IPS test scores have rebounded close to pre-pandemic levels, but remain far from 2025 goal

A blonde woman and a man stand smiling in blue shirts in front of two classroom boards, one which says “math” and one which says “reading.”
Third-grade teacher Julie Busch and math teacher Jacob Gregory stand in Busch’s classroom at McKinley School 39 on Jan. 6, 2023, one day before students were set to return from winter break. The school had among the biggest improvements in the state ILEARN test scores in Indianapolis Public Schools from 2021 to 2022. (Amelia Pak-Harvey / Chalkbeat)

Like many teachers, Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Jacob Gregory returned to in-person learning in 2021 facing an uphill battle.

His sixth grade math students at McKinley School 39 had been through a disruptive mix of learning models since the pandemic hit in 2020 and closed schools.

When IPS went to a hybrid model in the 2020-21 school year, for example, Gregory would at times look up to see only three kids sharing the same classroom with him. 

Predictably, IPS students’ proficiency on the 2021 ILEARN test — the state exam in grades 3-8 used for federal and state accountability purposes — declined. But the 2021-22 school year, when all students returned to in-person learning, marked a fresh start. 

“That was the year that I really just said, ‘Okay we’re not online anymore. It’s time to get back to what we’ve been doing,’” Gregory said.

That determination by Gregory and his colleagues paid dividends. On last year’s ILEARN test, 21.3% of McKinley’s students were proficient in both English Language Arts and math, compared to just 9.7% the year before. That’s one of the best improvement rates for any school in IPS, excluding Innovation Network charter schools.

The school’s results reflect a districtwide academic recovery from the pandemic, as measured by the ILEARN test. In fact, IPS had among the highest ILEARN growth rates in Marion County from 2021 to 2022.

In IPS last year, 22.3% of students in grades 3-8 were proficient in English, and 19.5% were proficient in math.

But that growth has only taken students’ scores back to roughly what they were in 2019, the first year for ILEARN. IPS remains far from its goal of having half its students proficient in English and math on the state test by 2025.

As students in grades 3-8 prepare to take the ILEARN again beginning in April, the district is focusing on tactics to continue its progress and reach that goal, with the help of federal COVID relief funding. 

In IPS last year, 22.3% of students in grades 3-8 were proficient in English, and 19.5% were proficient in math. 

But at McKinley, like the rest of the district, Black and Latino students still have not reached pre-pandemic achievement levels on the ILEARN. 

While Black and Latino students grew in proficiency in both subjects last year, proficiency rates for white students grew significantly more. And unlike their white peers, whose ILEARN scores in 2022 exceeded their 2019 results, test scores for Black and Latino students still have not recovered.

The improvement in the district’s test scores stem from several efforts made throughout the pandemic, including those supported with $14.3 million in COVID relief funds IPS has set aside specifically for English and math improvement. That’s a small share of the $217.5 million in federal COVID funding IPS received through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief program for its non-charter schools. 

But even with last year’s improvement and millions of dollars in one-time funding, is the district’s 2025 goal for test scores feasible?

“I’ll say it’s ambitious,” said Warren Morgan, the IPS chief academic officer. “We’re just continuing to track towards it.”

The district has a long way to go to reach 50% — but even increasing proficiency rates by just 10% to 12% by 2025 would be a major accomplishment, said John Kuykendall, associate professor and dean for the University of Indianapolis School of Education.

“I think to get there … in two years, you’re going to also have to focus on the basic needs of kids, too,” Kuykendall said. “What do they need to be ready to be able to come to school and learn?”

Officials credit new curriculum for score boosts

At McKinley, staff attribute the school’s successful rebound in part to solid teamwork and strong staff retention rates. IPS has increased its districtwide teacher retention rate from 71.3% in 2018-19 to 83.9% in 2020-21, according to state data. Retention rates for individual schools are not available. 

“I’m going to keep saying, ‘You can do this. We’ll get it done. We’ll figure out a way to do it one way or another,’” Gregory said, recalling his mindset through the 2021-22 academic year.

Throughout the pandemic, McKinley Principal Deana Perry tried to maintain a semblance of a school community. The school made drive-through versions of school events, like a carnival and winter wonderland celebration, when classrooms were closed. Perry went to the downtown Panera each week to bring extra baked goods for staff and families on “carb days” every Friday. 

This book vending machine at McKinley School 39 encourages students to read by buying books with a token. Students earn a token when they complete their monthly reading log and get a token for their birthday. (Amelia Pak-Harvey / Chalkbeat)

But districtwide, a variety of other efforts may have played a part. 

Morgan attributes much of the ILEARN improvement to an overhaul in curriculum that began in 2020. 

“We were not using high-quality texts across the board,” he said, adding that in some cases, curriculum hadn’t been updated for years. 

The district spent $3 million in federal COVID aid for a “rigorous, aligned curriculum” and $1.4 million to train staff and offer other professional development for the curriculum changes. 

