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It’s another bad year for Indianapolis Public Schools when it comes to state tests.
The state’s largest district saw drops in ISTEP scores at the vast majority of schools. Scores fell across the state, but the situation was worse in IPS, where the passing rate went down by 4 percentage points to 25.3 percent in 2016.
IPS consistently scores lower than surrounding suburban communities, but after two years of falling scores, passing rates are particularly low. Just one in four elementary and middle school students passed the math and reading sections of the test — and fewer than 10 percent of high school students passed the new 10th-grade exam.
The news is a blow to a district that has embarked on a radical new course with the aim of improving student outcomes.
School board president Mary Ann Sullivan, who had not yet seen results, said she couldn’t draw conclusions without analyzing the scores more closely but said low scores could be concerning.
“The whole point of doing the strategies that we’ve implemented is to improve student achievement,” she said. “So we’re going to need to know, if student achievement is not improving, what’s going on?”
The district declined to comment on the test results.
Last year was the first test of the district’s new strategy for turning around failing schools by converting them to innovation schools, which are run by outside charter operators or nonprofits but still considered part of the district. (Teachers at innovation schools are not part of the union.)
The jury is still out on whether the approach will be successful, but the first results are disappointing.
School 103, which was the first failing school to convert to innovation status, actually saw a decline in the number of students passing the test during its first year under the new charter manager, Phalen Leadership Academies. Just 4.6 percent of students passed (down from 9.6 percent the year before).
Schools undergoing wrenching changes frequently see their scores drop at first. That’s exactly what happened at School 103. But another school that made the switch this year, School 93, saw its scores rise by 11 percentage points.
School 93 was taken over by the team that developed the Project Restore turnaround model last year, and it converted to innovation status this fall.
Principal Nicole Fama said one reason she thinks their students did comparatively well is that the Project Restore approach relies on regularly testing students.
“To our kids, who take tests every day, it’s nothing,” Fama said. “They are not scared because they are used to that rigor.”
But overall, the results do not look good for the district. One particularly bleak outcome is that some of the district’s marquee schools saw double-digit declines in passing rates.
At School 79 — which has won praise for serving a huge population of English language learners — scores dropped by 17 percentage points. At School 74, a thriving Spanish immersion magnet school, they were down 15 percentage points. Nearly all of the eight IPS schools with double-digit declines had previously earned high marks from the state.
One low-performing school saw a double-digit decline in passing rates: At School 43 they went from low (16.2 percent) to dismal (5.3 percent). The neighborhood school on the mid-north side of downtown had a tumultuous year: The school struggled with discipline, some classes went months without permanent teachers and the principal left without warning in the middle of the year. (The school has a new principal this year, and community leaders are working to develop a long-term plan.)
For the first year, high school students were also required to take ISTEP, and across the state, they did far worse than elementary and middle school students on the test. In IPS, just 9.9 percent of 10th-graders passed the test.
The results come as the value of standardized testing increasingly is being questioned in Indiana and beyond.
School board member Gayle Cosby declined to discuss the results because she said there are more accurate measures of school performance, and Sullivan also suggested they get too much emphasis.
“I think they are a very incomplete measure of how schools are doing,” Sullivan said. But, she added, “I am still a supporter of having some sort of assessment that can take the temperature across the state and across the nation.”
Correction: an earlier version of this story misreported the passing rate at School 103. It was 4.6 percent.