Testing Testing

Some townships show ISTEP gains despite challenges of growing poverty

PHOTO: Allen Underwood, Courtesy of Wayne Township Schools
A teacher helps a student during classroom instruction at McClelland Elementary School.

With a little more than a quarter of their schools even ranking in the top half statewide when it comes to passing ISTEP, Marion County townships struggled this year.

But in a few of them — especially Pike and Wayne townships — the percentage of students passing ISTEP is growing quickly, even as the families the schools serve have grown considerably poorer.

For Pike Township, there’s a new focus on providing a “safety net” for kids who might otherwise fall through the cracks — different learning options and extra supports outside the classroom. In Wayne, a key strategy has been to pay close attention to teaching methods in the classroom and reinforcing what works best.

Wayne Township had the county’s biggest gain on ISTEP, up 5.8 percentage points with 64.4 percent passing both math and English in 2013-14, according to data released today by the Indiana Department of Education.

Over a longer time period, five years, Pike Township leads the county with a gain of 11.3 points.

In fact, most of the county’s school districts have made strong gains over the past five years. Wayne Township gained 8.7 points and IPS is up 8.2 points, while Lawrence Township (8.2 points), and Franklin Township (7.3 points) also gained at least seven points over that time.

No Marion County district has lost ground over five years but the smallest gain over five years was Warren Township, which gained just 1.5 points.

2013-14 ISTEP scores by township
2013-14 ISTEP scores by township over the past five years

For Pike and Wayne, a surge in poverty has made their jobs harder, but also presented opportunities to think differently about how they serve their students.

In Pike, students who come from families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch jumped to 64 percent last year from 40 percent in 2007. For a family of four, that means annual income is less than $43,500.

Pike has responded to that trend by thinking outside the classroom, not just focusing on instruction.

The district has implemented “safety net” programs, as  Pike Township Superintendent Nate Jones calls them, which include after-school tutoring and mentoring programs.

Pike has also tried to offer new types of learning. Some kids fit better, Jones said, in alternative programs with more classroom structure. Weekend learning opportunities work well for others.

The district also recently added a focus on science, technology, engineering and math with a goal of helping students compete for jobs.

“I will not say that poverty does not negatively impact student achievement,” he said. “But our whole philosophy has been turnaround, especially in the last five or six years. Students that come to us, we’re going to work with them where they’re at.”

In Wayne Township, Superintendent Jeff Butts said there is a new focus on encouraging quality teaching.

It began with honest discussions about what was, and was not, working, with teachers leading the discussions around how they are evaluated. Administrators started visiting classrooms more often, suggesting improvements and trying to respond more quickly and with specific advice.

“You have to make it comfortable enough that it’s not punitive,” Butts said. “It’s not about somebody being in trouble, it’s about having really a safe environment to say, ‘I missed something, in how I taught this or how I proceeded through this unit, and I know I can do something different to make a bigger impact on my children. What does that look like?’”

Two Wayne Township schools were ranked among the top 30 in the state for the biggest gains over last year: McClelland Elementary School (up 19 points) and North Wayne Elementary School (up 15 points).

The district redesigned its curriculum and put a stronger focus studying test scores and using what was learned to tailor instruction. Teachers were able to see where test scores were growing and where they were falling short. That led to conversations about what could be done differently.

At McClelland, Butts also also praised Principal Jennifer Nichols’ leadership.

“It makes a difference when you have a strong principal, and she’s a strong principal,” Butts said.

Even with township schools making gains, the county is struggling.

Only three Marion County districts saw more than one in 10 of their schools ranked in the top quarter of the state for ISTEP passing rate: Franklin (38 percent), Speedway (20 percent) and Washington (10 percent).

Franklin, the county’s top scoring district for several years, has an advantage: it has the fewest poor students in the county at 37.9 percent. This year, it again had the highest passing rate with 82.8 percent passing, up about one point from last year.

Franklin Township Superintendent Flora Reichanadter said her district has good strategies — for example, the schools decreed a 90-minute uninterrupted block of reading time for elementary school kids and dedicated time for extra help or trying more challenging work for middle school students.

But there was a problem: those times were constantly being interrupted.

“At the elementary level, we already had the time set aside,” she said. “We were providing a lot of individual help but we weren’t providing it at the same intensity that our lowest performing kids needed.”

