Building Better Schools

Pence signs on to Ritz's approach to 'pause' A-F grades, ISTEP sanctions

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
State Superintendent Glenda Ritz speaks with reporters after Indiana's request for a waiver from some rules of the federal No Child Left Behind law was approved in 2014.

Gov. Mike Pence and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz finally agree on the best way to handle a “pause” of penalties schools would otherwise pay for poor test scores for 2014-15, and they appear poised to follow Ritz’s preferred approach.

Sen. Dennis Kruse, a Republican from Auburn who chairs the Senate Education Committee, today filed Senate Bill 200, which proposes schools may not receive a lower grade for 2015 than what they received in 2014.

That’s the very solution Ritz has promoted since mid-2014.

“The current version of Senate Bill 200 is common sense legislation that allows schools time to adjust to our new standards and prevents unnecessary economic harm to our schools and communities,” Ritz said in a statement. “This bill has my strong support.”

Pence, who opposed giving schools a one-year pass from low A-F grades and their accompanying sanctions before changing course in late October, signaled he also supports Kruse’s bill.

“(Gov. Pence) has studied the issue, listened to educators in the field and collaborated with lawmakers to arrive at what he believes is the fairest treatment of schools in the transition year,” Pence’s spokeswoman Kara Brooks said in a statement.

If the bill passes intact, it would be a rare political win for Ritz. Her seal of approval on education policy ideas, at times, has seemed to brand them as non-starters with Pence, his Indiana State Board of Education appointees and other Republican leaders.

The bill also quickly garnered support from House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and Senate President David Long, R-Fort Wayne.

In June of 2014, Ritz called for a pause in the A-F system in a letter to then-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Pence followed a newspaper column in which he said such a move would never happen on his watch.

“Indiana will not go backwards when it comes to measuring performance in our schools on my watch,” he wrote. “We do not support a pause in accountability as it relates to delivering A to F grades to schools, determining intervention strategies in under-performing schools, or teacher evaluations that reflect classroom performance.”

State Democrats also support the method laid out in Kruse’s bill. In fact, Sen. Mark Stoops, D-Bloomington, drafted a similar bill that he asked the Indiana General Assembly to pass on Organization Day in November, the ceremonial start to the legislative session.

It didn’t happen then — such a move would have had few precedents — but it appears there is near unanimous support for the idea today.

The need for an A-F grade fix stems from several problems with the 2015 ISTEP test, including scoring problems and differences that were discovered between difficulty in online and paper versions that required scoring adjustments so all students had comparable results.

ISTEP scores are expected to be released to the public on Wednesday, which is far behind the usual schedule. They were released in early August in 2014.

State test scores are key factors in determining teacher pay decisions as well as school A-F grades. Because the state introduced new, more challenging standards in 2014, ISTEP passing rates are expected to drop 16 percentage points in English and 24 percentage points in math. That also means fewer schools are expected to get A’s, and more likely will receive D’s and F’s.

Schools that earn F-grades can have serious consequences ahead of them. For example, the state can take schools over, handing them off to be run by charter school networks or other outside groups, if they repeatedly get F’s for four consecutive years. Teachers who receive poor evaluations can be fired or declared ineligible for pay raises.

Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, is also expected to introduce tomorrow a bill that would not allow ISTEP scores or A-F grades to factor into teacher evaluations, their pay raises or pay bonuses, for 2015.

A few other ideas for how to handle a big dip in ISTEP passing rates and A-F grades were proposed late last year, but the “hold harmless” approach seems to have the most support from the U.S. Department of Education. State education department officials have told Chalkbeat that they are confident the method in Kruse’s bill would be “consistent with the spirit of the flexibility (the U.S. Department of Education) has offered.”

The Senate Education Committee, chaired by Kruse, is expected to hear and vote on the bill at its first meeting Wednesday. A statement from Long and Bosma said both bills are expected to pass and reach the governor’s desk by mid-to-late January.

survey says

How accessible are New York City’s high schools? Students with physical disabilities are about to find out

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Midwood High School is considered inaccessible to students with physical disabilities.

Michelle Noris began her son’s high school search the way many parents of children with physical disabilities do: by throwing out most of the high school directory.

She knew her son Abraham would only have access to a few dozen of the city’s 400-plus high schools because of significant health needs, despite being a bright student with a knack for writing.

“I tore out every page that didn’t work in advance of showing [the directory] to him,” Noris recalls.

Even once they narrowed the list of potential schools, they still couldn’t be sure which schools Abraham — who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair — would be physically able to enter. The directory lists whether a school is considered partially or fully accessible, which, in theory, means that students should have access to “all relevant programs and services.”

In practice, however, the situation is much more complicated. “We had schools that are listed as partially accessible, but there’s no accessible bathroom,” said Noris, who is a member of the Citywide Council on Special Education. Some “accessible” schools might not have water fountains or cafeteria tables that accommodate students with mobility needs. A school’s auditorium could have a ramp, but no way for a wheelchair-bound student to get up on the stage.

Most of that information is not publicly available without calling a school or showing up for a visit — a process that can be time-consuming and demoralizing. But now, thanks in part by lobbying from Noris and other advocates, the city has pledged to begin filling the information gap. The education department will soon release more detailed information about exactly how accessible its high schools are.

Based on a 58-question survey, the city is collecting more granular data: if music rooms or computer labs are accessible, for instance, or whether there’s a slight step in a library that could act as a barrier. The survey also tracks whether a student in a wheelchair would have to use a side or back entrance to make it into the building.

“Sometimes, [parents] actually have to visit four or five of our schools to see if their child could get to every area of the school that’s important to them,” said Tom Taratko, who heads the education department’s space management division. “We didn’t think that was right.”