At McKinley, math scores rose from 23.8% to 37.6% from 2021 to 2022, a feat that Perry attributes to the school’s early exposure to the new Eureka Math program before the rest of the district. 

IPS taps tutoring as key improvement strategy

The school’s staff aren’t content just to point to last year’s progress. 

In her office, Perry has her ILEARN goals for this school year written on a whiteboard. 

She hopes 27% of her students at McKinley reach proficiency in English on the ILEARN when they take it in just a few months, and 41.4% hit proficiency in math. She hopes her school reaches that 50% mark by 2025 along with the district. 

“We’re committed to supporting that goal,” Perry said. 

Gregory is certainly energized. By the time he returned from the winter break in early January, he had been ready to return to work for a week.  

In Gregory’s eyes, the 50% proficiency goal for IPS might be ambitious, but it’s still an F — he’s aiming for even higher passing rates.

The school’s English Language Arts scores haven’t quite rebounded to pre-pandemic levels. But Perry said that in professional development sessions, her staff are still working on mastering the new English curriculum that the district introduced during the pandemic.

“While we do discuss math, we really put a lot of emphasis on ELA,” Perry said.

Just as IPS relied on COVID relief to help test scores rebound from 2021 to 2022, the district is hoping that a variety of districtwide initiatives launched during the pandemic will help McKinley and other schools continue to improve and reach its 2025 goal. 

The district has allotted $2.4 million in federal aid for several tutoring programs, the largest of which is Tutoring for All. The program, which IPS launched districtwide in the fall, allows students to voluntarily sign up for virtual tutoring outside of school hours.  

Last semester, weekly student attendance ranged from 482 to 1,127, according to the district.  Roughly 1,500 students attended at least one session. 

“This is our first year really doing it,” Morgan said of Tutoring for All. “And so we’re monitoring things as things go along. Of course, we want to see how we can get more people to know about it.”

Even though IPS has been back to in-person learning for some time, virtual learning has played a large role in the district’s plan for post-pandemic recovery. 

Eleven schools also have in-class virtual tutoring. This program at chronically underperforming IPS schools — known as Emerging Schools — allows students to receive individualized attention and get them back to grade level.

Keith Utter, a fifth grade teacher at Charles Warren Fairbanks School 105, said the program has helped provide one-on-one instruction from tutors from all over the country during the school day. Utter provides additional help to students as they need it. 

“In the morning when you come into my room, you’ll see the kids eating their breakfast, but as soon as 9:15 comes around they’re all logged in. Their eyes are glued to their teachers, because they do enjoy it,” Utter told the IPS school board at a meeting last month. “There’s 100% engagement, which is a great way to start the day.”

Adopting such virtual teaching models is one way Kuykendall says districts can recover from pandemic learning loss.

“We’re going to have to encourage our teachers to have different kinds of instructional methods and pedagogy to engage these students in different ways, because they were off for so long and they were comfortable in a Zoom format,” he said. 

Making school staff aware of racial disparities

Despite the improvements, the district still has to contend with gaps that persist among racial and ethnic subgroups. A pillar of the district’s strategic plan is to reduce those disparities.

Along with its 2025 goal for all students, IPS aims to have 50% of Black and Latino students meet or exceed grade-level performance in English and math by the same year. Those groups combined represent roughly 73% of the IPS non-charter student population.

Those disparities exist at McKinley, too. While 28.8% of white students at the school were proficient in both English and math, only 17% of Latino students and 8.8% of Black students were proficient on last year’s ILEARN.

Increasing parental involvement and ensuring that students have the necessary support to do well in school are some of the ways the district can try to close those academic disparities, which have persisted in education for decades, Kuykendall said. 

“For IPS, the challenge will be in ensuring that marginalized populations have the adequate resources to meet that goal,” he said. 

Morgan said IPS has instituted training about implicit bias for leaders, and has shared academic and disciplinary data on Black and Latino students to make staff mindful of the disparities. 

Emerging Schools have also adopted a coaching tool for teachers called CT3 that provides real-time feedback from teacher coaches watching from the back of the classroom, Morgan said.  

“CT3 actually gives teachers the tools to actually be aware of being in a classroom — how are you responding to students? Are you calling on certain groups of students and not others?” Morgan said.

Meanwhile at McKinley, staff on the school’s racial equity team are reading a book, “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain,” with a plan to present its takeaways to the whole staff, Perry said. 

As McKinley’s students prepare to take the ILEARN in a few months, Perry leans on her staff — which she calls her “dream team” — just as she did during the pandemic. 

“They really are an amazing group of educators,” she said. “We all share the same common goal, which is to grow our students to be independent learners and thinkers, and to be successful in life.”

Amelia Pak-Harvey covers Indianapolis and Marion County schools for Chalkbeat Indiana. Contact Amelia at apak-harvey@chalkbeat.org.

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