Politically boxed in at home, newly elected state schools chief Glenda Ritz is looking to Washington for some wiggle room to make changes to Indiana’s education rules.
Three days after her stunning victory over incumbent Republican Tony Bennett, Ritz had a brief phone conversation with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan about changing a contract, agreed to last February, that spells out how Indiana will comply with federal education laws.
The waiver contract pledged Indiana to use its new A-F school grading system as the yardstick for continuing improvement under the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. The waiver also got Indiana out from under that law’s requirement that 100 percent of Indiana students pass the state standardized ISTEP test by 2014—or else start to lose federal school funding.
Duncan directed his fellow Democrat Ritz to one of his assistant secretaries of education to discuss a rewrite of the waiver, Ritz said, but he did not indicate whether the feds were inclined to accept revisions.
“Rewriting that waiver is my most important mission,” Ritz told a roomful of educators on Nov. 14 at a conference hosted by the University of Indianapolis’ Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning.
“I’m not even sure that I can rewrite it,” she added later in an interview. “I hope to. I hope to have a different vision.”
Ritz wants to scrap the A-F labels placed on schools in favor of an accountability system that would de-emphasize pass-fail tests like the ISTEP and measure students’ year-to-year growth in different ways.
Altering the waiver won’t be enough by itself to change things in Indiana. That’s because the A-F grading system and other parts of the waiver contract have been formally adopted by the State Board of Education.
Once she takes office as superintendent of public instruction Jan. 14, Ritz will chair the board. But its other 10 members were appointed by Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican who pushed for the changes included in Indiana’s waiver. Not all of them are Republicans. The board, by law, can have no more than six members from the same party.
Gov.-elect Mike Pence will be able to appoint members to the education board for the next four years. But he, too, has endorsed the school reforms pushed through under Daniels and Bennett.
Ritz also could seek changes to Indiana’s school laws through the state Legislature. But while angry voters rejected Bennett in the Nov. 6 election, they also gave Republican lawmakers that passed his reforms even larger majorities.
So Ritz is left primarily with the power of persuasion, said Derek Redelman, an education lobbyist for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s only to the extent that she can convince a now Republican-dominated Legislature to go along with her, and a state board that is appointed by the governor,” he said.
Indiana received its waiver from the No Child Left Behind law after a three-month negotiation with Duncan’s agency, the U.S. Department of Education.
The major change it made was replacing the federal goal of having all students pass ISTEP in 2014 with a new goal of all schools receiving an A grade by 2020.
Ritz emphasized that she is strongly in favor of an accountability system—which is required by state and federal law—but said she does not like labeling entire schools and the people in them as failures.
“I’m hoping not to do the A to F at all,” she said. “We are really labeling people.”
Some of Ritz’s complaints about the waiver contract are likely to find sympathy among some Republicans on the State Board of Education and in the Legislature.
For example, she wants to end Indiana’s involvement in a consortium of states that is developing a new standardized test, which Bennett wanted to use in place of the current ISTEP test. The consortium, which includes 23 states, is called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC.
ISTEP is currently using a test developed by CTB/McGraw-Hill LLC.
“I’m opposed to doing PARCC assessments because they are more pass-fail,” Ritz said. She added, “I’m not for continuing the pass-fail thing. We need to have growth measures, true growth measures.”
Ritz also wants the grades assigned to schools to depend more heavily on student growth than under the current grading system.
Bennett’s team included growth measures in their A-F grading system, but did so by ranking students’ growth versus their peers. Also, growth scores made up a minority of a school’s overall grade.
Nearly all schools panned the system, as did lobbyists from both the left and the right. Redelman, for example, noted that students could post huge gains but receive little to no credit if all their peers also showed great growth.
Redelman said Indiana would not have to change its standardized tests to enact the kind of growth measures Ritz has in mind. But Ritz seems to be heading in that direction.
She spoke favorably about another test being developed by other states, called the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, because she thinks it does a better job measuring student growth. But Ritz did not say she is committed to using the Smarter Balanced test.
Bennett was trying to develop a replacement for ISTEP that was better aligned with a new set of education standards called the Common Core.
Those standards, adopted by 46 states including Indiana, have been criticized by some education professionals for being less rigorous in some cases than Indiana’s existing standards.
Also, some conservatives objected to them after Duncan and the Obama administration started linking funding to adoption of the standards. Some think Bennett’s loss to Ritz can be blamed partly on his loss of conservative voters over the Common Core issue.
So Ritz might find sympathy for altering Indiana’s commitment to the Common Core standards. Redelman said the chamber, which supported Common Core, does think the criticisms need to be addressed.
And some Republicans in the state Legislature have started speaking openly against the standards.
“I prefer local control,” said Sen. Dennis Kruse, the Republican chairman of the education committee in the Indiana Senate, of the Common Core standards.
Ritz said she wants to have a review of the Common Core standards. And she took pains to counter Bennett’s argument that, without Common Core, Indiana could not get a waiver from the No Child Left Behind law.
Ritz pointed out that states such as Virginia have received waivers from the U.S. Department of Education even without adopting Common Core.
She also noted that Indiana could keep the Common Core standards and add some of its own benchmarks, as long as the state’s standards are no more than 15 percent of the total.
“Common Core did not have dialogue in Indiana. We really didn’t get a chance to talk about it,” Ritz said. “And I want to talk about it.”
What is a longer shot for Ritz to change is the use of A-F labels themselves. The A-F grades were championed by Bennett because the previous system of labels—such as “academic probation” and “academic watch” and “academic progress”—was inscrutable.
Redelman said the chamber would adamantly oppose Ritz if she tries to scrap the A-F grades.
But Dave Dresslar, executive director of the Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning at the University of Indianapolis, said he thinks there’s some openness to reworking the systems, perhaps even including the labels.
“There is a general feeling that it needs to be adjusted to answer the various critics, and to provide a more understandable measure,” he said. “I’m convinced that there’s something in between that can satisfy everyone.”•