Future of Schools

Schools, board members ask: Are Indiana's grades fair?

Schools across Indiana received their report cards today, with the state rating the highest scorers an “A” and the lowest laggards an “F,” terminology well known to the schoolchildren they serve.

But unlike the grade a student receives from a teacher, the state’s grades are not based on daily interactions and observation but on complex mathematical formulas.

This year, perhaps more than ever before, there are reasons to ask: is your school’s grade fair?

“I think it’s worth looking at,” board member Andrea Neal said. “I’m very uncomfortable with the formula.”

Two big problems plagued this year’s grading results: test administration and unpredictability.

Testing woes

Almost 80,000 ISTEP online test takers in May experienced glitches that caused their screens to freeze, or otherwise slowed or stopped their exams. Some schools with widespread glitches have raised concerns that their grades were adversely affected. ISTEP is the backbone of Indiana’s accountability system. Student test scores in grades three through eight are central to judging students, teachers and schools. The number of students who pass and the amount of growth they make over the prior year help determine a teacher’s raise and job security and a school’s A to F grade.

But after last spring’s testing problems, many Indiana educators have raised questions about whether they and their schools can be fairly judged on this year’s scores.

Christel House Academy today was the first school to push back on its grade when it received an F after more than five years of A grades. School officials said their data showed more than 90 percent of students whose grades went from passing to failing had faced online testing trouble. About 40 percent of Christel House’s test takes faced online glitches, but the school’s appeal was denied.

State board member Dan Elsener said the school could now appeal to the state board.

“There’s some reason there’s an anomaly here,” he said. “There’s a whole cohort of schools that don’t like the grades they got because of testing interruptions.”

Elsner said there was little the board could do but approve the grades, despite concerns they might not be accurate for all schools, because an outside consultant determined that very few students were so affected by the glitches that their tests were invalid. That’s the only advice they have to go on, Elsener said.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz said the education department doubled checked the data, going student-by-student to be certain any tests that should have been invalidated were not included in the school’s results. If all of the scores counted toward the grade were valid, then the state must affirm the grade, she said.

Claire Fiddian-Green of the Center for Education and Career Innovation, an education agency created by Gov. Mike Pence that has often been at odds with Ritz, this time backed her up.

“I’m comfortable they conducted a thorough process with all the right steps,” Fiddian-Green said.

Yet, there is every reason to believe student scores can be affected by unexpected interruptions, said Cynthia Roach, director of research, evaluation and assessment for Indianapolis Public Schools. Just 1,400 tests were invalidated because the state’s consultant determined they were adversely affected, but Roach believes there were probably more students who should have had higher scores.

“It’s almost impossible for a student to take a test and score higher than what they know,” she said. “But it’s very easy to score lower than what they know. Everything affects kids.”

Even the consultant who evaluated the testing problems for Indiana last summer acknowledged that there was no way to definitively identify all students who likely would have had higher scores, Roach said.

Roach told the story of one IPS principal who reported a huge problem with frozen computer screens during ISTEP testing that plagued the students in her school’s gifted class. Afterward questions lingered about how the school’s grade could have been affected, even though those students were likely to pass either way.

“They did fine but was the freeze enough to affect their ability to get high growth?” Roach said. “Who knows?”

Unpredictability

When schools make drastic swings, such as from A one year to F the next or from F to A, a common explanation is that there have also been big changes in the school, such as an influx of new students or heavy turnover of teachers, Roach said.

But in some cases, Indiana schools that have seen none of those sorts of changes are unable to explain sudden reversals of fortune. More than a handful of schools making such big shifts makes even the state’s superintendent, Ritz, wonder if the problem is with the system, not the schools.

“A good system will show you have a school improving or a school not improving but not extremes like we are currently seeing in the current model,” she said.

Among the big swings this year are three schools that went from an A or B to an F and 25 schools that went from an F to an A or B. In fact, the oddities of Indiana’s current A to F formula, forged under former state Superintendent Tony Bennett, have Ritz pining for a planned overhaul.

