In the Classroom

Reversing trend, fewer students who failed state tests graduated in 2013

Change is on the horizon for John Marshall High School.

For the first time in at least four years, Indiana saw a decline in the percentage of high school graduates who were given a pass after failing state-required tests.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz said the fact that the graduation rate held mostly steady as the waiver rate declined was good news for students in the state.

“While the overall graduation rate is largely the same as it was in 2012, when you dig into the data it becomes clear that more of our students are graduating without a waiver and passing their end of course assessments,” Ritz said in a statement. “This is a crucial step in ensuring that our students graduate from high school both college and career ready.”

About 6.8 percent of graduating Indiana seniors received waivers, according to 2013 data released today by the Indiana Department of Education. That figure exceeded 9 percent in 2012, when lawmakers and critics of the practice first raised alarms.

Waivers allow students who have not passed one of Indiana’s two required graduation tests — end-of-course exams in 10th grade English and Algebra 1 — to receive a diploma if they meet other criteria. It’s generally up to schools to decide who receives a waiver.

Statewide, Indiana’s graduation rate was 88.6 percent, a slight tick down from 88.7 percent in 2012. (Find your school’s graduation rate here.)

In Marion County, Franklin Township had the highest graduation rate at 95 percent and the biggest gain over last year, up 3.5 percentage points. Five Marion County districts saw their graduation rates go down, with Washington Township, down 4.7 points to 81.5 percent, showing the biggest drop. Warren Township was also down considerably, falling 3.8 points to 83.4 percent.

Indianapolis Public Schools saw a boost of 2.5 points to 68.3 percent.

“As a district, we are excited to see overall gains in our graduation rate and have several secondary schools show individual growth,” Deputy Superintendent Wanda Legrand said. “IPS students and families need to be able to depend on us to achieve our district graduation rate goal of 90 percent or higher. This is also our expectation of schools.”

IPS came under intense scrutiny for its heavy use of waivers in 2012, after it was revealed that more that a quarter of its 2011 graduates used waivers. With about 13 percent of graduates using waivers last year, IPS has now cut its rate nearly in half from 2011. This year, the district was not even the biggest waiver user in Marion County. Perry (16 percent) and Wayne (15 percent) townships were more generous than IPS at handing out waivers.

“I’d like to see us cut that number in half again,” IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said. “There are some students who may not test well who might need this avenue. But it appeared in our data it was more of an expectation than a unique opportunity.”

IPS’ graduation rate has improved considerably since 2007, when just 46 percent of students graduated, but much of that increase was fueled by wider use of waivers. In 2012, an Indianapolis Star investigation found Indiana schools made widespread use of waivers to boost graduation rates, prompting a summer study of the issue by the Indiana legislature and changes to state law in 2013.

“We never expected schools would waiver anywhere near this much,” Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, said. “Our goal is to get that number as low as possible.”

The legislature last year made those who use waivers to graduate ineligible to receive any state financial aid for college. That rule goes into effect starting next school year.

“In the real world, the problem is the kid walks into the next step in life and does not have the skills to be successful,” Behning said. “We’re not trying to be punitive.”

IPS has been making a concerted effort to change its practice with waivers, Ferebee said, and the danger that students could be blocked from financial aid was one of its motivations.

“That’s a huge blow for a student who leaves us and wants to go to an Ivy Tech or another institution to further their education,” he said. “It doesn’t serve students well when they leave us with waivers in terms of opportunities for careers and college.”

About half of U.S. states require students to pass a state exam to graduate, including nearby Ohio. But Indiana’s waiver rate is much higher than Ohio’s and has been growing annually. With waiver rules that largely match Indiana’s, the Buckeye state has typically seen less than 1 percent of its graduates go that route.

Critics of the practice say it was not intended for such widespread use but rather was designed to help students in very rare and specific circumstances, such as for a student who had an unusually severe case of test anxiety but otherwise demonstrated a mastery of the skills required for a diploma.

Even with the decline in waiver use, many schools continue to rely heavily on them. Roughly a third of about 390 high schools that reported graduation rates in Indiana in 2013 used waivers to give a pass to at least 10 percent of their graduates who failed state tests.

In Marion County, IPS’s John Marshall High School led the way by awarding waivers to a third of its graduating class, while Key Learning Community High School (30 percent) and Shortridge High School (27 percent) were also ranked among the state’s top 20 schools for using waivers.

Also relying heavily on waivers were three former IPS high schools, plus one in Gary, that were taken over by the state in 2012 and handed off to be run independently by private companies or non-profit groups.

Indianapolis’ Arlington, (23 percent), Howe (22 percent) and Manual high schools (21 percent) along with Gary’s Roosevelt High School (28 percent) all ranked among the state’s top 30 biggest waiver users.

High percentages of graduates with waivers by those schools was one of the practices state officials cited as examples of their dysfunction in the past.

Read to be Ready

McQueen takes stock of Tennessee’s literacy campaign after first year

A year ago, Tennessee began a quest to address its lagging literacy rate.

It started with its youngest readers through an initiative called Read to be Ready. The goal was to change the state’s approach to reading instruction beyond alphabet recognition to “authentic” experiences in which students read to learn — and for fun.

