Testing matters

For the first time, Tennessee school voucher advocates are pushing for TNReady in private schools. Here’s why.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown says that a state testing requirement allays concerns about school vouchers from his colleagues.

If Tennessee private schools want to take advantage of public money that could soon be flowing their way, they might have to become more like public schools — especially at testing time.

After years of near-misses, the state appears poised to approve a voucher program that would allow public funding to be used to pay private school tuition.

To make this happen after years of disappointments, lawmakers who want vouchers are making a few compromises. One is to limit the program to Memphis. Another is to require students who receive vouchers to take the state’s standardized test, TNReady.

Sen. Brian Kelsey, the architect of Tennessee’s voucher bill, said he would prefer requiring students who use vouchers to take nationally normed tests, like they do in Florida and several other states with voucher programs.

But he said he understands why policymakers want to make “apple to apple” comparisons between public schools and private schools accepting government dollars. “If that gives policymakers greater comfort to vote for the bill, then I am all for that,” said the Germantown Republican.

Requiring students who use vouchers to take TNReady would put Tennessee in good company. Of states with the largest school voucher programs, at least three — Wisconsin, Louisiana and Indiana — require students who use vouchers take their state tests. (Indiana actually requires all students at schools that accept vouchers to take the exams, then uses the scores to determine whether the schools should continue to get state funding.)

But many voucher advocates say state testing requirements undermine the idea of an education marketplace where families choose the school that best meets their needs.

Part of what makes private schools different is that they teach to different standards, cover different content, and measure learning in different ways, says Patrick Wolf, a voucher proponent and professor at the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform.

“Many parents are attracted to them for that reason,” he said. “If you’re a student in a private school who takes a public school test and you score lower, you really won’t know if that’s because the private school curriculum is different, or because the private school is less effective in delivering content.”

A testing requirement is likely to dissuade at least some Memphis schools from accepting vouchers, according to lobbyists for the state’s Catholic schools.

“We’ve heard that to take the state test means to teach the state test,”  said Jennifer Murphy, who represents the Tennessee Catholic Public Policy Commission.

But at least nine private in the city schools say that having to administer TNReady won’t turn them off.

The Jubilee Catholic schools are in primarily low-income areas of Memphis, and many of their seats would likely be filled by students using vouchers if this year’s legislation passes.

Kristi Baird, the interim head of the Jubilee Schools, said Tennessee’s tests didn’t seem like a big jump from the standardized tests students at her schools already take. “We already take a nationally normed assessment … so we’re confident our students’ state test results would demonstrate growth and progress,” she wrote in an email.

Amid concerns that vouchers will hurt student performance, especially in light of recent research suggesting that that has happened elsewhere, Tennesseans say having an accountability measure is essential to making sure the state funds are spent wisely.

“Publicly-funded K-12 students should take the same TN tests,” tweeted Marc Hill, the chief policy officer at Nashville Chamber of Commerce.

“Testing, public reporting & accountability for private schools must be essential components of any voucher plan in TN,” tweeted Gini Pupo-Walker, the senior director of education policy at Conexion Americas.

 

Politics & Policy

Indianapolis school board members make an unusual school visit — halfway around the world

PHOTO: Courtsey: Kelly Bentley
Kelly Bentley posted a photo of herself and Thai students on Facebook. The students hosted American teens enrolled in a study abroad program IPS could join.

When Indianapolis Public Schools board members visit schools, it’s usually a short trip across town. But the latest site visit took them a little farther afield — about 8,500 miles.

IPS board president Mary Ann Sullivan and member Kelly Bentley traveled to Thailand earlier this month to visit a study abroad program that could soon be available to students in the district.

Thrival Academy, which is designed to give low-income high school students the chance to study and travel internationally, aims to launch as an IPS innovation school in 2018. If the Indianapolis school gets board approval, it will be the second Thrival site. This year, the group is piloting the program in partnership with Oakland Unified School District in California.

