The basics of education in Indiana

The basics of teacher evaluation in Indiana, part 1: A political battle

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

(This story is one in a series exploring the basics of key issues in education in Indiana. For a list of the issues and links to the other stories in the series, go here. This is the first of two parts on teacher evaluation. For Part 2, go here.)

Indiana teachers for the first time, all had their teaching rated — including a measure of their ability to raise student standardized test scores — and their pay raises and job security were affected by the result in the spring of 2014.

The result? Not much changed. As with prior systems, teachers were nearly all rated effective across the state.

In 2011, Indiana joined a growing number of states — now more than 35 — to require more stringent reviews of teacher performance when the legislature passed a series of education reforms pushed by then-Gov. Mitch Daniels, Republican legislative leaders and the state superintendent at the time, Tony Bennett.

It was part of a package of reforms, which also included limits on union bargaining, an expansion of charter schools and the creation of a new statewide private school voucher program. Passing those bills into law was a tough political battle, which saw thousands of teachers and other union members protest at the statehouse. Disagreements over education and labor policies even led Indiana’s Democratic legislators to leave the state for Illinois for several weeks as a way to try to stop the bills from moving forward. But in the end, all of them were passed into law.

Unlike other states, Indiana’s teacher evaluation law did not require a specific percentage of a teacher’s rating to be based on student test scores. It left that up to local school districts, but encouraged them to make test scores a “significant” factor. The law also allows local flexibility when creating evaluation systems. It calls for a state model system but school districts can choose whether to follow it, pick other approved models or to craft their own evaluation designs.

That could change. In 2015, the Indiana State Board of Education was considering giving guidance to schools for what percentage of a teacher’s rating should be based on test scores.

Since the beginning, Indiana’s effort to change evaluation has been at the center of intense political debate, with Democrats often at odds with with Republicans over policy, and teachers’ unions sometimes in disagreement with school district administrators over how the systems should work.

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Mitch Daniels (Photo by the Republican Conference)

But in some cases, there have been cooperative efforts to build the new systems.

The law’s requirements

Under Indiana’s law, teacher effectiveness is rated on a 1 to 4 scale. Factors that go into teachers’ ratings include observations of their teaching by administrators or other trained evaluators; state test scores and other factors that vary by school or depend on the subject taught.

Sanctions for teachers rated in the lowest categories are serious. An ineffective rating, a 1 on the scale, can be cause to fire a teacher immediately. Those who are rated in the next lowest category, a “2” or in need of improvement, can be dismissed if they fail to rise to a 3 or 4 after two years.

Merit pay

Under the law, teacher pay depends on their annual evaluation Districts can choose not to give raises to teachers whose ratings are less than 3. They may choose to give extra pay to those rated highly effective. Go here for an explanation of how evaluation connects to teacher pay.

The transition year

Despite the heated rhetoric during the political debate, there was much agreement in Indiana that evaluation should change.

Bennett argued that a study conducted by his department of a sample of Indiana school districts showed 99 percent were rated effective, which he termed a “statistical impossibility.”

Democrats and teachers union leaders, who opposed the bill, called for better evaluation, too, but wanted assurances the new systems would be fair to teachers.

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Tony Bennett (Photo by

After the law passed in 2011, the next school year was used to pilot evaluation models picked by Bennett’s education department.

The state-created model, known as RISE, was developed with assistance from The New Teacher Project. The state also offered districts the chance to use a nationally-known system called Teacher Advancement Program, or TAP. Three districts piloted evaluation systems had been locally created in Warren Township and Beech Grove schools in Indianapolis and Bremen Schools in northern Indiana’s Marshall County. The idea was to show different ways to approach evaluation. Districts around the state could use RISE or TAP, or they could copy the district-created models or even invent their own, so long as it fit the law’s requirements.

The flexibility led to a wide variety of approaches. Schools in Greensburg, about an hour south of Indianapolis, decreed that each teacher would be observed five times per year under RISE, three shorter visits by an administrator and two longer ones. But in Warren Township, which adapted a system it used for years to fit under the law’s requirements, full observations were to be twice a year for each teacher and short classroom visits could come as many as 20 additional times.

Implementation begins

After the pilot year, a lot changed in Indiana just before schools began to put their new systems into place, and the state began to take a somewhat different approach to evaluation.

It began with the upset election victory of Washington Township teacher Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, who defeated Bennett and became the new state superintendent at the start of 2013.

Ritz was not a fan of the RISE and sought to replace or revise it, which was a source of tension with the state board, which insisted on keeping the model.