On Thursday, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen took stock of the progress after one year, laying out next steps that will focus on classroom instruction and teacher support.

The initiative, she said, must outlive its funding, which includes $4.2 million that pays mostly for a literacy coaching network and an additional $30 million for reading camps to serve 30,000 students during the next three summers.

Year Two will be about “building the framework” that can be used for years to come to teach Tennessee’s youngest students to read.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
McQueen holds up a report detailing the second year of Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

“We know the gains that we want to make will not happen overnight,” she said during a celebration event in Nashville attended by about 120 stakeholders. “The reason I’m truly optimistic is the success we have started seeing in such a short period of time.”

Researchers found that schools participating in the state’s new literacy coaching network invested significantly more time in reading comprehension last year in grades K-2 — 67 percent, compared to 37 percent in 2015.

But Tennessee has a heavy lift ahead. Only a third of its fourth-graders are proficient in reading, according to the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress. The state wants to get 75 percent of its third-graders reading on grade level by 2025.

The new network of literacy coaches sprawls across two-thirds of the state’s districts and includes 200 teacher-coaches. Working with other teachers, they select texts designed to engage and challenge students to practice more on reading and writing, and less on filling out worksheets.

“That’s why we’re investing so much in you as teachers and educators, saying your knowledge matters,” McQueen said.

Michael Ramsey, an instructional coach in Grainger County, is already seeing changes at his elementary school.

“With the coaching network, teachers have the opportunity to reflect and take (instruction) to the next step,” he said.

But, “it takes time,” Ramsey said of training the teachers and working with students. He urged state and local leaders to “just stay consistent and give us time.”

How I Teach

When the class is off-task, this fourth-grade teacher knows it’s probably time for Justin Timberlake

PHOTO: Cynthia Rimmer
Cynthia Rimmer, a fourth grade teacher at Fraser Valley Elementary School in the East Grand School District, works with students.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

For Cynthia Rimmer, a fourth-grade teacher at Fraser Valley Elementary in Granby, building relationships with students is one of the best parts of the job. She eats lunch with them, reads to them, asks about their hobbies and attends their out-of-school events when possible.

Rimmer is one of 24 teachers selected for the 2016-17 Colorado Educator Voice Fellowship, an initiative of the national nonprofit America Achieves. The program, which also includes principals, aims to involve educators in policy conversations and decisions.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I became a teacher because I love helping kids: to learn, to reach their goals, to realize their dreams, to help them to develop into the people they are capable of becoming.

I had several teachers growing up that made a big impact on my life, but none was more influential than my third grade teacher, Ms. Deanna Masciantonio. She not only taught me about space and fractions, but more importantly, she taught me how to communicate and resolve conflict, and how treat friends. She made us feel special and valued. I still carry her lessons with me today.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is a warm and organized space where everyone can feel comfortable learning and working together. Student writing and artwork is displayed on the walls and there are a variety of seating options where students can go to work independently or collaboratively in partners or in groups.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
Sense of humor. Teaching children can be overwhelming at times. It is important to be able to take a step back, remember what is important, and enjoy the moments we have with these incredible young students.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
Last year, my teaching partner and I worked with our physical education teacher to create a project where students researched topics related to the Coordinated School Health Standards. While the students created their projects, I was able to address a variety of English Language Arts standards, as well as working on the students’ technology and presentation skills.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I have tried to create an environment where students are encouraged to take academic risks and mistakes are celebrated. When someone doesn’t grasp a concept, we work together to understand things in new and different ways, making sure to address the student’s variety of learning styles.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
When individual students are talking or off task, often times they simply need a quick pat on the shoulder or a friendly reminder to refocus. Some students may need a quick brain break or a few laps on the exercise bike to get back on track.

When the entire class is off task, I stop and reflect on what is happening. Often times the directions were unclear, or the students were being pushed too hard, and we all need to make time for a brain boost. But sometimes, we just need to stop and dance. Our favorite class dance break this year is Justin Timberlake’s, “Can’t Stop the Feeling.” After a few minutes of singing and dancing, the students are ready to tackle the most challenging math problems.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
Building relationships with students is one of the most important and one of my favorite parts of being a teacher. Talking to the students, having lunch together, telling them about myself, reading to them, getting to know about their interests and hobbies, and letting them see that I am a real person all help build healthy relationships. I also try to attend the students’ outside events whenever possible, which I’ve found goes a long way in creating a trusting and long-lasting relationship.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
In one memorable meeting, a parent requested that I move her son into a more challenging reading group. Although test scores and classroom observations didn’t dictate this switch, the parent shared some struggles that the family had recently dealt with that she felt were holding her son back from doing his best.

After I changed her child’s grouping on a trial basis, the student began to flourish. He developed more confidence and began to work harder, quickly becoming a role model and a positive leader. Parents love their children and want what’s best for them. When we take the time to partner with parents and understand where they are coming from, great things can happen.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I just finished Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullay Hunt. I enjoy reading the books my students are reading so that we can discuss our excitement for the stories together. I recently started My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman. I enjoyed his book A Man Called Ove and I hope this book will just as charming.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
About 20 years ago I was considering pursuing another career. A trusted friend and mentor advised me to re-enter the teaching profession. I can’t thank her enough for that wise counsel.