Testing Testing

Flanner House charter school to close amid cheating allegations

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Flanner House charter school closed in September in the wake of a cheating scandal.

An Indianapolis charter school that stunned the state with sky-high test scores in 2013 will close next month after state and city investigators concluded that the gains had come from cheating.

Flanner House School staff erased and changed some students’ answers on the state reading and math exams, wrote essay responses for students to copy into their own handwriting, and allowed them to practice in advance on real test questions, according to investigators from Mayor Greg Ballard’s office and the Indiana Department of Education.

The school’s governing board met Wednesday night and decided to close the 176-student school no later than Sept. 11. Had the board not voted to close the school, the mayor’s office was prepared to seek action to shutter it.

“I strongly support the Flanner House Elementary Board of Directors’ decision to relinquish its charter,” said John Mutz, chairman of the Indianapolis Charter School Board, which oversees mayor-sponsored charter schools. “We cannot tolerate academic dishonesty in any of our schools and should work together to support the students and families during this transition.”

A big  jump in scores, then a fall back to earth

Last year, Flanner House School made one of the biggest test score gains in the state when its ISTEP English and math passing rate jumped 42 points to 95 percent.

That put Flanner House — whose students almost all come from families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch — in the top .01 percent statewide for the year. It outscored all but two schools in Carmel, for example, the state’s top-performing district where just 7.6 percent of students are considered poor.

Before 2013, Flanner House had never seen more than 65 percent of students pass the state exam. School leaders said at the time there had been no major changes in the student population, teaching staff, or school leadership.

Principal Latika Warthaw last year credited curriculum changes and better use of data for the big jump in scores.

“This year is when everything from the last two to three years of hard work finally shifted and came through in full force,” she told the Indianapolis Star when scores were released in 2013.

But this year’s scores, released earlier this month, showed that the school’s passing rate fell precipitously — down nearly 39 points to 56.5 percent passing.

Flanner House was back to the sort of passing rate that was more in line with its prior performance and ranked in the bottom 11 percent of schools in Indiana.

The investigations allege there was cheating both years, and the state plans to invalidate all student scores for 2013 and 2014. Flanner House will lose its “A” grade from the state for last year and its four-star school award, given for high passing rates.

Practice questions were on ISTEP

Investigation of the school’s improbable test score gain started in 2013, according to records of the mayor’s investigation. Ballard’s charter schools office raised concerns with state education officials, who asked the mayor to investigate. A report of that investigation states that the school did not have good procedures in place for assuring test security but does not document specific evidence of cheating.

Direct evidence of cheating came when ISTEP was administered again this March A member of the Flanner House staff alerted Ballard’s office of concerns that others at the school might have prepared students for ISTEP by letting them practice on actual test questions before taking the exam.

The allegation prompted a second investigation.

Students interviewed by investigators from Ballard’s office told them they knew some of the ISTEP questions from review sessions.

“For reading, some were new and some we had already done,” a third-grader said of ISTEP, according to the investigators’ report. “I remember reading the story about ants before. The questions were the same.”

A teacher who was interviewed described finding evidence students had prepped on an actual ISTEP essay question, called a “writing prompt.”

“On Wednesday, one of my students opened her book and pulled out a piece of scrap paper,” the teacher told investigators. “She said, ‘Is this supposed to be here?’ I looked closer and it was a handwritten copy of the (ISTEP) writing prompt that had been left in the book.”

Teachers and administrators found to have cheated on ISTEP can lose their teaching licenses. State officials have not yet said whether they will try to revoke licenses for any Flanner House staff.

Answers erased, handwriting changed

Ballard sponsors Flanner House and more than 30 other charter schools. As a sponsor, he allows schools to open — and can order them closed if they fail to keep their promises of improved academic performance. Ballard’s charter school office evaluates schools annually on a series of managerial, financial, and academic measurements.

Along with the mayor’s investigations, state officials followed with a review of the school’s test results.

Testing companies have developed techniques for identifying unusual patterns of answers that are erased and changed which can be used to identify possible cases of cheating. Those techniques have been used to identify widespread cheating in other cities, including Atlanta and Philadelphia.

The state conducted such a review while looking at Flanner House’s outsized 2013 gains. Investigators found that many wrong answers were erased and changed to right answers — more than would be expected if children checked their own work. That finding, plus the precision of pencil marks on the answer sheets and some of the handwriting on longer answers, suggested to investigators that adults made the changes.

“Nearly half the Flanner House teacher groups were flagged in an erasure analysis study as having students with unusually high number of changes from wrong answers to right answers on the multiple-choice portions of the spring 2013 ISTEP assessment,” state officials wrote to Ballard’s charter school director Brandon Brown in a memo on Monday.

Test scores not Flanner House’s only problem

The school opened in 2002, one of the first 10 Indiana charter schools to open that year. A separate Flanner House charter high school closed in 2005 for financial reasons.

The school has been under scrutiny from Ballard’s office since 2012, when it was placed on a performance improvement plan for managerial, financial, and academic reasons.