The legislature earlier this year ordered the universally disliked growth measure junked and mandated a new system be created in 2014. Ritz, one of the current system’s critics, said the new system should eliminate most big shifts in school grades.

Stopping short of saying this year’s grades can’t be trusted, Ritz  focused on a future with new grading rules.

“We’ve had many schools where we have a fluctuation between two, three or four letter grades, up or down,” she said “I am very excited we are going to be implement, not this year but next year, a new A to F system. We are working toward that, an entire new system for A to F.”

A growth measure in the grade calculation aims to identify which schools did the best job of getting students to raise their test scores. It matches up pools of kids with similar backgrounds who scored about the same on prior tests and ranks them by the progress they made over the previous year. Those with the biggest gains earned extra points for their schools. But from the beginning, a wide range of critics, including some of Bennett’s closest allies, said the measure was too complicated and worried that it could produce unfair results.

Until 2011, the first year letter grades were instituted, Indiana followed a fairly basic formula for grading schools. It required at least 60 percent of students in a school to pass both math and English on ISTEP and high school tests in order to earn at least a D. Grades went up to a C at 70 percent, a B at 80 percent and an A at 90 percent. Schools that saw their passing rates improve enough from the prior year could get extra credit and potentially move up to a higher grade on the grading scale.

In 2012, Bennett scrapped that system, adding in new factors that aimed to measure “college and career readiness” that included the growth model, based on Colorado’s grading system.

But even if they know a new grading scheme is on the way, some board members remain uneasy with this year’s grades.

Frantically calling her late Thursday, Neal said, a Gary principal was certain errors caused his school’s grade to drop but an appeal was denied.

Neal said she’d rather the state simply report each school’s state test passing rates and how much they improved over the prior year, avoiding the difficulties of explaining how the grades were determined.

“I don’t feel its working for all schools,” she said.

Neal pointed to Park Tudor, an expensive and highly regarded private school in Indianapolis, which received a D grade despite 100 percent of its graduates going on to college and a slew of academic honors, as another example of a strange report card result.

Park Tudor spokeswoman Cathy Chapelle said its grade, too, was in error.

“The assessment grade reflects issues of reporting and communication, not of academic performance,” Chapelle said in a statement. “In fact, our academic standards and results are among the highest in the state. In 2013 alone, 201 Park Tudor students in grades 9-12 took a total of 490 Advanced Placement exams; 62% of the exams earned a score of 4 or 5 and over 87% earned a score of 3 or higher.”

Chapelle did not elaborate on what the school meant by “reporting and communication” or how it could have influenced Park Tudor’s grade.

If schools like Christel House and Park Tudor decide to appeal to the state board, would they prevail? Elsener was not encouraging, suggesting the best strategy might be just to move on.

“I think I’d say this year was a hiccup,” he said. “You have to decide where to put your best investment of time.”

awards season

For the first time in two decades, New York’s Teacher of the Year hails from New York City — and West Africa

PHOTO: New York State Education Department
Bronx International High School teacher Alhassan Susso, center, is New York State's 2019 Teacher of the Year.

An immigrant from West Africa who teaches social studies to immigrant students in the Bronx is New York State’s newest Teacher of the Year.

Alhassan Susso, who works at International Community High School in Mott Haven, received the award Tuesday, becoming the first New York City teacher to do so since 1998.

As the state’s Teacher of the Year, Susso will travel the state to work with local educators — and will represent New York in the national competition at a time when federal authorities are aggressively seeking to limit immigration.

A decorated teacher with significant vision impairment since childhood, Susso came to New York from Gambia at 16 and had a rocky experience at his upstate high school, which he chronicled in an autobiography he published in 2016. Assuming that he would struggle academically because he was an immigrant, even though English is the official language of Gambia, his teachers assigned him to a remedial reading class. There, he found a compassionate teacher who was attentive to the diverse needs of her students, who came from all over the world.

Now, Susso is playing that role at his school. International Community High School, part of the Internationals Network for new immigrants, has a special program for students who did not receive a formal education before coming to the United States.