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Glenda Ritz

Ritz, the former head of the teachers union in Washington Township, had been part of an Indiana State Teachers Association’s team that met with legislators in 2011 as they crafted the teacher evaluation law. She has said she strongly believes in good evaluation systems and praised the 2011 law’s intentions. Ritz said evaluation should be as much about training teachers to improve as about punishing those who are fall short by blocking pay raises, although she said she favored removing the lowest rated teachers from the classroom.

New system, same results

In April 2013, Indiana released the first evaluation scores for teachers under the new system, which showed very little had changed. Nearly all teachers were rated effective.

Statewide just 219 educators were rated “ineffective,” representing less than 0.5 percent of the 50,000 educators who received ratings. In fact, nearly all rated educators — 97 percent — were classified in the top two categories as effective or highly effective. About 10 percent of educators were not rated for reasons such as not completing the year due to maternity leave or retirement.

Indianapolis Public Schools, the state’s largest district, just five educators were rated ineffective. (Find each school’s data here.) The results placed renewed scrutiny on how prepared school principals were to administer it and prompted debate about whether the results made sense or under estimated the number of struggling teachers.

Similar results were posted in 2014, leading some critics to call for changes, arguing that such few low rated teachers did not match with the reality.

-Updated December 2015


After almost 10 years of changes to Indiana classrooms, ESSA’s headed your way. Here’s what you should know about the new federal law.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in IPS School 91's multi-age first-, second- and third-grade classroom work on math activities.

This year, Indiana education officials are focused on shifting education policy to comply with the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which Congress passed in late 2015.

But given Indiana’s history, ESSA is likely to be just the latest in a long line of education policy changes.

What started with a new schools chief focused on shaking things up in 2008 turned into major legislative changes that gave Indiana its oft-cited charter school and voucher programs in 2011.

Around the same time, Common Core standards burst on the scene, highlighting Indiana once again as an early adopter and — just a few years later — as one of the first states to jump ship. Battles over replacing ISTEP ramped up in late 2015, followed in rapid succession by an election resulting in a new governor and an upset in the race for state superintendent.

Throw ESSA into the mix, and it’s safe to say the last decade of Indiana education policy has been tumultuous. What does this new law mean for Indiana? We answer some of those questions below.

Where did ESSA come from?

U.S. lawmakers passed the newest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in late 2015 to replace the controversial No Child Left Behind Act.

The goal, in part, was to remedy a number of complaints around NCLB. State and federal officials have talked up how ESSA is supposed to give states more autonomy and remove NCLB’s rigid performance goals.

Advocates hope ESSA will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

What does ESSA mean for testing?

As it turns out, not that much — most of Indiana’s testing changes come down from the state, not the feds.

Indiana’s ISTEP test would have fulfilled most of the federal requirements, but the state trashed ISTEP earlier this spring in favor of a new test (still in the works) that will be given for the first time in 2019 — “ILEARN.”

For elementary and middle school students, ILEARN will be “computer-adaptive,” and adjust difficulty based on students’ answers. In high school, students would be expected to pass end-of-course assessments in Algebra, ninth-grade biology, 10th-grade English and 12th-grade U.S. Government.

The state’s plan also includes a chance to pursue giving state tests in other languages. So far, Spanish would be the focus.

How does this affect A-F grades?

Congress passing the Every Student Succeeds Act collided almost directly with Indiana’s overhauled A-F grade model, used for the first time in 2016.

Although the new model checks many boxes when it comes to new ESSA requirements, there’s still work that needs to be done.

Indiana’s new A-F model replaces one that centered primarily around ISTEP test scores. A-F grades still factor in test scores higher than other measures, but they no longer reflect just test passing rates. How students improve on tests from year to year is also included and weighted equally with passing rates.

Beginning this school year, A-F grades will include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

What about low-performing schools?

So the timeline doesn’t change — public schools can still only get four Fs in a row before the state steps in. But once they do, that’s where the process differs starting in 2018-19.

Going forward, two new categories will replace priority schools and focus schools. Two new ones will be introduced: “targeted support” and “comprehensive support.”

At schools receiving targeted support, certain groups of students — ethnic groups, English learners, low-income students or students with disabilities — would score in the bottom 5 percent of state test-takers for at least two years in a row.

Comprehensive support is similar to what are now priority schools — those that fall in the bottom 5 percent of passing state tests; any school that receives an F grade; or any high school where the four-year graduation rate is lower than 67 percent.

If a school gets a C grade or better for two years in a row, it is no longer categorized as needing comprehensive support. Schools in targeted support have five years to earn two consecutive C grades.

Doesn’t the graduation rate change, too?

