Measuring schools

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

PHOTO: 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.”

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”