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.”

PAYOUT

Douglas County district pays $1.3 million to settle landmark special education case

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The Douglas County School District has paid $1.32 million to settle a long-running special education case brought by a couple who sought reimbursement from the district for their son’s education at a private school for students with autism.

The payment, made to the law firm representing the couple in May, represents the last chapter in a landmark special education case known as Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District. The case lasted for seven years, leading to a 2017 U.S. Supreme Court decision that raised the standard schools must meet in educating students with disabilities.

“The settlement really just eliminates any uncertainty there may have been about the importance of the Endrew F. decision,” said Meghan Whittaker, policy and advocacy manager for the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

She expects the settlement to spur greater awareness about the higher standard and increased public investment in educating students with disabilities.

Jennifer and Joe, the parents of Endrew F., the student at the center of the case, declined to comment on the settlement when reached by email this week.

In February, they said their attorney had reached out to school district officials numerous times over the years with offers to talk and potentially settle the case out of court, but that the district rejected those overtures.

Chalkbeat requested the 2-page settlement agreement under the Colorado Open Records Act, but district officials declined to provide it, citing a confidentiality agreement between the two parties.

The seeds of the Endrew F. case were planted about a decade ago when Jennifer and Joe pulled Endrew, then a fourth-grader, out of his Douglas County elementary school after years of stalled educational progress. They placed him at a specialized school in Denver — Firefly Autism House — where they saw immediate improvements. Tuition at the school is more than $70,000 a year.

In 2011, Jennifer and Joe sued the school district for tuition reimbursement, arguing that Endrew had not received a fair and appropriate education in Douglas County schools as required by federal law. Three courts ruled against the family before the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

Throughout the case, Jennifer and Joe asked that their last name not be used to protect their family’s privacy.

While the unanimous 2017 U.S. Supreme Court ruling was hailed as a momentous decision with enormous significance for millions of students with disabilities across the country, it kicked the question of whether the district should repay the family for years of private school back to the lower court.

In February, a federal judge ruled that the district owed the family for tuition and legal costs. According to district officials, the district reached an agreement for the $1.32 million payment on April 19 with the school board’s authority. The money came out of the district’s general fund.

In recent months, public and private groups have released new resources to help school district leaders and parents understand and act on the Endrew F. decision. In December, the U.S. Department of Education put out a nine-page Q&A on the topic.

In early 2018, the National Center for Learning Disabilities put out the Endrew F. Advocacy Toolkit for parents. The downloadable toolkit, which has been accessed 30,000 times so far, outlines the process for advocating for students with disabilities and improving their individualized learning plans.

Whittaker said the Endrew F. settlement signals to both parents and school officials the importance of working together to craft such plans.

“The focus here needs to not be on future cases and parents suing school districts but providing students with the services they need now,” she said.

Read more about Joe and Jennifer’s long journey to the Supreme Court here and their frustration at being portrayed as a school choice success story by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy Devos here.

time for kids

New York City agrees to provide paid family leave to teachers

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
The United Federation of Teachers and city officials announced a new paid parental leave policy.

New York City will begin providing paid family leave to teachers, officials announced today, a victory for the United Federation of Teachers.

The city will pay full salary to birth, foster, adoptive, and surrogate parents for six weeks — covering about 120,000 union members. Combined with sick time, birth mothers will now be able to take 12 to 14 weeks of leave starting in September. The city estimates 4,000 parents annually will benefit.

The new policy is expected to cost the city $51 million. To help cover that cost, the city and the union agreed to extend their current contract for an additional two-and-a-half months past its expiration in November.

“It’s a fundamental matter of fairness to make sure that people have this opportunity,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The decision follows heavy pressure from the teacher’s union, which has campaigned for a more generous policy for teachers since the city extended six weeks of fully paid time off to its non-union workforce in 2016, covering about 20,000 managerial employees. Paid leave had become a rare point of contention between the mayor and powerful teachers union — with the union president accusing the administration of sexism during a City Council hearing. 

“All we asked for was to be treated fairly when members of our own union bring children into their families,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said Wednesday. “That wrong has finally been righted.”

The new policy also comes as the UFT braces for a Supreme Court ruling that could take a big bite out of the union’s ability to collect dues. Securing a victory on paid family leave could help demonstrate the union’s utility at a time when retaining members could become increasingly difficult.

Educators who work for the Department of Education, the city’s largest agency, previously had to use accrued sick days after having a baby — and that policy applied only to birth mothers, not educators who become parents through adoption or surrogacy.

The city has contended that the issue would be addressed during negotiations for the UFT contract. But Mulgrew has bristled at that, saying at a hearing in April that leave was “being used completely as a bargaining chip against our union.” The UFT’s membership is 77 percent female.

Top city officials have previously hinted that they planned to come up with a family leave policy, even if they have been reluctant to share details about what it could look like. “Obviously we’re not going to negotiate in public,” Carranza said last month. But, he added, “I will be very supportive of anything that helps [teachers].”

The battle for paid family leave was re-ignited by an online petition started by two Brooklyn teachers that had more than 80,000 signatures in the fall. After the teachers brought attention to the issue, the union took up the cause, sending out an “action alert” to members in November.

“We’ve chosen to dedicate our lives to helping children, so the irony is glaring that we don’t get any support when we’re having our own,” said Emily James, a Brooklyn high school teacher who was behind the viral petition. 

Even as strides in family leave have been made elsewhere, union officials said teachers were being left behind. New York state, for example, passed a mandatory paid leave policy that covered private employees as of 2018.

Taking leave under the old policy created hardship for parents. Mothers had to use sick days if they wanted paid time off after giving birth. But teachers earn only one sick day per school month worked: To save up for an eight-week leave, a teacher would have to work about four years without taking a sick day.

If a woman hasn’t accrued enough days, she can “borrow” days that she hasn’t accrued yet, up to 20 days. But if she or her children actually get sick, any days beyond the 20 must be taken unpaid. And borrowed sick days have to be repaid if the teacher leaves the education department.

This story will be updated as more details become available.