Tired of waiting on state for test results, IPS considers giving students a new exam

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Students in the Indianapolis Public Schools might soon have to take yet another exam.

District leaders are so tired of the wait for state test scores, which have been coming out months after they are given, that they are considering adding another test to the crowded roster. The idea is to give teachers and district leaders more immediate feedback on how students and schools are performing.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee suggested the district could purchase an off-the-shelf test such as the ones produced by ACT or the College Board, which make tests for younger students as well as college readiness exams.

“If we continue to have the challenge that we’ve experienced the last couple of years with getting timely and reliable assessment data, there may become a time where we would have to create our own measures,” Ferebee said.

Students in IPS already take regular assessments, such as Acuity or the MAP test from the Northwest Evaluation Association, which are designed to give teachers prompt feedback on how students are doing. In the past, administrators have pointed to those assessments as tools the district uses instead of the controversial state tests.

But the district’s growing innovation school program is putting some new urgency behind the need for fast and accurate test results.

The now exam would be used to help assess whether schools have such bad performance that the district might choose to restart them as innovation schools, which are considered part of the district but run by outside managers.

District policy says that schools that receive three consecutive failing grades from the state could be converted to innovation schools. But administrators fear that delays in receiving state letter grades could slow the process of discussing problems with families and staff at persistently failing schools.

Board president Mary Ann Sullivan said the district shouldn’t rely on state data that consistently comes late. She suggested the district could use new tests or other measures of school quality like suspension rates, parent involvement, attendance and college persistence.

“We should lead,” she said. “Let’s just go ahead and take control of our own fate here and do what’s right for kids.”

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

The idea comes at the same time that state education leaders are looking to make required state tests shorter due to concerns that students are spending too much time taking assessments. A committee of educators and political leaders have been meeting since May to find an alternative to the problem-plagued ISTEP but the group has reached few conclusions and is now talking about postponing testing changes until 2019 or later.

If IPS doesn’t want to wait for the state to figure things out, a local exam is one option, the board members said.

Some members raised concerns that adding another assessment could contribute to over testing but still seemed open to the idea.

“I’m not sure that we are going to get state data any quicker, just based on their inability to make decisions,” said board member Michael O’Connor.

Update (October 19, 2016): This story was updated to clarify Sullivan’s interest in measures of school quality other than test scores.

What's your education story?

How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate

PHOTO: Provided
Jean Russell

Jean Russell is on sabbatical from her work as a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School in Fort Wayne after being named the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year. Her work as 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year ignited her interest in education policy, and she is in the first cohort of TeachPlus statewide policy fellows. Nineteen other teachers from urban, suburban and rural areas are also members of the class. Below is Russell’s story condensed and lightly edited for clarity. For more stories from parents, students and educators, see our “What’s Your Education Story?” occasional series.

When I started this January as the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year, my overarching goal for my year of service is to focus on recruitment and retention of great teachers. One of the things that came up was the opportunity to serve on the ISTEP alternative assessment panel. (The committee was charged with choosing a replacement for the state’s exam.)

I definitely felt like that was something that is affecting recruitment and retention of great teachers in Indiana, and yet I was reticent about whether or not I was equipped to really be a part of that and to be a helpful voice at the table because policy is not something in my 26 years of teaching that I’ve had anything to do with before this.

The first couple of times that I went to those meetings, I like I just was out of my league, and I didn’t really feel like there was much I could contribute. And I think it was the third meeting, there came a point where a couple of people were saying things where I just felt like having the inside-the-classroom, in-the-trenches voice would really help the conversation.

I was so nervous. I remember, I was shaking, and my voice was cracking. The meetings were in the House of Representatives, so I had to push the button and lean into the microphone, and I’m like, “Hi, I’m Jean Russell.”

But I said what I knew, “I’ve been giving this test for 25 years and these are my experiences, and this is what I think.” I think the biggest surprise in that moment — I won’t ever forget that moment — was that they listened. And I knew that because they were asking good follow-up questions and making references back to what I had said. It sort of became a part of that conversation for that meeting. I never became very outspoken, but I think at that point, I realized that there is most assuredly a time when teacher voice at the table is important to decision making.

I feel like the four walls of my classroom just blew down, and suddenly I realized how many stakeholders there are in my little classroom, in my little hallway, in my little school.

(In the past, policy) just did not make my radar. I think I just felt like, nobody was really interested in what I thought. The work of the classroom is so intense and there’s such a sense of urgency every day to move everybody forward that this broader idea of education, I think I just thought it was something that happened to you and you just work within those perimeters. For the first time in 26 years, I’m realizing that that’s not necessarily the case.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.