Measuring schools

Beyond test scores: Indianapolis considers new ways to measure school quality

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Stock photos for Chalkbeat stories. Photos made at Tindley Accelerated School, 3960 Meadows Dr, Indianapolis, Indiana. Nov. 22, 2013. (Photo by Alan Petersime)

When Indiana’s school letter grades debuted in 2011, the purpose was to make it easier for the public to understand school quality — but key players in Indianapolis education say simpler is not always better.

Indianapolis Public Schools, in partnership with The Mind Trust and the mayor’s office, are developing “equity reports” that will use different kinds of school data to better inform parents and community members about the quality of roughly 100 schools in the city — both IPS schools and mayor-sponsored charter schools. The new reports will have much more information than the state-issued letter grades, which currently consider little more than student test scores.

“We know parents and families need more than A-F (grades),” said Kameelah Shaheed-Diallo, the senior vice president of strategy and community engagement with The Mind Trust. “This is a tool to give them something more.”

The new reports, expected to roll out in November, are modeled on similar reports used to measure schools in Washington, D.C. They come at time when states nationwide are searching for better ways to measure schools that don’t just rely on standardized tests.

Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which will replace No Child Left Behind next year, states must include “non-academic” indicators in their accountability systems. The problem? Some of the new qualitative metrics are still being developed. They could include metrics such as graduation rates for high schools or things like school attendance or the results of student and staff surveys.

“This is very much a 1.0 moment for those measures,” said Thomas Dee, a professor from Stanford University’s graduate school of education. “I applaud efforts to pilot innovation, but I guess for me it’s not just about data. It’s about how it’s used, and my concern is that, if it just sits on a website, that it’s going to be under-utilized by parents and by school leaders and by taxpayers.”

The equity reports are one of two efforts underway in Indianapolis to develop a better school measurement systems — both for parents to make more informed school enrollment decisions and for schools to better reflect on what they need to improve. Equity reports are the parent- and community-facing piece.

Some of the data that will be used for the reports is already available from the Indiana Department of Education, but the reports will compile the information in an easy-to-find way that is more user-friendly, said Aleesia Johnson, the IPS’s innovation chief.

“The equity reports to me will be a way in which information is sort of packaged in a more transparent and clear way, both for (district) schools and public charter schools as well as for families,” Johnson said.

Both IPS and The Mind Trust are the process of meeting with community groups to find out exactly what parents want to know. Information on school leadership, discipline and attendance are already on the table.

IPS and the mayor’s office teamed up with The Mind Trust on this project after receiving a grant from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation that is geared toward creating a unified school enrollment system. The reports will be folded into that system as an extra service for parents as they choose schools for their children.

That grant is also funding a second effort on school measurement that is designed to help schools internally assess how well they’re helping students.

The second effort is driven by UChicago Impact, a nonprofit group affiliated with the University of Chicago has been using school climate and culture surveys in Chicago schools for years. The Chicago model — currently being piloted in 20 IPS schools and 20 mayor-sponsored charter schools — is based on a theory about the “five essentials.” Those are five qualities that strong schools share, said Elliot Ransom, the director of the five essentials efforts at UChicago Impact.

According to the group’s research, if schools rate high on three of the five measures — effective leaders, collaborative teachers, involved families, supportive environment, ambitious instruction — they are 10 times more likely to see student improvement than schools that are weak in those areas. But just having the data isn’t enough if you don’t act on it, he said.

“Educators are awash in data at this point in time, and it’s sometimes hard to make sense of what we should pay attention to,” Ransom said “It was foolhardy to think that you give something to someone and they suddenly change. So part of that is making (the data) public because the conversation will fundamentally change about school quality.”

After seeing some progress in Chicago, the state of Illinois voted in 2013 to include the five essentials in tracking school quality. While Illinois’ accountability system doesn’t use explicit ratings like Indiana’s, Ransom said, the commitment from the state shows that Indiana, too, could use such information in a large-scale way.

Dee, the expert from Stanford, urges states to be open to new ideas and to experiment but warns educators against putting too much stock in qualitative measures. Surveys, in particular, can be tricky to use because people don’t always give honest answers.