“Alhassan Susso exemplifies the dedication and passion of our 79,000 New York City teachers,” city Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said in a statement. “Using the obstacles he’s overcome and lessons he’s learned in his own life, Alhassan has changed the trajectory of students’ lives and helped them pursue their dreams.”

New York City teachers make up nearly 40 percent of the state’s teaching force but have won the Teacher of the Year honor only six times since 1965, the last in 1998. This year’s winner had a strong chance of ending the two-decade shutout: Two of the three finalists teach in the Bronx. In addition to Susso, Frederick Douglass Academy III chemistry teacher William Green was up for the award.

regents roundup

Regents support a new way of evaluating charter schools and soften penalties for schools with high opt-out rates

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York’s top education policymakers tentatively approved new rules Monday on two hot-button issues: the penalties for districts and schools where many students opt out of state tests — and how nearly 100 charter schools across the state will be evaluated.

Here’s what you need to know about the new policies that the state’s Board of Regents set in motion.

Potential penalties for high opt-out rates were softened

After criticism from activists and parents within the opt-out movement and pushback from the state teachers union, the Regents walked back some of the consequences schools and districts can face when students refuse to take state exams.

Among the most significant changes, which state officials first floated last week, is that districts with high opt-out rates will not be required to use a portion of their federal funding to increase their testing rates.

“I do not ever want to be the person who takes money away from children,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said.

The regulations are part of the state’s plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act and stem from a federal mandate that 95 percent of students take the state’s annual reading and math exams.

The Regents tweaked other rules requiring schools to create improvement plans if they fall below the 95 percent threshold. Schools with average or higher test scores will not have to come up with those plans.

Still, some parents who support the opt-out movement and who attended Monday’s meeting said the changes don’t go far enough and that schools with lower test scores should also be exempt from coming up with plans to boost participation rates.

“There’s still so much left to be addressed,” said Kemala Karmen, a New York City public school parent who attended the meeting.

The new regulations will likely not have a major effect in New York City, where opt-out rates have remained relatively low. Although New York State has been the epicenter of the test-boycott movement — with roughly one in five students refusing to take the tests, according to the most recent data — less than 4 percent of the city’s students declined to take them.

The Regents unanimously approved the changes, although their vote is technically preliminary. The tweaks will still be subject to a 30-day public comment period and will likely be brought to a final vote in December.

New criteria for evaluating charter schools

The Regents also narrowly approved a new framework for evaluating the roughly 100 charter schools that the board oversees across the state, 63 of which are in New York City.

The new framework is meant to bring charter schools in line with how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the Regents have moved away from emphasizing test scores as the key indicator of a school’s success.

In keeping with that shift, the new charter framework will require schools to have policies covering chronic absenteeism, out-of-school suspension rates, and other measures of school culture to help decide whether they are successful enough to remain open.

And while the new framework does not spell out specific rates of chronic absenteeism a school must fall below, for example, it does explicitly add those policies to the mix of factors the Regents consider. (Officials said that test scores and graduation rates would still remain among the most important factors in evaluating charter schools.)

At Monday’s meeting, discussion of the charter framework prompted broad complaints about the charter sector from some Regents. The state’s framework for evaluating charters was last updated in 2015; the board has added several new members and a new chancellor since then.

The current board has repeatedly sent mixed messages about the sector, approving large batches of new charters while also rejecting others and raising questions about whether the schools serve a fair share of high-need students.

“We’re giving money away from our public schools to charters,” Regent Kathy Cashin said, emphasizing that she believes the state should more deeply probe when students leave charter schools and survey families to find out why.

Charters receive some freedom from rules governing most district-run schools, but in exchange the schools are expected to meet certain performance benchmarks or else face closure.

State officials said the new framework does not include new standards for how New York judges enrollment and retention. Under the current rules, schools must enroll a similar number of students with disabilities, English learners, and low-income students as other nearby district schools. If they don’t, they must show that they’re making progress toward that goal.

Ultimately, the new framework was approved eight to five in a preliminary vote and will be brought back to the full board for approval on Tuesday.