by year's end.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, transfers partial control over education policy to the states from the federal government. ESSA was signed into law by President Barack Obama in December 2015 and replaces the No Child Left Behind Act, passed in 2001 and signed by President George W. Bush. 

Each state was required to draft individual accountability plans, with some flexibility in regulatory requirements. Indiana submitted its plan in September; the Illinois plan was submitted in April and approved in August.

Local attorney Tony Walker, who is a member of the Indiana State Board of Education, also is concerned about the new requirement that no longer will allow Indiana schools to count as part of their overall graduation rate students who receive a general diploma. He is chairman of the Walker Law Group P.C. with offices in Gary, Chicago, Atlanta and Indianapolis.

Indiana offers a general diploma, a Core 40 diploma and an honors diploma. The honors diploma includes academic honors, technical honors and an international baccalaureate.

A Core 40 diploma requires more credits for English, math, science and social studies classes. The general diploma also requires a college- and career-readiness pathway (six credits), which is not a requirement under the Core 40.

"If Indiana doesn't get the waiver, this change will significantly lower Indiana's graduation rate," Walker said. "Additionally, our accountability formula must change to show more detailed assessment of school and district performance.

"While a bitter pill to swallow, ESSA is absolutely necessary to assure that K-12 education in our country catches up to the top-performing primary and secondary schools globally." 

Hobart schools Superintendent Peggy Buffington, who also is co-chairwoman of READY NWI, said educators and state leaders are waiting to see what the federal government says about Indiana's plan.

READY NWI is an acronym for Regional Education and Employer Alliance for Developing Youth in Northwest Indiana. The organization is committed to ensuring that high school students graduate prepared — academically, socially and financially — to further their education without the need for remedial classes, and to obtain degrees and other certifications that directly meet the needs of Northwest Indiana employers.

If the general diploma is not counted in the graduation rate, that's critical, Buffington said.

"For example, if my high school graduation rate is 94 percent, and 12 percent of those students obtain only the general diploma, my rate will drop by 12 percent," she said.

"Not everyone is going to get a Core 40 diploma or an honors diploma. A committee at the Indiana Department of Education has been looking at graduation pathways. That's a good thing, and that will give students an opportunity to earn more than the general diploma, giving the student a pathway in something like work-based learning."

Other aspects of ESSA

State Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Merrillville, said he is impressed that an after-school job or internship could count toward graduation requirements for high school students, one requirement of ESSA he finds positive.

"I think this idea keeps up with the reality of our world today where many students are having to work long hours on top of going to school five days a week to help support their families," he said.

"Jobs have long been shown to teach students a variety of skills and responsibility to prepare them for life after graduation. ... It will also prevent us from leaving kids behind who may not have the time to complete their homework because of jobs that they have to work," Melton said.

Indiana Department of Education officials Adam Baker and Patrick McAlister, who worked closely on the plan, said in addition to the changes in how graduation rates are reported, the other two huge areas of accountability for school corporations is attendance and the English language-learners program.

Baker said certain aspects of ESSA are in place now. Other aspects, such as accountability and school improvement, will begin in the 2018-19 school year.

Supporting Excellent Educators and Supporting All Students sections of the state's plan are in place for this school year, Baker pointed out.

"Big portions of those are focused on funding," he said. Supporting Excellent Educators, for example, deals with Title II funding; Supporting All Students includes Title IV.

"Next school year we will have our federal score for accountability. That score will determine which schools we will need to support with the Title I School Improvement funds," Baker said. "Those two things will be the two big elements that will be implemented for the 2018-19 school year."

McAlister said school districts that grow their attendance — as in, reducing absenteeism — will be rewarded. He said that means each school district will be required to look at how students attended school the year before, and encourage them to attend more, as part of the federal school accountability structure designed to reduce absenteeism.

He said the federal government now also requires schools to come up with a way to asses English language-learners.

"It's important to note that this indicator only counts if the school has at least 20 English-language learners, and it will be measured through an assessment," McAlister said.

Indiana Superintendent Jennifer McCormick has been traveling the state for several months with the sole purpose of discussing Indiana's ESSA plan with school officials.

GlenEva Dunham, who is president of the Indiana American Federation of Teachers and the Gary Teachers Union, said no matter who holds schools accountable — the state or the federal government — educators have to make sure students are learning.

"ESSA is better than No Child Left Behind, because it gives states more local control," Dunham said.

Indiana State Teachers Association President Teresa Meredith is disappointed the state is sticking with an A-F grading system for schools and districts, since that doesn’t reflect the growth that’s sustained at many schools, but nonetheless now will be given lower grades for a variety of reasons.

"An urban school system may earn a low grade, but what’s missing from that grade is the hard work that’s been done over the previous years in terms of improvements," she said.

"Look at an urban district with a high poverty rate and it gets a B or a C, but you don’t see that that’s actually pretty awesome, because they’re making major strides with kids."

Local superintendents assess ESSA

Some local superintendents and school leaders met Oct. 23 at The Times in Munster to talk about ESSA, state-mandated testing and other issues school officials deal with daily.

The panel included Sharon Johnson-Shirley, Lake Ridge New Tech Schools superintendent; Janet Flores, Lake Ridge assistant superintendent; Kathy Martin, Lake Ridge Title 1 director; Steve Disney, River Forest School Corp. superintendent; Amanda Alaniz, Portage Township Schools superintendent; and Sean Egan, principal and superintendent of the Hammond Academy of Science and Technology charter school.

Flores said, "We are all very nervous about ESSA and what to expect. We're seeing pieces of it leak into activities, things like grant-writing, because it's requiring much more information than ever before because of the accountability."

Johnson-Shirley said the intent of the law is good, because ESSA is trying to provide fairness and equity to all students, but "the approach sometimes leaves us a little despondent."

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Disney said everyone agrees the changes in how the graduation rate is reported will have the greatest impact.

Egan said all the information and requirements have his head spinning.

"The tools have changed," Egan said.

"The targets have changed. How many times in the last few years has the ISTEP test changed?" he said. "The state is going to change the test again and at the same time, we've got this federal overhaul, which is making us all very nervous."

The current state-mandated test for students in grades three though eight is called ISTEP-Plus. The test is being revamped and will be called iLEARN, effective in 2019. High school students also take end-of-course assessments in English and math.

ISTEP, along with a school district grade, is part of the formula determining a school's letter grade in the A-F system.

Hobart's Buffington said educators are hoping the new iLearn exam will actually measure what it needs to measure.

"We want to be accountable, and we just want it to be a true, fair and equitable system. Many of our students are scoring higher on the PSAT than they are on the ISTEP-Plus exam, and that's a real concern," she said.

Alaniz said the ISTEP-Plus state average was low, and the difficulty of this year's ISTEP-Plus exam and the newness of the exam were difficult. "It ultimately hurt our kids," she said.

More ESSA concerns, pluses

Mark Sperling, interim dean of the School of Education at Indiana University Northwest in Gary, said as he reviewed Indiana's ESSA plan, what really caught his eye was the math and science title funds, also known as Title III.

"Under ESSA, those funds have disappeared and have been wrapped into Title IV, meaning they will be used for several different areas not specific to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects. STEM is a very important area, and it's concerning that the money will be spread out to several areas," Sperling said.

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Overall, Sperling said he believes Indiana's ESSA plan is ambitious, looking at the different possibilities that school districts and the state can employ to encourage students and teachers to achieve at the highest levels.

Indiana School Boards Association Executive Director Terry Spradlin said he likes that ESSA addresses chronic absenteeism.

"We know that attendance matters for all kids, whether it's excused or unexcused," he said.

"Students who are chronically absent underperform and are at risk of dropping out of school. Schools have to be attentive to and address students who are chronically absent, and address that. Tracking that data is good, and trying to intervene is important.

"DOE has included more ways to address English-language learners and identifying strategies and solutions for those issues. I commend the department for the number of hours they spent and meetings they conducted to get input," Spradlin said.

"I'm hopeful it will be a positive plan once approved by the U.S. Department of Education."

Illinois: ESSA plan approved, lauded by experts

Officials from the Illinois State Board of Education declined to comment on its plan and referred reporters to its website.

According to the website, the Illinois plan will support and empower its school systems, provide opportunities for educators by developing competitive grant programs, provide accountability measures through testing, and provide an accountability system for measuring school performance.

Just as Indiana students take the state-mandated ISTEP-Plus exam, to be redesigned as iLEARN, Illinois students in grades three through eight are required to take an achievement exam in reading/language arts and mathematics each year. The exam is the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC.

Like Indiana, students also take an achievement exam in reading/language arts and mathematics in high school.

Illinois proposed a targeted maximum timeline of five years for English learners to achieve English language proficiency on the annual ELP assessment, starting in first grade, which is the first mandatory grade for student attendance in Illinois.

While Indiana uses an A-F grade system, Illinois uses a tier system with Tier 1 being an exemplary school and Tier 4 the lowest-performing school.

Ben Boer, deputy director of Advance Illinois, a nonpartisan education policy advocacy organization, said the Illinois ESSA plan provides the mechanics for more fairly evaluating the quality of schools and the opportunity to develop new supports to lift student achievement.

“In contrast to No Child Left Behind, ESSA will take into account the academic growth of students rather than simply evaluating schools at a single moment in time. This is important because it gives a more comprehensive picture of how schools are doing,” Boer said.

What's next?

Brandon Wright, editorial director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C., said the institute evaluated every state plan focusing on the accountability requirements for grades three through eight.

He said seven states proposed the best accountability systems, and Illinois was among the top seven.

"Indiana's plan was good, but it ranked in the middle," Wright said. "For both Indiana and Illinois, we really liked the way they rate schools. ... We think this is the right approach, and it's clear and understandable to parents."

Wright said they encourage states to focus on maximizing the education of students, not just looking at the proficiency rate.

Wright said the institute believes it's imperative that state ratings be fair to high-poverty schools. He said under the No Child Left Behind-era accountability regimes of many states, nearly every school serving a high proportion of low-income students eventually was designated as failing.

"Although it’s no secret that too many high-poverty schools are ineffective, it’s absurd to signal that this is the case with nearly all of them," Wright said.

He said this happened because most of the NCLB-era measures of school performance — especially proficiency and graduation rates — are strongly correlated with prior achievement and student demographics. Such metrics reflect the students that a school serves — and what they have or haven’t learned before stepping foot in a given school — rather than the effectiveness of their instruction, Wright said.

"Thankfully, ESSA allows states to move on and to focus a school’s metrics more on what’s under the control of educators, such as, how much students learn while in their classrooms, as gauged by measures of growth for all students.

"States that embrace this approach should find that at least some of their high-poverty schools earn good to excellent ratings, because they deserve them. If that’s never the case, the rating system is still broken," Wright said.

"Illinois and Indiana do just this, having proposed accountability systems in which measures of growth for all students count for 50 percent and 42.5 percent of schools' annual ratings, respectively," he said. "This should at least partially encourage schools to heed the educational needs of every child."

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