“You would worry about low response rate, you would worry about the extent to which people filling out the surveys really understood what they were responding to,” Dee said. “So there’s concern there.”

For now, both the equity reports and the UChicago surveys are only funded through the end of this year. Whether they’ll continue next year will depend on whether parents and educators find them valuable and whether anyone is willing to pay for them in the future.

If the new measures are popular, they could serve as a model for the state education department as it expands Indiana’s new accountability system.

The state’s new A-F grading system does factor student test score improvement, graduation rates, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses and college readiness in a school’s grade, which means the system meets most of the new federal school accountability requirements for high school students. But state officials still have work to do to come up with metrics that go beyond test scores for elementary and middle schools.

Cynthia Roach, testing director for the Indiana State Board of Education, said the state is weighing its options, but no decisions have been made. Coming up with test alternatives and non-test based metrics is one of the goals of the new state panel that was created by lawmakers this year to explore a new accountability systems for Indiana schools after ISTEP is retired next year.

There haven’t been any conversations at the state level about how either of these new pilots might address gaps in Indiana’s accountability system, but the potential is there, said the Mind Trust’s Shaheed-Diallo.

“Changing the state accountability is a bigger lift than I think we have capacity for, but I think it gets to this demand question,” Shaheed-Diallo said. “If people know there are other ways to measure (schools), perhaps it does create additional momentum for those conversations.”

Building Better Schools

A neighborhood-led school to make its pitch to the Indianapolis Public Schools board

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 15 has long struggled with low test scores, but community leaders say they have a plan to help turn the school around.

Staff and community leaders at School 15 have a vision: A neighborhood-led elementary school that will offer families social services and draw in kids from across the diverse surrounding community.

They’ve concluded that the best way to make that happen is to have the school managed by a new nonprofit, not the local district.

This week, they will present their proposal to the Indianapolis Public Schools board for the first time since planning began more than a year ago. We covered the school last month in a story about how the neighborhood says they can save their struggling school by taking control.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said the plan is a unique grassroots effort.

“It’s a great example of the way that we’ve envisioned this model of not being in the situation were one size fits all,” he said. “They understand that it takes more than just the people at the schoolhouse to improve student outcomes.”

If the board approves the plan, the school would join a growing group of “innovation schools” that are still part of IPS but have the freedom of charter schools. Their staff members are also not employed by the district. The board is not expected to vote on the proposal until a later meeting.

Principal Ross Pippin, who would continue as school leader, told Chalkbeat last month that he’s interested in having the flexibility to make decisions on everything from spending to curriculum.“You get ultra-local control of your school, and so you can really be responsive to every detail of your school,” Pippin said. “That’s really to me the biggest excitement about innovation schools.”

“You get ultra-local control of your school, and so you can really be responsive to every detail of your school,” Pippin said. “That’s really to me the biggest excitement about innovation schools.”

How I Teach

Prayers, precision and push-ups: A special ed teacher puts his unusual background to work in the classroom

Caleb Asomugha embraces his students while on a field trip.

Caleb Asomugha’s professional life has taken many turns. He spent time exploring his faith in seminary, is a member of the Army Reserve and ran his own fitness business as a personal trainer.

Asomugha’s latest venture: Teaching special education at Academy for Young Writers in East New York, where he is halfway through his first year. Now, he uses prayerful patience and military precision to execute classroom lessons — and he isn’t afraid to hit the floor for push-ups with students who need to get their energy out.

“That just helps them refocus,” Asomugha said. “Kids like to move. They get bored sitting in one place.”

Asomugha made his way to the classroom through New York City Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification pathway for new graduates and career-changers, and has been mentored through NYC Men Teach, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s initiative to draw more men of color into the education profession. Asomugha and a fellow teacher recently landed a grant through NYC Men Teach to create an honors program that will expose students to different career options and link them with young professionals for mentoring.

Asomugha co-teaches math, science and band, along with an “enrichment” class designed to help students work on reading and math skills — all in an integrated sixth-grade classroom.

