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NCLB Waiver Implications From Indiana Grade-Changing Controversy

By Michele McNeil — July 31, 2013 2 min read
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Regardless of what you think about Florida state chief Tony Bennett’s decision to change the grading scale for schools when he held the same post in Indiana, there are some important questions from a federal policy perspective:

• Since his grading scale was part of Indiana’s No Child Left Behind Act waiver plan, did he seek approval from the U.S. Department of Education to change how schools are graded?
• If he didn’t, should he have sought permission?
• And finally, is this something the federal Education Department should look into further?

The first question is an easy one to answer. According to federal officials, Indiana did not consult federal officials before making those grading changes in 2012.

Answering the second question is far more complicated, and raises a whole ‘nother set of issues. According to the department, “major changes” to a state’s grading system—if those changes involve anything in a state’s NCLB waiver plan—do require an amendment, and federal approval. Changes that are more technical in nature do not require approval.

So, were the changes Bennett made to his grading system major, or technical? Education Department spokesman Daren Briscoe said “it depends on what the actual changes were. If it involved changing the point values assigned to different levels of performance, yes—but it might have just been a technical amendment. Generally we want states to come to us when they’re considering/making changes so we can help them decide if it requires an amendment.”

But it seems very unclear exactly what was changed, so it may be impossible to tell at this point whether the changes were major or technical.

As my colleague Andrew Ujifusa described over at State EdWatch: As [the Associated Press story] points out, it’s not entirely clear how the charter school’s grade ultimately leaped from a C to an A, or how many schools were affected in the end by ex post facto changes initiated by the department.”

These grading systems are a central part of the Education Department’s NCLB law waiver plan, serving as a new, more-flexible way to hold schools and districts accountable—since AYP has been rendered virtually broken beyond repair. So whether the Education Department should look into this matter further could be up for debate. The charter school at the center of the Indiana controversy earned an A grade even though state data shows only 34 percent of students passed the Algebra I end-of-course test. (Is this the kind of grading system U.S. Secretary of Education Secretary Arne Duncan wants to see?) What’s more, those poor Algebra test results don’t appear to show up on the school’s official accountability report card, even though the feds require all student-achievement data to be posted. (Is the federal department scrutinizing these new report cards?)

Certainly, states are experiencing growing pains as they seek to implement their waiver plans and new grading systems. More states than just Indiana are likely fine-tuning their formulas for judging schools. But an open question is just how aggressive federal officials will be in monitoring how these grading systems work.

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