Indianapolis has a rapidly growing selection of innovation schools, which are considered part of the district but are managed by outside nonprofits or charter operators. With its study-abroad focused program, Thrival is one of the most unusual ideas put forward.

It’s so unusual that Bentley and Sullivan wanted to see the program in practice.

During a four-day visit, they stayed at the camp where Oakland students lived, visited sites where the teens did home stays, and learned about the academics that are offered during the three months that high schoolers in the program spend in South Asia. They also had the chance to talk with students from Oakland about their experience.

“These were kids that, some of them had never, ever been away from home,” Bentley said. “I think it is a life-changing experience for these kids.”

PHOTO: Courtesy: Kelly Bentley
A camp where Thrival students stayed in Laos.

The trip was paid for by the Mind Trust, a nonprofit that partners with IPS to support innovation schools and that funds a fellowship that Thrival’s founder, Emma Hiza, won to start the school.

In addition to the board members, the Mind Trust sent the IPS chief of operations, and Aleesia Johnson, who oversees innovation schools for the district, had previously gone to scout the program. Other board members were also invited to go, but declined because the trip was on short notice, said Sullivan.

Almost as soon as Bentley and Sullivan shared photos and tidbits from the trip on Facebook, critics of the Mind Trust’s influence in Indianapolis schools began raising questions about the Thailand trip.

Brandon Brown of the Mind Trust said the group wanted board members to have a chance to see the program because it is so unusual — not in an effort to sway their votes.

“Because we are sending students halfway across the world,” he said, “we thought it would’ve been irresponsible for them not to go see it.”

PHOTO: Courtesy: Kelly Bentley
A garden near the camp where students stayed in Thailand.

The camp did not charge Bentley and Sullivan for their stay, Hiza said, so the group’s main costs were their plane tickets.

But accepting an international trip to see a school they will eventually vote on could make it appear that the board members are not impartial, said Kristen Amundson, president of the National Association of State Boards of Education.

“I would just have advised them not to do it,” she said. “I’m not questioning anybody’s integrity. I’m not questioning anybody’s motivation. … It’s the perception.”

For their part, Bentley and Sullivan say they won’t make final decisions on whether to support the school until the details of the Indianapolis program are ironed out. But they now have a greater understanding of Thrival’s model.

The trip gave them insight into the program that it would’ve been hard to get without seeing it in practice, said Sullivan, such as how Thrival integrates academics into study abroad.

“It’s a really big jump for IPS to get involved in something like this,” she said. “Some of the questions I think that we had and will have were answered much better by actually seeing and meeting the students, the teachers, the people on the Thailand side.”

Story booth

A Detroit student speaks: Her charter school promised college tours and art classes. They didn’t exist.

Detroit high school senior Dannah Wilson says a charter school broke promises it made promises to her family.

When Dannah Wilson decided to enroll in a charter school on Detroit’s west side, her family was drawn by the promise of programs like college tours and art classes.

In reality, however, those programs didn’t exist.

“We were made promises by the administration that weren’t kept,” said Wilson, who is now a high school senior at another Detroit charter school.

But when parents and students tried to complain, they discovered that the college that authorized the school’s charter, Bay Mills Community College, was in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a five-hour drive from Detroit.

Wilson had been the “poster child” for the school, she said, her face plastered on billboards and brochures for the school.

“I willingly gave,” she said. “But did not receive a quality education in return.”

Wilson discussed her challenges navigating Detroit schools in a story booth outside the School Days storytelling event at the Charles H. Wright Museum last month.

The event, cosponsored by Chalkbeat and the Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers, featured Detroit parents, educators, and a student telling stories on stage about schools in Detroit.

The event also invited other Detroiters to share their stories in a booth set up by Chalkbeat and the Skillman Foundation. (Skillman also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

Last week, we featured a teacher sharing the tragic reason why her students don’t always come to class. This week, we’re featuring Wilson, who is part of a family whose children have collectively attended 22 different schools in Detroit in search of a quality education.

Watch Wilson’s story below, and if you have a story to tell about Detroit schools — or know someone who does — please let us know.