Here’s how he works with his teaching partners to meet the needs of his students with disabilities, and how Asomugha draws on his varied life experiences while in the classroom.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I was a personal trainer doing pretty well, and I just felt that I was not doing enough in life to give back and to leave an impact. So I decided to get into teaching in order to fulfill those inner desires to inspire kids, specifically from low-income communities, to be able to achieve greater in life.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?

We put a stack of 50 note cards on different students’ desks. We told them they had 10 minutes to build a structure that reaches 16 inches high, and they were only able to use a certain amount of tape. [The structure had to] support the weight of a teddy bear for 10 seconds.

The students, they quickly were doing their thing. And a lot of their structures, when we went around and tested it, were not able to maintain the weight. So after that, we had the students investigate. We had websites pre-loaded for them to research different structures and what contributes to their strength.

After their investigations, they had an opportunity to refine their design. We retested it and I would say about 90 percent of their structures supported the object for the time limit. Afterwards, we had the students reflect on what they did and we reviewed vocabulary.

I got that idea from a professional development seminar from Urban Advantage, a program that helps teachers strengthen their science instruction.

You have to collaborate with four different teachers to plan your lessons. What’s that like?

I have the opportunity to share a trusted relationship with each of these teachers that gives me the liberty to either offer insight on their teaching practice or have them offer suggestions to mine. However, this does not come without its challenges, [such as] making the time to meet with four different teachers throughout an already busy week.

My role specifically is to modify content for students with learning disabilities or who need information broken down a little more. In these instances, I sometimes prepare a breakout location within the classroom or in a separate classroom where students who need further assistance (not just students with specific learning disabilities) can come and receive a slower paced, more detailed lesson that may include visual cues, manipulatives [like blocks or other props] and activities. Also, because I am a traveling teacher, which means I travel to most classes with my students, I have a better sense of what lessons will engage the students best.

What’s your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?

From my experience, students usually lose focus with the lesson when they are either fidgety, tired or bored. In these cases, my go-to trick to re-engage that student is to take them outside and give them an opportunity to get their blood flowing. Sometimes it’s a water break and other times I’ll do a light exercise with them if they choose — push-ups, jumping jacks.

However, if it is the rare case that the entire class is off, then I will give them a quick brain break. In this 3-5 minute period, I will have them either do a fun class activity, a breathing exercise or a quick game. This time is also really critical for me to take a mental assessment of why the students are disengaged. Sometimes, I will have to add quick tweaks to the lesson or modify the length of the student work. In most cases, each of these strategies work.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? 

One way that I am able to build relationships with them is with my boxing club. A lot of my male students are in that boxing club. We have forged a great relationship and obviously that carries into the classroom.

In any after-school club, a lot of teachers and facilitators will find the students are a little more relaxed and a little more able to be open with their coaches … I have some of the richest conversations with kids after school, just because it’s their time to be competitive, their time to engage in teamwork — and they look to me for advice as a coach, and not just a teacher. It just opens up the levels of trust.

I also take advantage during lunch, as much as possible, to go down with the kids and talk about how they’re doing. I’ll ask a student, “What’s going on? How was school today? What’s on your mind?” A student will tell me either they’re good, or this-or-that is bothering them, and what should they do about it. That’s such a vital opportunity for me, because that can be a time where I can add an intervention right on the spot, before it escalates into something more serious.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?

My cell phone, because I’m always in contact with parents. I have a lot of my parents’ cell phone numbers programmed in my phone — and vice versa, they have mine. Much of my success thus far has been because of parent engagement. I try as much as possible to stay in contact with my students’ parents.

Can you think of a time when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach?

I have tons of those, but there is one from recently. There was one student who we had been having a lot of trouble with. This student not only was being very disruptive in class, but the student would often come to class late. We tried a lot of times to get in touch with the parents, but it turned out that both parents worked a ton and they weren’t able to come up to the school for a parent conference.

Me and another teacher decided to go on a home visit, and that was a really great time because we were able to sit with the parents and the student, and get down to the root of why the student’s behavior is the way it is. We were able to, all together, set goals for the student — goals for which the student was able to add input.

After that meeting, that student’s behavior has become a ton better.

Most of the success I’ve experienced as a first-year teacher is because of parent engagement. That has been my go-to as a teacher.