Ballard’s staff met with Flanner House school officials more than 50 times since the plan began and attended 10 of the school’s 14 board meetings over the two years. At only about half of those meetings were enough board members present to make official decisions for the school.

The school has also been losing students. It dropped to 176 enrolled this year, down from 230 in 2010. Because state funding is paid per student, that has had a financial impact on the school, which last week had to use a line of credit to make payroll.

Flanner House School shares a name with a community center that has served primarily Indianapolis’ black community since 1898 but is separately managed with its own board. The only relationship between the community center and the school is that of a landlord and tenant: The school pays rent and is house in a Flanner House building.

“It is important to note that despite their co-location, Flanner House Elementary School and Flanner House Inc. are separate and distinct organizations,” United Way CEO Ann Murtlow said in a statement. “Flanner House Inc. remains an important United Way of Central Indiana agency, and we stand in full support of their work.”

The school’s decision to close means its students will have to enroll at other charter schools or schools operated by the city. Parent meetings are expected before the end of the week.

First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.

a failure of accountability

High-stakes testing may push struggling teachers to younger grades, hurting students

PHOTO: Justin Weiner

Kindergarten, first grade, and second grade are often free of the high-stakes testing common in later grades — but those years are still high-stakes for students’ learning and development.

That means it’s a big problem when schools encourage their least effective teachers to work with their youngest students. And a new study says that the pressure of school accountability systems may be encouraging exactly that.

“Evidence on the importance of early-grades learning for later life outcomes suggests that a system that pushes schools to concentrate ineffective teachers in the earliest grades could have serious unintended consequences,” write study authors Jason Grissom of Vanderbilt and Demetra Kalogrides and Susanna Loeb of Stanford.

The research comes at an opportune time. All 50 states are in the middle of crafting new systems designed to hold schools accountable for student learning. And this is just the latest study to point out just how much those systems matter — for good and for ill.

The study, published earlier this month in the peer-reviewed American Educational Research Journal, focuses on Miami-Dade County schools, the fourth-largest district in the country, from 2003 to 2014. Florida had strict accountability rules during that period, including performance-based letter grades for schools. (Those policies have been promoted as a national model by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and his national education reform outfit, where Education Secretary Betsy DeVos previously served on the board.)

The trio of researchers hypothesized that because Florida focuses on the performance of students in certain grades and subjects — generally third through 10th grade math and English — less-effective teachers would get shunted to other assignments, like early elementary grades or social studies.

That’s exactly what they found.

In particular, elementary teachers effective at raising test scores tended to end up teaching grades 3-6, while lower-performing ones moved toward early grades.

While that may have helped schools look better, it didn’t help students. Indeed, the study finds that being assigned a teacher in early elementary school who switched from a higher grade led to reduced academic achievement, effects that persisted through at least third grade.

The impact was modest in size, akin to being assigned a novice teacher as opposed to a more experienced one.

The study is limited in that it focuses on just a single district, albeit a very large one — a point the authors acknowledge. Still, the results are consistent with past research in North Carolina and Florida as a whole, and district leaders elsewhere have acknowledged responding to test pressure in the same way.

“There was once upon a time that, when the test was only grades 3 through 12, we put the least effective teachers in K-2,” schools chief Sharon Griffin of Shelby County schools in Memphis said earlier this year. “We can’t do that anymore. We’re killing third grade and then we have students who get in third grade whose challenges are so great, they never ever catch up.”

While the Florida study can’t definitively link the migration of teachers to the state’s accountability system, evidence suggests that it was a contributing factor.

For one, the pattern is more pronounced in F-rated schools, which face the greatest pressure to raise test scores. The pattern is also stronger when principals have more control over staffing decisions — consistent with the idea that school leaders are moving teachers around with accountability systems in mind.

Previous research of policies like No Child Left Behind that threaten to sanction schools with low test scores have found both benefits and downsides. On the positive side, accountability can lead to higher achievement on low-stakes exams and improved instruction; studies of Florida’s system, in particular, have found a number of positive effects. On the negative side, high-stakes testing has caused cheating, teaching to the test, and suspensions of students unlikely to test well.

So how can districts avoid the unintended consequences for young students documented by the Miami-Dade study?

One idea is to emphasize student proficiency in third grade, a proxy for how well schools have taught kids in kindergarten, first and second grades.

Scholars generally say that focusing on progress from year to year is a better gauge of school effectiveness than student proficiency. But a heavily growth-based system could actually give schools an incentive to lower student achievement in early grades.

“These results do make an argument for weighting [proficiency] in those early tests to essentially guard against totally ignoring those early grades,” said Grissom, who also noted that states could make more efforts to directly measure performance of the youngest students.

But Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor at the University of Southern California, was more skeptical of this approach.

“It’s not as if states are going to add grades K-2 testing, so schools and districts will always have this incentive (or think they do),” he told Chalkbeat in an email. “I think measurement is always going to be an issue in those early grades.”