Most of the county isn’t seeing as many schools succeed.

A majority of schools fall in the bottom 25 percent for percent passing ISTEP in four districts: IPS (83 percent), Lawrence (62 percent), Wayne (60 percent) and Warren (53 percent).

That was also the story for the the county as a whole. A combined 56 percent of 105 traditional public and charter schools ranked in the bottom quarter statewide and just 6 percent in the top quarter.

Warren (down 1.1 points) and Lawrence (down 0.4 points), were the only Marion County districts that saw their passing rates drop.

In Warren Township, Superintendent Dena Cushenberry blamed a “perfect storm” of circumstances for the decline.

The district, she said, has struggled with high staff turnover, new standards, an influx of new students and the extra effort required to operate three programs it promised the U.S. Department of Education it would undertake.

The programs were made possible by a $28.5 million federal Race To The Top grant. They required an overhaul of tests the district used to gauge college and career readiness, an effort to personalize each student’s learning and an attempt to emphasize a more supportive approach to discipline.

“There was just a lot for us, and a dip like that I really attribute it to just so many initiatives,” Cushenberry said. “And it was a point and not significant, but certainly something we’re looking at.”

Over the last decade, Warren Township gained a reputation for raising test scores, following a the “eight-step” process, a system of testing, tracking and regrouping of students as their skills improve.

But today, the district still stands 10th out of 11 in Marion County for its ISTEP passing rate, just above IPS. Their experience mirrors the rest of the county: improving but still behind.

Testing Time

New York’s state test scores are coming out today. Here’s what we’ll be watching for.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

At long last, New York state English and math test scores are being released today, according to state officials.

Though the tests have been criticized as providing only a snapshot of what students have learned, they are still one of the main tools used to judge the progress of schools, students, and major education initiatives.

Because the tests themselves held steady between 2016 and 2017, the test scores will provide a brief glimpse into whether students are making progress. That could also mean smaller changes than last year, when English scores shot up nearly eight percentage points.

But stable comparisons will only make a temporary appearance in New York education. Next year, the state has announced it will shorten testing by two days, which will no doubt call yearly comparisons into question again.

Here are a few storylines we’ll be watching as the state prepares to release test results:

Is the city’s approach to education policy working? What about signature programs like “Renewal”?

When test results jumped almost eight points in English and roughly one point in math last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio was quick to say they showed “pure hard evidence” his policies were working.

The state’s top education policymakers, however, cautioned that due to changes in the test, an “apples-to-apples” comparison to the year before was impossible. The changes included offering students unlimited time and shortening the exams slightly. This year, state tests were kept consistent in order to make those comparisons possible.

That raises an important question: Without changes to tests, will the results still be good news for Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña? It is particularly important for high-profile efforts like the city’s “Renewal” turnaround program, which is entering the year in which the mayor said it should show results.

The only other year under de Blasio’s tenure when the state had fairly consistent testing compared to the prior year was 2015. In that year, test scores inched up one point in math and two points in English.

It may be a good thing if there are only small increases again, said Jennifer Jennings, an associate professor at NYU who has studied testing.

“We hope that they’re gradually inching upwards,” Jennings said. “Very large swings are often evidence that something is off.”

What will happen to opt-out?

For the last two years, about one in five students across New York state have boycotted state tests in protest. That number is significantly lower in New York City — though it has been growing. In 2016, 2.4 percent of city students sat out of the English exams and 2.8 opted out of math in New York City.

The opt-out rate acts as a litmus test of the public’s reaction to state education policy. The movement started in response to a series of state reforms, including adoption of the Common Core and test-based teacher evaluations.

Despite changes the state made last year to appease families upset about the tests, opt-out rates remained relatively consistent. (In fact, they ticked up a bit.) This year, the state has embarked on a process to reshape learning standards and submit a new plan to evaluate schools under the new federal education law.

Will that be enough to defuse some of the tension? Early results indicated opt-out rates may have decreased statewide, but the final tally will likely be released today with state test scores, as it has in past years.

What about equity, which is at the heart of the city’s agenda?

Each year, test results show a disheartening fact: Certain subgroups, such as black and Hispanic students, fare worse than their peers on tests. English learners and students with disabilities also historically score below average.

