Chesterton Tribune

President offers states more freedom on school rules; Indiana plans to use it

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Franklin College

Statehouse Bureau

INDIANAPOLIS – Indiana will act quickly to seek a waiver of controversial federal school accountability rules under new freedoms announced Friday by President Barack Obama.

“We’ll be in the first wave of states that apply,” said Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett. “Everything we put into place enables us to progressively pursue a waiver based on high accountability and high standards.”

Obama said Friday that states need more freedom to experiment with ways to improve schools, teaching and student achievement and the federal No Child Left Behind Act - enacted in 2002 during President George W. Bush’s administration – limits such experimentation.

“I want to say the goals behind No Child Left Behind were admirable, and President Bush deserves credit for that,” Obama said. “But experience has taught us that in its implementation, No Child Left Behind had some serious flaws that are hurting our children instead of helping them.”

In Indiana, the federal law has led education officials to give schools grades that are lower than they would have otherwise achieved. Education officials have complained that misleads parents and communities about the progress of their schools.

Waivers of the federal law are necessary because Congress has failed to amend and reauthorize the NCLB act, leaving rules in place that were created nearly 10 years ago, said Terry Spradlin, director for education policy at the Indiana University Center for Evaluation and Education.

The NCLB systems for measure school success have become outdated, Spradlin said. Since the law’s passage, researchers have pushed a so-called growth model that states – including Indiana – are implementing today.

The growth model assesses how a school’s students have improved over an academic year as opposed to simply whether those students achieve passing scores on standardized tests.

Alex Damron, a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education, said that since the original passage of the NCLB law, states have found more advanced and accurate methods to measure the level of success in schools.

Spradlin agreed. NCLB was “somewhat controversial at its passage,” he said. “We have learned a lot over the past decade and educators and researchers are looking for the next generation of accountability methods.”

Waivers would allow states like Indiana to use their own accountability system for schools, which would include the growth model used by the Indiana Department of Education, Spradlin said.

Currently, schools in Indiana are assessed under systems that are separate but connected. NCLB requires that schools achieve what’s called “adequate yearly progress” on standardized tests.

If a school misses the mark in just one demographic category – such as special education students – it fails to meet adequate yearly progress. That in turn bars a school from receiving a letter grade better than a C under Indiana’s system, even if the school has improved significantly or has high overall achievement.

“A dual accountability system is very confusing,” said Spradlin.  “We need to take the best ideas from both and marry them into one single accountability system.”

Indiana officials are also interested in applying for a waiver of several teacher accountability portions of the No Child Left Behind Act, Damron said.

“We agree that the (highly qualified teacher) requirement is very important, but in years since passage, we have found new ways to tackle this issue,” said Damron.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement that the NCLB waivers are one step in the right direction but there are still flaws in the way the nation evaluates teachers.

“Waivers are an imperfect answer to the stalemate in Congress and, at best, can provide only a temporary salve,” said Weingarten.  “Some of what the administration proposes is promising, some is cause for concern, and there are missed opportunities that could have enhanced both teaching and learning.”

President Obama said in his speech that too often today, educators are forced to teach to a standardized test.  Statewide tests – such as ISTEP in Indiana – are becoming more of a focus in classrooms than making sure students actually learn the material.

“Subjects like history and science have been squeezed out,” Weingarten said.  “And in order to avoid having their schools labeled as failures, some states, perversely, have actually had to lower their standards in a race to the bottom.”

Obama emphasized Friday that the waivers are not an excuse for states to slack off and opt out of education accountability completely.  The goal of the waivers is to allow states to use their own systems to grade their schools that are more rigorous and aggressive than the federal government is capable of at the time.

“This does not mean that states will be able to lower their standards or escape accountability,” said Obama. “In fact, the way we’ve structured this, if states want more flexibility, they’re going to have to set higher standards, more honest standards, that prove they’re serious about meeting them.”

Education Secretary Arne Duncan indicated that states could get the opportunity to opt out of the unpopular provisions only if they meet the federal requirements.

These requirements include creating ambitious but achievable goals for schools to meet in order to show improvement as opposed to needing school to be 100 percent proficient by 2014.

Indiana education officials do not believe in a blanket waiver for all states, Damron said.

“States should demonstrate a clear commitment to improving their education evaluation process,” said Damron.  Indiana has “an interest in this process and would love to move forward.”



Posted 9/26/2011