Virtually every physical amenity will be documented, Taratko said, down to whether a school has braille signage or technology for students with hearing impairments.

Education department officials are still fine-tuning exactly how to translate the city’s new accessibility inventory into a user-friendly dataset families can use. Some of the new information will be made available in the high school directory, and the results of each school’s survey will be available online.

Officials said the new data would be provided in “the coming weeks” for all high schools in Manhattan and Staten Island. The rest of the city’s high schools should be included before the next admissions cycle.

The survey will help identify which schools could be made accessible with relatively few changes, Taratko explained. “Everything — our shortcomings, our strengths — everything will be out there.”

The decision to release more high school accessibility data comes less than two years after a scathing U.S. Department of Justice investigation revealed “inexcusable” accommodations in elementary schools.

Many of the city’s school buildings were built before the Americans with Disabilities Act became law, and despite committing $100 million in its current five-year capital budget to upgrades, many schools are still not accessible. According to 2016 data, the most recent available, just 13 percent of district and charter schools that serve high school grades are fully accessible. About 62 percent are partially accessible, and 25 percent are considered inaccessible.

Making accessibility data public could help change those numbers, said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children who has pushed for greater transparency and praised the initiative.

“Once it’s out there, there’s so much more self-advocacy a parent can do,” Moroff said. “Then they can make requests about specific accommodations.”

Greater transparency is just one step in the process. Moroff hopes the city will consider taking students’ physical disabilities into account during the admissions process so that academically qualified students get preference for accessible schools. Once students arrive, she added, they must be welcomed by the school community.

“There needs to be much more work to hold the schools accountable to actually welcoming those students,” Moroff said. “It has to go hand in hand with making renovations and making accommodations.”

Even though the data comes too late for Noris, whose son submitted applications to just two high schools out of a possible twelve due to accessibility constraints, she is optimistic future families will have an easier time navigating the process.

“They didn’t say, ‘We’re going to do this over the next ten years.’ They said, ‘We’re going to do this in two years,’” Noris said, noting that she hopes more funding is allocated to upgrade buildings. “I think it’s a real example of the Department of Education hearing the needs and being willing to act on it.”

STEM in Colorado

Colorado lawmakers are stepping in to help prepare students for the state’s booming tech sector

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Northglenn High School who are studying biomedical science work on an assignment. The class is part of the school's STEM offerings.

More Colorado students could be building smartphone apps by the end of next school year.

In an effort to prepare students for the state’s booming technology job market, lawmakers are considering three bills that would beef up access to computer science classes and provide students with new credentials after they leave high school.

A Chalkbeat analysis last year found that only about two out of every seven students in Colorado have access to courses in STEM — short for science, technology, engineering and math.

The bipartisan bills could change that, increasing access to computer science courses for the state’s black, Latino and rural students, and — for the first time — begin to define what a quality STEM program is.

The first bill scheduled to be debated by the House Education Committee on Monday would require schools to include technology in lessons alongside traditional subjects, such as English and civics.

It would also require the education department to create lessons to help educators teach computer science as a standalone course, and set up a $500,000 grant program to help train them.

“Kids need to be up to speed on these things in order to function in the current marketplace,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Canon City Republican and one of the bill’s sponsors, along with Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat. “The more they’re attuned to the technology of the times — all the better. It will help them in college and getting their job and careers.”

The technology sector is the fastest growing in Colorado. There are an estimated 13,517 open computing jobs in the state, according to Colorado Succeeds, an education reform advocacy group that represents the state’s business community.

Some states have already made the shift to include technology in their learning standards. In Arkansas, which made the change in 2015, officials say the new standards have already started to break down stereotypes about who can do computer science.

“What we’re trying to do is to make computer science a normal part of their academic lives,” said Anthony Owen, the state director for computer science education in Arkansas. “When we make it normal for everyone, it’s abnormal for no one.”

A second bill under consideration in Colorado would make mostly technical changes to the state’s new P-Tech schools, a model that mirrors a New York City school that partners with IBM to give students work experience and a path to an associate’s degree while in high school.

The model allows students to stay in high school for up to six years — which has caused schools that house P-Tech programs to worry about their graduation rates.

House Bill 1194 would change the way the state calculates graduation rates to avoid penalizing schools that have P-Tech students enrolled for an extra two years.

The third bill, House Bill 1201, would create a special kind of diploma that shows colleges and employers that its holder is proficient in STEM subjects. To get the diploma, students would have to take a variety of STEM classes, earn high marks on standardized math exams, and demonstrate their science skills through a special project they complete their senior year.

“I want to make sure, across Colorado, that we have clear expectations and that they’re equitable expectations,” said Rep. James Coleman, a Denver Democrat and sponsor of the bill. “All of our schools are doing a good job preparing our kids, but I want to be specific in terms of what our colleges and workforce is seeking in our graduates.”

The bill, however, stops short of defining what coursework students must complete. Local schools will decide that. That was important to Jess Buller, the principal of West Grand’s K-8 school who helped write the bill. He noted that different schools and districts offer different STEM courses.

“We want that STEM endorsement to be that sign of distinction, that a student completed a program and does not need the remedial work that might be required for other students,” Buller said. “The bill is specific enough, but flexible enough.”

Morgan Kempf, the STEM science specialist for Pueblo City Schools, said she is excited to offer such a credential.

In the absence of a special diploma, Pueblo Central High School, the city’s STEM school, has sought outside accreditation to give weight to its STEM courses. The school has also started handing out school letters, usually a tradition reserved for varsity athletes, to exceptional STEM students.

“It’s an extra stamp of approval that recognizes and appreciates what they’re doing and at the level of rigor they’re doing it at,” Kempf said. “That stamp of approval lets students and potential employers know they’re meeting expectations.”