Are Children Learning

Flanner House charter school to close amid cheating allegations

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Flanner House charter school closed in September in the wake of a cheating scandal.

An Indianapolis charter school that stunned the state with sky-high test scores in 2013 will close next month after state and city investigators concluded that the gains had come from cheating.

Flanner House School staff erased and changed some students’ answers on the state reading and math exams, wrote essay responses for students to copy into their own handwriting, and allowed them to practice in advance on real test questions, according to investigators from Mayor Greg Ballard’s office and the Indiana Department of Education.

The school’s governing board met Wednesday night and decided to close the 176-student school no later than Sept. 11. Had the board not voted to close the school, the mayor’s office was prepared to seek action to shutter it.

“I strongly support the Flanner House Elementary Board of Directors’ decision to relinquish its charter,” said John Mutz, chairman of the Indianapolis Charter School Board, which oversees mayor-sponsored charter schools. “We cannot tolerate academic dishonesty in any of our schools and should work together to support the students and families during this transition.”

A big  jump in scores, then a fall back to earth

Last year, Flanner House School made one of the biggest test score gains in the state when its ISTEP English and math passing rate jumped 42 points to 95 percent.

That put Flanner House — whose students almost all come from families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch — in the top .01 percent statewide for the year. It outscored all but two schools in Carmel, for example, the state’s top-performing district where just 7.6 percent of students are considered poor.

Before 2013, Flanner House had never seen more than 65 percent of students pass the state exam. School leaders said at the time there had been no major changes in the student population, teaching staff, or school leadership.

Principal Latika Warthaw last year credited curriculum changes and better use of data for the big jump in scores.

“This year is when everything from the last two to three years of hard work finally shifted and came through in full force,” she told the Indianapolis Star when scores were released in 2013.

But this year’s scores, released earlier this month, showed that the school’s passing rate fell precipitously — down nearly 39 points to 56.5 percent passing.

Flanner House was back to the sort of passing rate that was more in line with its prior performance and ranked in the bottom 11 percent of schools in Indiana.

The investigations allege there was cheating both years, and the state plans to invalidate all student scores for 2013 and 2014. Flanner House will lose its “A” grade from the state for last year and its four-star school award, given for high passing rates.

Practice questions were on ISTEP

Investigation of the school’s improbable test score gain started in 2013, according to records of the mayor’s investigation. Ballard’s charter schools office raised concerns with state education officials, who asked the mayor to investigate. A report of that investigation states that the school did not have good procedures in place for assuring test security but does not document specific evidence of cheating.

Direct evidence of cheating came when ISTEP was administered again this March A member of the Flanner House staff alerted Ballard’s office of concerns that others at the school might have prepared students for ISTEP by letting them practice on actual test questions before taking the exam.

The allegation prompted a second investigation.

Students interviewed by investigators from Ballard’s office told them they knew some of the ISTEP questions from review sessions.

“For reading, some were new and some we had already done,” a third-grader said of ISTEP, according to the investigators’ report. “I remember reading the story about ants before. The questions were the same.”

A teacher who was interviewed described finding evidence students had prepped on an actual ISTEP essay question, called a “writing prompt.”

“On Wednesday, one of my students opened her book and pulled out a piece of scrap paper,” the teacher told investigators. “She said, ‘Is this supposed to be here?’ I looked closer and it was a handwritten copy of the (ISTEP) writing prompt that had been left in the book.”

Teachers and administrators found to have cheated on ISTEP can lose their teaching licenses. State officials have not yet said whether they will try to revoke licenses for any Flanner House staff.

Answers erased, handwriting changed

Ballard sponsors Flanner House and more than 30 other charter schools. As a sponsor, he allows schools to open — and can order them closed if they fail to keep their promises of improved academic performance. Ballard’s charter school office evaluates schools annually on a series of managerial, financial, and academic measurements.

Along with the mayor’s investigations, state officials followed with a review of the school’s test results.

Testing companies have developed techniques for identifying unusual patterns of answers that are erased and changed which can be used to identify possible cases of cheating. Those techniques have been used to identify widespread cheating in other cities, including Atlanta and Philadelphia.

The state conducted such a review while looking at Flanner House’s outsized 2013 gains. Investigators found that many wrong answers were erased and changed to right answers — more than would be expected if children checked their own work. That finding, plus the precision of pencil marks on the answer sheets and some of the handwriting on longer answers, suggested to investigators that adults made the changes.