Unfortunately, yes.

As early as fall of 2018, the general diploma could cease to count in the graduation rate the state is now required to report to the federal government.

The federal calculation will likely cause rates to drop and school A-F grades to take a hit because general diploma students students would no longer be considered graduates to the feds.

Students can still earn a general diploma — it just can’t factor into state accountability grades. ESSA requires states to count graduates that earn the diploma that a majority of students get or one that is more rigorous, but not one that is less.

What happens next?

There are still some major questions lingering over how the new A-F grade components will play out next year, particularly when it comes to dual credit classes and changes to graduation rate.

Those issues won’t get solved right away, if only because the Indiana State Board of Education must officially approve any A-F grade system changes, which won’t happen until after the ESSA draft plan is completed.

The plan must be submitted to federal education officials in September. First it gets a review from the governor, who can choose to endorse it or not — no formal approval is required.

Read more of Indiana’s ESSA coverage here.


The basics of...

The basics of Jennifer McCormick: Political newcomer struggles to set herself apart

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Jennifer McCormick speaks during a 2016 campaign event.

This is one of two stories summarizing the basics facts about Indiana’s two major party candidates for state superintendent. A more detailed story about Jennifer McCormick’s policy positions can be found here. To learn more about Glenda Ritz, go here. To see all of Chalkbeat’s “basics” stories, go here. To read all of Chalkbeat’s 2016 election coverage, go here.

Tune in to our live blog on Election Day for highlights from the field and updates on the races as results trickle in.

As the political newcomer to this year’s race for Indiana state superintendent, Republican Jennifer McCormick has had to spend a lot of time telling voters who she isn’t.

She isn’t Glenda Ritz, she’s said, emphasizing that as a former teacher and principal who has spent the last 12 years as a top administrator in the Yorktown school district, she has experience as a steady, organized manager that she says Ritz lacks.

And she says she isn’t Tony Bennett, the education reform-darling who lost in a huge upset to Ritz in 2012, either.

In fact, McCormick falls somewhere between the two: She’s a career public school educator and district leader with policies not entirely unlike Ritz’s. But she also has the backing of the Republican party and advocates who’ve pushed to expand charter schools and private school vouchers.

Although McCormick has been more supportive of charter schools and vouchers than Ritz has been, the Yorktown superintendent says she’s concerned about the way school choice efforts divert money from public schools and vehemently denies suggestions that she would want to see them expand.

On the campaign trail, McCormick has tried to steer the conversation away from controversial policy matters toward what she sees as her strong suit: Her years of leadership running schools and districts.

The New Castle native has spent her career in Yorktown, a traditional public school district in northeastern Indiana that enrolls about 2,500 students K-12. Her school district is wealthier, whiter and faces few of the challenges that confront urban and rural districts across the state.

Yorktown school board president Tom Simpson said McCormick has worked to provide more computers and tablets to students and has made a point of ensuring that teachers are trained to use and teach with the devices. She’s also worked over the years to help the district adapt to its growing population.

How she’ll govern

It’s still not clear what kind of relationship McCormick would have with lawmakers if elected. Although her policies don’t necessarily line up with those of Republican legislative leaders, the fact that she brings none of Ritz’s baggage after four years of clashes with Republican Gov. Mike Pence could ease tensions and lead to smoother working relationships.

But McCormick’s lack of policy experience and adamant statements that she won’t engage in “politics” could also mean she underestimates the work needed guide her vision through the sometimes-thorny Indiana legislature.

Plus, should both she and John Gregg, the Democrat running for governor, prevail, there’d once again be a political division between the state’s top education leader and top executive, who is responsible for appointing the majority of members to the state board of education.

On the issues

McCormick’s positions on many state education issues are similar to those of her opponent. She largely agrees with Ritz on the need for an A-F grade overhaul, more school funding, and adding support and pay for teachers.

Here’s a rundown of her positions:

Vouchers. McCormick said while she supports the power of parents to choose the best school for their children, she’s not interested in expanding programs that divert money from public schools.

Testing. While Ritz has called for a new kind of test that would be given to students in chunks throughout the year and provide feedback to teachers, McCormick said she would be in favor of adopting the SAT, or something like it, for high school students and keeping a simple, ISTEP-like test for elementary and middle school students.

Preschool. While Ritz has campaigned strongly for a “universal” preschool plan for all Indiana four year-olds, funded with what she anticipates would be $150 million per year from the state’s budget, plus federal and private grants, McCormick has called for a more conservative approach — at least at first. She says the state should prioritize students who are struggling or from low-income families rather than offer pre-K to kids with more resources.