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.

research report

Three years in, some signs of (slight) academic growth at struggling ‘Renewal’ schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio at Brooklyn Generation School — part of the Renewal program

When Mayor Bill de Blasio launched an aggressive and expensive campaign to turn around the city’s lowest performing schools, he made a big promise: Schools would see “fast and intense” improvements within three years.

Almost exactly three years later, and after flooding 78 schools with more than $386 million in new social services and academic support, there are signs that the Renewal program has generated gains in student learning. The evidence is based on two newly updated analyses of test score data — one from Marcus Winters, a fellow at the conservative-learning Manhattan Institute, and the other from Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College.

But the researchers caution that those improvements are modest — when they exist at all — and don’t yet match the mayor’s lofty promises.

The results may have implications far beyond New York City, as a national and political test case of whether injecting struggling schools with resources is more effective than closing them.

The two researchers previously reviewed the first two years of test score data in elementary and middle schools in the Renewal program: Winters found a positive effect on test scores, while Pallas generally found little to no effect.

Now, as the program reaches its third birthday, the pair of researchers have updated their findings with new test score data from last school year, and largely reaffirmed their earlier conclusions.

“We’re not seeing large increases” in student achievement, Pallas said. “And the reality is it’s hard to get large increases in struggling schools.”

Some advocates have argued that it is too early to expect big shifts in test scores, and that infusing schools with extra social services like mental health counseling and vision screenings are valuable in themselves. But de Blasio’s promise of quick academic turnaround has invited questions about Renewal’s effectiveness and whether resources can be more effective in improving low-performing schools than shuttering them.

To assess the program’s academic effect, Pallas compared changes in Renewal school test scores to other schools that had similar test results and student demographics when the program started, but did not receive extra support.

The biggest gains Pallas found were concentrated at the elementary level.

Over the past three school years, 20 elementary schools in the Renewal program have made larger gains on average in math and reading than 23 similar schools that didn’t get extra resources. The proportion of elementary school students considered proficient in reading at Renewal schools increased from 7 percent in 2014 to 18 percent last year — an 11-point jump. Meanwhile, the comparison schools also saw gains, but only by seven percentage points, giving Renewal schools a four percentage point advantage.

At the middle school level, the results are less encouraging. The 45 Renewal middle schools did not collectively outperform a group of 50 similar schools outside the program in reading or math.

In math, for instance, Renewal school students improved from 5 percent proficient to 7 percent. However, the comparison schools outside the program improved by roughly the same margin — increasing proficiency from 6 to 9 percent (and still far below city average). In reading, Renewal middle schools showed slightly less growth than the comparison group.

City officials have argued that Pallas’ findings are misleading partly because Renewal schools and the comparison schools are not actually comparable. Renewal schools, they say, were designated based on a range of factors like school climate or teacher effectiveness, not just student demographics and test scores.

“The schools included in the study are neither similar nor comparable in quality and a comparison of the two dissimilar groups is unreliable at best,” Michael Aciman, an education department spokesman, said in a statement. Aciman added that Renewal schools have made larger gains in reading and math than similar schools across the state, and have made progress in reducing chronic absenteeism and improving instruction.

Pallas notes that there are some limitations to his approach, and acknowledges that he could not account for some differences between the two groups, such as the quality of a school’s principal. He also does not use student-level data, for instance, which would allow a more fine-grained analysis of whether the Renewal program is boosting student achievement. But Pallas, and other researchers who have previously reviewed his data, have said his model is rigorous.

The Manhattan Institute’s Winters found more positive trends than Pallas, consistent with his earlier findings. Using an approach that evaluates whether Renewal schools are outperforming historical trends compared with schools outside the program, Winters found that the Renewal program appeared to have a statistically significant effect on both reading and math scores — roughly equivalent to the difference in student achievement between charter schools and traditional district schools in New York City.

Asked about how to interpret the fact that his results tended to be more positive, Winters said either interpretation is plausible.

“It’s hard to tell which of these is exactly right,” he said. But “neither of us are finding results that are consistent with what we would expect if the program is having a large positive effect.”

explainer

Five things to know about the latest brouhaha over Tennessee’s TNReady test

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

Last week’s revelation that nearly 10,000 Tennessee high school tests were scored incorrectly has unleashed a new round of criticism of the standardized test known as TNReady.

Testing company Questar says it muffed some tests this spring after failing to update its scanning software. A year earlier, a series of mistakes got its predecessor, Measurement Inc., fired when Tennessee had to cancel most of TNReady in its first year after a failed transition to online testing.

While the two companies’ glitches are hardly comparable in scope, Questar’s flub has uncorked a tempest of frustration and anger over the standardized assessment and how it’s used to hold teachers accountable.

Here are five things to know about the latest TNReady flap:

1. A relatively small number of students, teachers, and schools are affected.

State officials report that the scoring problem was traced to only high school tests, not for its grade-schoolers. Of the 600,000 high school end-of-course tests, about 9,400 were scored incorrectly. Most of the fixes were so small that fewer than 1,700 tests — or less than one-tenth of 1 percent — saw any change in their overall performance level. A state spokeswoman says the corrected scores have been shared with the 33 impacted districts.

2. But the TNReady brand has taken another huge hit.

Tennessee has sought to rebuild public trust in TNReady under Questar and celebrated a relatively uneventful testing season last spring. But the parade of problems that surfaced during TNReady’s rollout, combined with this year’s drops in student performance under the new test, have made subsequent bumps feel more like sinkholes to educators who already are frustrated with the state’s emphasis on testing. Questar’s scanning problems were also tied to delays in delivering preliminary scores to school systems this spring — another bump that exasperated educators and parents at the end of the school year and led many districts to exclude the data from student report cards.

3. State lawmakers will revisit TNReady — and soon.

House Speaker Beth Harwell asked Monday for a hearing into the latest testing problems, and discussion could happen as early as next week when a legislative study committee is scheduled to meet in Nashville. Meanwhile, one Republican gubernatorial candidate says the state should eliminate student growth scores from teacher evaluations, and a teachers union in Memphis called on Tennessee to invalidate this year’s TNReady results.

4. Still, those talks are unlikely to derail TNReady.

Tennessee is heavily invested in its new assessment as part of its five-year strategic plan for raising student achievement. Changing course now would be a surprise. Last school year was the first time that all students in grades 3-11 took TNReady, a standardized test aligned to the Common Core standards, even though those expectations for what students should learn in math and English language arts have been in Tennessee classrooms since 2012. State officials view TNReady results as key to helping Tennessee reach its goal of ranking in the top half of states on the Nation’s Report Card by 2019.

5. Tennessee isn’t alone in traveling a bumpy testing road.

Questar was criticized this summer for its design of two tests in Missouri. Meanwhile, testing giant Pearson has logged errors and missteps in New York, Virginia, and Mississippi. And in Tennessee and Ohio this spring, the ACT testing company administered the wrong college entrance exam to almost 3,000 juniors from 31 schools. Officials with the Tennessee Department of Education emphasized this week that they expect 100 percent accuracy on scoring TNReady. “We hold our vendor and ourselves to the highest standard of delivery because that is what students, teachers, and families in Tennessee deserve,” said spokeswoman Sara Gast.