“Nearly half the Flanner House teacher groups were flagged in an erasure analysis study as having students with unusually high number of changes from wrong answers to right answers on the multiple-choice portions of the spring 2013 ISTEP assessment,” state officials wrote to Ballard’s charter school director Brandon Brown in a memo on Monday.

Test scores not Flanner House’s only problem

The school opened in 2002, one of the first 10 Indiana charter schools to open that year. A separate Flanner House charter high school closed in 2005 for financial reasons.

The school has been under scrutiny from Ballard’s office since 2012, when it was placed on a performance improvement plan for managerial, financial, and academic reasons.

Ballard’s staff met with Flanner House school officials more than 50 times since the plan began and attended 10 of the school’s 14 board meetings over the two years. At only about half of those meetings were enough board members present to make official decisions for the school.

The school has also been losing students. It dropped to 176 enrolled this year, down from 230 in 2010. Because state funding is paid per student, that has had a financial impact on the school, which last week had to use a line of credit to make payroll.

Flanner House School shares a name with a community center that has served primarily Indianapolis’ black community since 1898 but is separately managed with its own board. The only relationship between the community center and the school is that of a landlord and tenant: The school pays rent and is house in a Flanner House building.

“It is important to note that despite their co-location, Flanner House Elementary School and Flanner House Inc. are separate and distinct organizations,” United Way CEO Ann Murtlow said in a statement. “Flanner House Inc. remains an important United Way of Central Indiana agency, and we stand in full support of their work.”

The school’s decision to close means its students will have to enroll at other charter schools or schools operated by the city. Parent meetings are expected before the end of the week.

Testing reboot

ACT do-overs pay off for 40 percent of Tennessee high school seniors who tried

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Tennessee’s $2 million investment in helping high school seniors retake the ACT test appears to be paying off for a second year in a row.

Almost three-fourths of the class of 2018 took the national college entrance test last fall for a second time, doubling the participation rate in Tennessee’s ACT Senior Retake Day for public schools. State officials announced Wednesday that 40 percent of the do-overs resulted in a higher overall score.

Of the 52,000 students who participated in the initiative’s second year, 2,333 raised their average composite to a 21 or higher, making them eligible for HOPE Scholarship funds of up to $16,000 for tuition. That’s potentially $37 million in state-funded scholarships.

In addition, Tennessee students are expected to save almost $8 million in remedial course costs — and a lot of time — since more of them hit college-readiness benchmarks that allow direct enrollment into credit-bearing coursework.

But besides the benefits to students, the early results suggest that Tennessee is inching closer to raising its ACT average to the national average of 21 by 2020, one of four goals in Tennessee’s five-year strategic plan.

After years of mostly stagnant scores, the state finally cracked 20 last year when the class of 2017 scored an average of 20.1, buoyed in part by the senior retake strategy.

(The ACT testing organization will release its annual report of state-by-state scores in August, based on the most recent test taken. Tennessee will release its own report based on the highest score, which is what colleges use.)

Tennessee is one of 13 states that require its juniors to take the ACT or SAT and, in an effort to boost scores, became the first to pay for public school seniors to retake their ACTs in 2016. Only a third of that class took advantage of the opportunity, but enough students scored higher to make it worth expanding the voluntary program in its second year.

Last fall, the state worked with local districts to make it easier for seniors to participate. The retake happened during the school day in students’ own schools, instead of on a Saturday morning at an ACT testing site.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the expanded access has paid off tenfold. “Now, more Tennessee students are able to access scholarship funding, gain admission to colleges and universities, and earn credit for their work from day one,” she said.

Of the state’s four urban districts, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, which serves Davidson County, increased its average composite score the most (up .5 to 18.4), followed by Hamilton County (up .3 to 19.4), and Shelby County Schools, (up .2 to 17.1). Knox County Schools and the state-run Achievement School District, which operates high schools in Memphis, saw slight drops from their retakes and will retain their higher average scores taken earlier.

