Indiana

More Indianapolis charter schools ranked high on the 2015 state exam

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Leaders from five proposed schools received fellowships to plan and launch the schools from the Mind Trust today.

There’s no denying that the state ISTEP exam was tougher last year, causing scores to fall for nearly all schools statewide, but there’s evidence that charter schools did a little better than most in Indianapolis.

Indianapolis private schools, meanwhile, saw their rankings compared to other schools in the state dip with a few notable exceptions.

Changes to the test, and lower scores across the board, make it difficult to compare 2015 scores with prior years but, in looking for a way to get a sense of how Indianapolis schools measured up to their peers across the state, Chalkbeat compared the list of schools that ranked in the top half of all Indiana schools in 2015 and 2014.

Ranking the schools from the highest passing rate to the lowest for both years, Chalkbeat identified schools that climbed up the rankings — and those that dropped.

Charter schools in the city, it turned out, saw their rankings go up while Indianapolis Public Schools landed a little lower on the list.

“It puts a smile on my face to see those things,” said Ahmed Young, Mayor Joe Hogsett’s education director who oversees more than 25 city-sponsored charter schools.

But Young says he doesn’t put much stock in comparisons between school types.

“I often think about the rest of our kids and how we can provide resources to all of our schools regardless of label to make sure they get a well rounded education.”

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 2.10.26 PM

In general, schools in Marion County compare poorly against the rest of the state. Countywide, just 28 percent of schools ranked in the top half of the state for ISTEP passing rates in 2015.

It’s not entirely a surprise, given the strong connection between family wealth and student test scores, that schools in Marion County generally do not rank among the state’s best on ISTEP. Many studies over years of research have shown that a student’s family income has a strong influence on test scores.

Within Indianapolis, schools in the city’s urban core lagged behind the county as whole in the Chalkbeat analysis but charter schools showed solid improvement. About 12 percent of charter schools in the city ranked in the top half of the state, up from 8 percent the year before.

That’s compared to the state’s largest district, Indianapolis Public Schools, which saw fewer of its schools ranked in the top half of the state at 6.7 percent, down about 7 percentage points from 2014.

IPS spokeswoman Kristin Cutler, said in a statement that the district doesn’t trust the 2015 ISTEP data to truly reflect student performance. ISTEP results were delayed for months by administrative and scoring glitches.

Cutler’s statement said the district’s 2015 scores “may be misleading” and cited problems such as test results that came back to the district listed as “undetermined” as well as some double scores in its raw data. As a result, IPS is looking at other measures of student academic success.

“In a turbulent year for standardized assessments, IPS does not believe our results are indicative of the hard work and growth of our students and educators,” the statement said in part. “Our district utilizes formative assessments to set yearly benchmarks and monitor progress regarding student achievement.”

Young said he also is focused on a spectrum of student academic results, not just standardized tests, and schools of all types in Indianapolis, not just city-sponsored charter schools.

“I look at ISTEP as only one portion of our accountability,” he said “It’s great to see positive results for our schools but it’s only one indicator. I also think about how IPS and township schools are faring. It’s not a zero sum game. Comparisons are necessary at times but we want each and every school in Marion County to exceed expectations.”

The Oaks Academy schools shine

Private schools in Indianapolis — by far the best performing type of school on ISTEP for several years running — also saw their rankings slip almost as much as IPS. In 2015, about 58.5 percent of the city’s 41 private schools that took ISTEP ranked in the top half for passing rate among more than 1,800 public and private schools statewide. That’s down 5.5 percentage points from 2014.

Private schools statewide actually saw a slightly bigger drop in the rankings, falling 6.5 percentage points to 62 percent ranked in the top half in the state.

Bucking that trend in Indianapolis is the Oaks Academy. The three-campus private school collectively ranked No. 1 in the state when compared against school districts, charter school networks and other private school organizations.

That means the 660 Oaks Academy students had a higher passing rate on ISTEP than Carmel, Zionsville and other traditional top scorers.

And Oaks Academy serves a higher percentage of poor children than many private schools, said Andrew Hart, CEO of the organization that runs the three schools.

The schools, which are faith-based but not affiliated with a particular church, purposefully balance their classes to insure students reflect racial and income diversity, Hart said. Roughly half the students come from families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and student enrollment in each school is roughly 50 percent white, 30-40 percent black and 10-20 percent Latino, multi-racial or Asian. To qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a family of four can make no more than $43,500 annually.

The big keys to their success, Hart said, are the cultural benefits of racial and economic balance and very high retention rates for students and teachers.

“Almost all of our families enroll when they are in pre-K or Kindergarten,” he said. “Our student retention is in the high 90th percentile year to year. They come in pre-K and they stay. That allows us to invest in them in a very aligned systematic way in their education.”

A diverse school, he said, plays a big role as students learn from each other.

“That creates an incredible environment for learning,” Hart said.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.