NEW ALBANY — State superintendent of public instruction Jennifer McCormick recently stopped in New Albany as part of a statewide tour to discuss upcoming policy changes in the field of education.
McCormick, who was elected to the position last November, has been going from city to city to speak about the Every Student Succeeds Act.
Signed into law by Barack Obama in December 2015 as the replacement for No Child Left Behind, ESSA outlines standards for accountability, testing and support systems for schools.
The Indiana Department of Education is currently working towards a final plan, which is set to be submitted to the U.S. Department of Education by Sept. 18.
Since the new legislation gives each state more freedom to develop its own implementation plan, McCormick and other state officials have been holding meetings with parents and educators to gather community input.
"We heard from the field that people were very confused about what ESSA was," McCormick said. "This is our attempt to re-engage the field and those outside of the field. We've had community members show up. We've had businesses. We've had the Urban League and other entities that are really involved now, which is the way it should work."
According to McCormick, the meetings have been conducted in a way meant to produce as much constructive feedback as possible.
"When people come in, we are really trying to target the areas that were needing the most feedback as far as assessment accountability," she said. "[Things like] how we handle our lowest performing schools. We're really trying to target that conversation versus a free for all. We've put some guardrails around it as far as we're looking for solutions, not just complaints. People have been very good about providing us some insights on how they feel like we could move as a state. It's been positive."
McCormick said she has been impressed with how the meetings have gone so far, adding that some themes have been consistent in cities throughout the state.
"A lot of the same type of messaging is coming out of it," she said. "They want transparency from the state. They want clarity from the state. They want to use as much flexibility that we can get as a state. Whether you're sitting in Merrillville or whether you're in Evansville, it's a lot of the same messages."
Along with the implementation of ESSA comes the elimination ISTEP, Indiana's current statewide assessment. McCormick said that the state has experienced issues with the process of administering the test since changes were made in 2015.
"I was a superintendent when some of that mess was happening," she said. "It was really hard on the field. The administration of it was hard. The vendor contract was really sloppy, so we were living through that. It wasn't a good situation. It was too long. We weren't getting results back. There wasn't much validity put on the questions. There were a lot of layers to the problems."
To replace ISTEP, both the Senate and House have approved House Bill 1003, which will implement a program called Indiana's Learning Evaluation Assessment Readiness Network, or ILEARN.
The two entities are currently working toward agreeing upon a final version of the bill.
Like ISTEP, ILEARN will require students in third grade through eighth grade to take the standardized test on an annual basis.
"ESSA requires there to be reading and math [annually], and that's it," McCormick said. "The way Indiana standards are written, we have language arts, so we encompass writing. We would really, in my opinion, be missing the boat if we would exclude writing. We're trying to capture language arts holistically."
Science will also be included in the test, though it is not a requirement for the annual version. A section covering social studies is also an option, but McCormick said it is not currently included in the plan.
McCormick said her preferences regarding high school testing are not reflected in HB 1003. In its current form, the bill calls for end of course assessments for English 10, biology I and algebra I.
"Last time I checked, no university ever asked my son, who is now in college, 'how'd you do an your ECA?'" she said. "They couldn't care less. No workplace is asking people 'how'd you do on your ECA?' We in the [kindergarten through 12th grade] world are living in how you're doing on your ECA, which has no relevance in my opinion to what's really needed for students."
McCormick said she believes a model that uses other forms of testing is a better option.
One model mentioned by McCormick would have underclassmen take the PSAT beginning in ninth grade and the SAT or ACT once they enter 11th grade. After the SAT, the GQE could potentially be administered.
"It gives us a national norm," McCormick said. "There's scholarship money tied to it. There are different opportunities tied to such a plan. Our key at the high school level is trying to implement exams that have something tied to them. Some type of opportunity other than we're taking them for the sake of just taking them."
McCormick also mentioned alternative models based on the individual circumstances of students.
"Our charge as a department is how can we prove we're college and career-ready outside of a simple test," she said. "I think that could be an ASVAB for students who are wanting to go into the military and that's their career path. They can pass it, and they can do well. It could be a passage of that college-readiness threshold for SAT. So if they're going to go on to college and they've hit that threshold, that's their path to a career. We could look at workplace certification. Knowing our workforce needs, we could layer on some of that type of credentialing. There's a lot of ways to get there."
The language of the bill currently calls for ILEARN to implemented after June 30, 2018, but McCormick said she hopes for a later implementation date to avoid any possible difficulties the transition might cause.
"If we try to make a change for 2018, we could do it," she said. "It would probably be sloppy, and it would be really hard on the field. Our goal is spring 2019 so that we can vet whatever it becomes. We can provide blueprints to the field so they know exactly how we're targeting instruction. We're hoping for a more successful contract, and hence a more successful administration of the test."