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.”

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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.