Statewide, 10 school systems logged a half point or more of growth from their junior test day to the senior retake:

  • Anderson County, up .6 to 19.3
  • Arlington City, up .6 to 22.5
  • Collierville City, up .6 to 24.3
  • Davidson County, up .5 to 18.4
  • Franklin County, up .6 to 20.1
  • Haywood County, up .5 to 17.5
  • Henderson County, up .5 to 21.2
  • Humboldt City, up .8 to 17.4
  • Maryville City, up .5 to 22.1
  • Williamson County, up .6 to 24.1

Tennessee set aside up to $2.5 million to pay for its 2017 Retake Day, and Gov. Bill Haslam is expected to fund the initiative in the upcoming year as well. The state already pays for the first ACT testing day statewide, which it’s done since 2009.

Correction: January 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to show that, while the state set aside $2.5 million for its ACT retake initiative, it spent only $2 million on the program this fiscal year.

double take

Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Students work on assignments at Indianapolis Public Schools Center For Inquiry at School 27.

Imagine a scenario where Indiana schools get not just one A-F grade each year, but two.

One grade would determine whether a school can be taken over by the state. The other would comply with federal law asking states to track student test progress and how federal aid is spent. Both would count, but each would reflect different measures of achievement and bring different consequences.

This could be Indiana’s future if a state board-approved plan moves ahead at the same time the state is working on a conflicting plan to comply with a new federal law.

If it sounds complicated, that’s because it probably would be, said state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. Originally, A-F grades were intended to be an easy way for parents and community members to understand how their school is doing.

“It’s extremely confusing to have multiple accountability systems with multiple consequences,” McCormick told board members last week. “All along our message has been to get as much alignment as we can.”

Indiana would not be the first state to consider dual accountability systems — Colorado operated separate systems for years under No Child Left Behind and is now doing so again. Virginia, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have also had two models in years past. But this move would be a big departure from Indiana’s efforts over the past several years to simplify accountability, and education officials warn it could create more problems than it would solve.

Dale Chu, an education consultant who previously worked in Indiana under state Superintendent Tony Bennett, said it’s actually not common for states to have multiple systems, and doing so for political reasons, rather than what helps students and families, is concerning.

“We all know how confusing accountability systems can be when you just have one,” Chu said. “To create a bifurcated system, I don’t see how you gain additional clarity … I would certainly hope that if that’s the direction the state is going to move in, they are very thoughtful and intentional about it.”

The changes come as Indiana works to create a plan to comply with a new federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. McCormick’s education department has been working to align the federal system with Indiana’s grading system, and is struggling to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, most notably in the area of graduation requirements and diplomas.

At the same time the Indiana State Board of Education is negotiating this alignment, it is also revamping the A-F grade system.

A new grading proposal approved by the state board last week would put more emphasis on student test scores than the A-F system that now unifies state and federal requirements. Those new rules would include extra categories for grading schools, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan.

While that proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

Officials were already expecting to issue two sets of A-F grades to schools in 2018 — one state grade, and one federal — as the state continued to work all of Indiana’s unresolved education issues into the new federal plan. Figuring out how to ensure state graduation rates don’t plummet because of other federal rule changes dictating  which diplomas count and incorporating the new high school graduation requirements, for example, will take time — and legislation — to fix.

Read: Indiana has a curious plan to sidestep federal rules — give schools two A-F grades next year.

But ultimately, officials said, if some of the state board-approved changes make it into final policy, and Indiana’s federal plan doesn’t change to accommodate it, the state and federal accountability systems could remain at odds with each other — meaning schools would continue to get two grades after 2018.

The original intent was to have all Indiana’s state grading system line up with federal requirements before the plan was sent to federal officials in September. Then, once the federal government gave feedback, the state A-F revamp could continue.

But just this past fall, after the federal plan had been submitted, some members of the state board began adding in additional measures, some of which reflect their personal interests in how schools should be rated.

Those measures were added after board members had multiple chances to discuss the federal plan with the education department, conversations that were held in an attempt to ward off such changes this late in the game. Yet even last week at the state board’s monthly meeting, where the new grading changes were approved, some board members didn’t seem to realize until after the vote that the A-F systems would not match up.

David Freitas, a state board member, said he didn’t see the conflicting A-F grade rules as a problem. The board can make Indiana’s state A-F system whatever it wants, he said, and there will be plenty of time to iron out specifics as the rulemaking process unfolds over the next several months.

“We’re not banned from having two different systems,” Freitas said. “But we need to consider the implications and consequences of that.”

Read more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.