Middle schools at center of IPS testing woes

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Students arrive for the first day of school last August at IPS School 14 on the East side. Danny Graham, who worked in a student support role last year at the school, will be one of the district's new parent involvement educators this year.

Harshman Middle School, with six straight years of gains for its students passing ISTEP, has been a signature success story for Indianapolis Public Schools. But with this years scores, it’s an example of something else: the troubled state of the district’s middle schools.

For IPS, the annual release of ISTEP scores coincided with the first day of school, and the results prompted something of a reckoning of the state of the district’s offerings, both good and bad.

On the good end was Sidener Gifted Academy, a magnet school for gifted children that earned perfect scores for its students passing ISTEP. School 84 also had one of the state’s top passing rates, and three others — Cold Spring School, School 51 and School 70 — had gains of 10 percentage points or more.

Still, 48 of 58 IPS schools that took ISTEP ranked in the bottom quarter of all schools in the state. Just three IPS schools were in the top quarter. And the district’s overall passing rate grew by just 0.5 points, much lower than last year’s 2.5-point growth.

“We did show some gains, slightly, however, there is lots of work still to be done,” Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said. “I’m excited about some of our schools that have made tremendous strides.”

Perhaps no group of students performed more dismally than those who attend middle schools at one of seven IPS high schools that serve grades 6 to 12 or 7 to 12.

Four of those saw their passing rates drop by four points or more, prompting Ferebee to say an idea he suggested earlier this year — changing how middle school children are housed in IPS by potentially removing them from combined high schools — should continue to be considered.

“We are concerned about our middle schools just like we are concerned about a number of other grade levels where we did not see the performance we’d like to have,” Ferebee said. “As we look at our entire portfolio of schools, we’ll look at which models are more effective.”

Harshman’s first test score setback in more than half a decade was a big one. It went down nine points to 63.9 percent passing English and math. But the magnet school for science, technology, engineering and math still had by far the highest passing rate of any district middle school despite the big step backward.

The second best scoring middle school, Shortridge High School’s seventh and eighth graders,, also had a major drop, down 5 points to 55.9 percent passing.

In fact, scores also fell 12 points at Broad Ripple High School (44.1 percent), nine points at Crispus Attucks High School (44.5 percent), six points at George Washington High School (18.2 percent), four points at John Marshall High School (14.8 percent passing) two points at Northwest High School (21.3 percent) and 0.3 points at Longfellow Middle School (40.5 percent).

The only secondary school with gains at 7th and 8th grades was Key Learning Community (up 5 points to 35 percent).

The middle school scores at four of those nine IPS schools ranked among the bottom 50 schools in the state out of more than 1,800 that took ISTEP. That’s the bottom 0.2 percent of all Indiana schools.

The district has already made one middle school move. This year it combined the students from Longfellow into Harshman and is renting out the Longfellow building to the KIPP charter school. At the same time, Harshman’s highly regarded principal and assistant principal left for other jobs.

“We’ve got a pretty heavy discussion this school year with our collapse of Longfellow into Harshman,” Ferebee said. “That’s really our first move toward a different middle school model. It will be interesting to see how the school year flows and the different kinds of outcomes there.”

The school will remain a math and science magnet, but will be more traditional in design, he said. Since IPS lost Emma Donnan Middle School to a state takeover in 2012 — state officials handed it over to be run by a charter school company after six years of F grades for low test scores — Harshman is now the district’s only school just for grades 7 and 8.

Ferebee said earlier this year he might prefer to see middle school students served in elementary schools for grades K to 8.

“Over the last couple of years, our middle school students in our K-8 schools are performing better than our middle grades that are associated with our 6-12 secondary model” Ferbee said today. “That’s something that we’re looking at.”

Other stories from the district’s ISTEP results:

IPS had two schools ranked among the top 25 in the state.

Besides Sidener Gifted Academy, which again ranked No. 1 and this time had 100 percent passing, School 84 ranked 22nd best with 96.3 percent passing. School 84 is one of three Center for Inquiry schools in IPS, which follow an internationally-focused, project-based curriculum.
Only four other Indianapolis-area schools ranked in the top 25 in the state: Hasten Hebrew Academy of Indianapolis (98.2 percent), St. Louis De Montfort Catholic School in Fishers (98 percent), Carmel’s Smokey Row Elementary School (96.8 percent) and Zionsville’s Pleasant View Elementary School (96.1 percent).

But it had more schools scoring near the bottom.

Five IPS schools, however, had deeply troubling results, ranking among the 25 worst scoring schools in Indiana.

John Marshall High School saw just 14.8 percent of its seventh and eighth graders pass the test, 10th worst in the state. The school was joined by School 103 (15.3 percent), George Washington High School’s middle school grades (18.2 percent), Northwest High School’s middle school grades (21.3 percent) and School 107 (27.3 percent) at the very bottom.

A few schools made big gains, more saw big declines.

Some IPS schools are gaining ground quickly. Three schools — Cold Spring School, School 51 and School 70 — gained at least 10 points over last year. Seven others gained at least five points.

Others slipped dramatically from last year, including School 107 (down 16 points), School 67 (down 12 points) and one of last year’s success stories, Key Learning Community’s elementary school (down 10 points).

Key, a K-12 school which pioneered project-based learning in the late 1980s, jumped 20 points last year, the biggest gain in the district. But this year it lost about half that gain, falling to 46.7 percent passing.

To find your school’s results, take a look at our interactive search tool.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”