City and state officials have placed equity at the heart of their agenda. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Equity and Excellence” initiatives and his approach to turning around struggling schools are predicated on the idea that schools — particularly those in low-income communities — need resources in order to be successful. State officials have put equity at the center of their plan to reshape education policy under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

De Blasio’s critics, however, have argued the best way to address equity issues is tackling segregation in New York City schools. (The mayor released a preliminary diversity plan, but has been fairly slow to endorse integration as a strategy for school improvement.)

So, are the extra resources helping to close the gap between students of color and their white and Asian peers? This year’s test scores will help sort out that question, though many of the mayor’s major initiatives could take years to come to fruition.

On Close watch

State’s lowest performing schools and districts taking hard look at this year’s test data

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sixth-grade science teacher Monica Wisniewski works with Pija Williams Terralee, left, and Myth Cubbison at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. Kearney is in Adams County School District 14.

Testing data for Colorado’s longest-struggling schools and districts show mixed trends.

Results released Thursday are from exams students took last spring, before the State Board of Education approved corrective action plans for the five districts and a dozen schools that had run out of time on Colorado’s accountability clock.

The Pueblo City 60 district saw a decline across many tests and grade levels while Westminster Public Schools showed improvements in 10 of 14 English and math tests.

Those districts, like other districts and schools facing state intervention this past school year, were already making changes before their state improvement plans were finalized. Much of that work is incorporated into the plans.

Thursday’s test data will be used toward a new state rating, one which these districts and schools must improve soon. The state plans gave most schools and districts until 2019 to earn a higher quality rating for face potential consequencs. But some, including the Adams County School District 14 and Adams City High School in Commerce City, must have a higher rating by 2018.

Find your school’s scores
Search for your school’s growth scores in Chalkbeat’s database here, or search for your school’s test results and participation rates in Chalkbeat’s database here.

The district of almost 7,500 students saw some improvements, but still is posting very low scores. For instance, 9.3 percent of fifth-grade students met the state’s learning goals in math, up from 7.9 percent last year. In that area, the district did better than the state, as fewer fifth graders did well on math tests statewide than last year.

At Adams City High School, growth scores, which represent how much students learned in a year compared to similar-performing students, decreased for both math and English. The school had an interim principal for much of the school year, which led to a student walkout in the spring.

Overall, Adams 14’s proficiency numbers are still lower than state averages.

Of these low-performing districts, the Pueblo City 60 district, which faced state action only for some of its schools but not as a district, was the only one that had decreases in growth scores for both English and math tests.

In English, the growth score was 43, down from 47 last year. That means students this year scored on average better than just 43 percent of Colorado students who had similar test scores last year.

The Pueblo district saw an increase in how many students met or exceeded expectations in eighth-grade English. One possible reason officials pointed to: innovation schools granted flexibility from some rules and state laws.

Dalton Sprouse, a district spokesman, said district officials are relatively pleased with the improvements they see in the data, especially when broken down by school.

“Given that there’s just two years of growth data, some of the fluctuation could be expected,” Sprouse said. “We see this as we’re maintaining the progress we made last year.”

Sprouse noted that two of the three schools that faced the state board earlier this year for low performance saw big increases in the number of students meeting math expectations.

“Some progress is starting to take place,” Sprouse said. “The assessment office is already working with principals to really dig into that data.”

Westminster Public Schools, another district that faced state action this year and is now on a three-year improvement plan, saw more improvements than the other districts on the state watchlist.

“We are pleased to see our focus on high expectations and personalized learning for all students is paying off,” Superintendent Pamela Swanson said in a statement.

The Westminster district, however, was also one of the only districts in the metro area where English language learners had worse growth scores than native English speakers in both math and English. Last year, there was no gap in growth on English tests.

Last year, about 40 percent of students in Westminster schools were English language learners.

In Adams 14 schools, where about 46 percent of students are English language learners, those students posted higher growth scores than native English speaking students.

Westminster did increase their overall rate of growth according to median growth scores, and reached above 50 for English language arts.

Aurora Public Schools, the only district at risk of state action next year, posted increases and also got one growth score above 50, which is critical to catch students up when they are behind grade level.

Here’s how districts that ran out of time on Colorado’s accountability clock — or districts that had schools that did — compared: