Are Children Learning

IPS tackles new standards with tailored teaching

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Shana Nissenbaum, a third-grade teacher at Key Learning Community School, helps a group of students with a math activity on counting money.

During an hour-long math lesson, Shana Nissenbaum hardly ever stands still.

One minute, she sat at a row of desks checking the work of two of her third-graders as they practiced counting fake coins. The next, she wedged herself under a table to sit with a boy struggling to measure the perimeter of shapes. Another group took a “divide and conquer” approach to their task — one student lined up paper clips on the cardboard shapes while another wrote down the answers.

What she wasn’t doing much was standing in front of the class teaching all her students in her Key Learning Community School third grade class the same thing at once.

Nissenbaum’s not alone. Fewer lectures is one way Indianapolis Public Schools’ teachers are adapting to the state’s new academic standards, which went into effect in July after Indiana’s quick about-face and rejection of Common Core standards earlier this year.

Grouping students by ability level is intended to help them focus on the skills they need to master and can be especially helpful to those who are well ahead of their classmates, or far behind, Nissenbaum, 32, said.

“As much as possible, I do group work,” she said. “That really meets individual needs.”

She cited an English standard in reading — which asks that students be proficient at finding the main idea of a passage — as a hypothetical example of how lecture doesn’t work for some kids, particularly those who have already grasped the concept.

“Frankie doesn’t need to hear about the main idea, so why am I spending my time and resources on him to continue speaking about it when someone else in the class doesn’t understand it yet?” Nissenbaum said.

Indiana’s new academic standards are a set of expectations for what students should learn at each grade. The new ones the state adopted in April aim to require teachers to be more attentive than ever to exactly what each student does and doesn’t know.

But teachers are still dealing with the same limited time and resources. Doing more group work, and more detailed tracking of what students learn, is one way the district is attempting to manage those new demands, which also include newly redesigned ISTEP tests come spring.

Tammy Bowman, the IPS’ head curriculum officer, said staff training that started in September focused on those areas — helping teachers get away from lecture and having them make sure students master the content and skills in every new standard before moving on to other topics.

“I used to tell my students that ‘kid language’ can be so much more powerful than me sometimes, because you know what that other student needs to hear because you think just like them,” Bowman said.

More group work and emphasizing mastery are considered best practice for teachers, she said, but the district focused on them intentionally to support teachers in the transition to new standards and help align with the new administration’s goals for IPS.

“We feel pretty good about the buy-in,” Bowman said. “Because for some people, these are major changes in philosophy and thinking … I think we are making really good progress.”

New standards, new strategies

Common Core is a set of new learning standards that Indiana, like 45 other states and the District of Columbia, agreed to follow with a goal of boosting students’ academic skills. Indiana was an early adopter of Common Core in 2010.

Then-Gov. Mitch Mitch Daniels and then-state Superintendent Tony Bennett both backed Common Core and the standards were instituted with little fanfare. But once President Obama and the U.S. Department of Education began encouraging states to follow Common Core, parents and legislators began to question if they made sense for every state.

Indiana critics argued the state should just write its own standards, as it had been doing before Common Core entered the picture. After a bill ordered just that earlier this year, by voiding Indiana’s Common Core adoption, new Gov. Mike Pence and new state Superintendent Glenda Ritz jointly endorsed standards produced in February by panels of educators and experts.

But the new Indiana-specific standards didn’t satisfy everyone. Critics who argued against Common Core said they were too similar to Common Core. Those who wanted to keep Common Core said the new standards took out some of the elements that they believed would help make Common Core effective, like specific guidance to help teachers interpret them.

Others complained the standards were adopted too late, giving teachers and schools just a few months to get ready to teach them to students. With ISTEP tests also being rewritten to reflect the new standards, teachers have to create new lessons without knowing what those tests will look like.

Since the start of the school year, teachers across Marion County have been working to make changes to how they teach so their students will cover everything they need to learn before they take ISTEP later in the school year.

For the Key school, the change disrupted a methodical system of planning lessons, where the school’s tests are written based on standards, with daily lessons and activities created after the tests are made. But Nissenbaum said working at the school and learning ways to become more efficient and organized have made her a “1,000 percent better teacher.”

Adapting to a new reality

Nissenbaum spent her time after college moving around to schools in Pennsylvania and New York before accepting a temporary position at IPS School 44. Key, which serves grades K to 12, was overhauled three years ago after years of struggles. Its high school, for example, had earned D and F grades for low test scores for more than half a decade. Nissenbaum interviewed for a job with new Principal Sheila Dollaske in 2011. She was excited by Dollaske’s vision for the school.

“It just sounded like a different environment for students,” Nissenbaum said. “And I was like, ‘I want to be a part of that, so let’s see,’ and that was it. I fell in love with it.”

Like others at the school, Nissenbaum keeps meticulous data on her students’ achievement and what standards they have mastered so she knows exactly how to plan her lessons and instruction for each unit. It also gives teachers a chance to catch students before they fall too far behind, Bowman said, since they know along the way what areas might be more challenging to each child.

“Yes, it’s a lot more work,” Nissenbaum said, “Especially the way we do it. But the payoff is bigger. If it’s done right, I can tell you which of my kids understands each of these standards, and to what degree and how to help them.”

As principal, Dollaske thinks of herself as one of those assembly-line machines that dispenses candy into packages in exact amounts: She tries to give everyone enough information to do their jobs, but not so much that they are overloaded. With a barrage of presentations, guidelines and ISTEP materials coming from the Indiana Department of Education every few weeks, that can be a struggle.

But Dollaske came to Key for that sort of challenge. After training principals in Chicago, she was enticed to Key by the challenge of trying to make the schools’ famous curriculum — based on the theory of Multiple Intelligences — succeed in the state’s accountability system. This is her third year, but next year could be the end for Key. The school board are considering the possibility of closing the school and discontinuing its first-of-a-kind program in 2016.

Dollaske and her staff are trying to stay focused on helping students achieve, including passing ISTEP. Recently released sample questions for the new ISTEP have helped, she said.

“We tend to not sit back and wait,” Dollaske said. “And so now that we have an idea of what anchor assessment items look like, we’re breaking those down and seeing what the standards look like in action … standards are really hard to teach without knowing what the test will look like.”

Key teachers and staff only began going through the sample questions last month. Nissenbaum is unhappy with a lot of what the education department has said so far about the new test, which will include new questions that ask kids to show how to solve a problem, not just get the right answer, using a computer.

Much of her frustration is in the lack of specifics: New practice tests are for combined grades 3 and 4, 5 and 6, and 7 and 8. How do teachers know which problems are for which grades, she asked? Why are the directions for some problems split up and put in different fonts?

“This is a disastrous pile of stuff on this page for you,” she said. “I look at this, and I don’t even know where to start, and I’m a good reader.”

Before they can focus on content, Dollaske said, they need to help kids learn computer skills they may not have.

It’s as if, she said, “I went in to take my drivers test and all of a sudden they asked me to say how I’d drive on a motorcycle. I’d still know the rules, the laws, but I haven’t done it on a motorcycle. That’s how we are going to try to approach the technology side.”

Keeping kids from falling behind

When School 61 second grade teacher Natalie Merz announced to her class that they’d be doing a “scoot” activity during math, one kid jumped to his feet, pumping his fist with joy.

“Take a few minutes at each problem and scoot to the next one,” Merz explained to her charges.

Because her kids don’t take ISTEP, Merz would seem to be free from some pressures of preparing them for standardized exams. But she’s already thinking about the tests her students will take next year.

By third grade, her students will be expected to be proficient readers, but teachers can’t always expect that all their students are performing at grade level. She has to know what each kids needs to learn to be ready for next year and let them work at their own paces to meet that standard.

So her children often tackle tasks with varying degrees of difficulty, such as the “scoot” activity.

“Teaching is just literally, what does this kid need?” said Merz. “It’s finding 26 different ways to do something.”

On a recent morning, her class was practicing double-digit addition and subtraction. The kids sat cross-legged on the floor or sprawled out alongside bookshelves as they grabbed the cards got to work on math problems printed on the front side.

“Remember, in third grade we’ve got to show our work,” Merz said.

This is Merz’s second year with this class and her first year teaching second grade. She previously taught first grade and began her career as a Teach for America fellow in 2009. She’s been active with Teach Plus, a national a national group that aims to get teachers involved in advocacy and policy work. She’s known she wanted to be a teacher since middle school.

“I kind of got into what felt natural,” she said. “By the time I went to college, I just loved it.”

Even in her short career, she’s seen a lot of changes. Indiana is now on its third set of academic standards in her five years in the classroom. Perhaps that’s why Merz feels like it gets easier to adapt to the new standards each day. She’s optimistic next year, it will be even smoother.

That is, as long as the standards don’t change again.

“The big thing is I’m glad we’ve finally picked something,” Merz said. “We just want to teach kids what they need to learn and get them ready for life, not just the test.”

Are Children Learning

More Memphis area students are graduating high school. But what does that mean?

PHOTO: Jacinthia Jones
The 2018 spring graduation for the Memphis Virtual School was held May 22 in the Hamilton High School auditorium.

The number of students graduating from high schools in Shelby County and across the state has been rising for the last 10 years, but recent allegations of widespread improper grade changes in Memphis last year called into question if graduation rates were marred.

The results of a deeper probe of seven schools with high numbers of grade changes on transcripts is expected this month. But Shelby County Schools officials said a number of strategies have contributed to the district’s growing number of graduates and they believe better monitoring of grade changes would protect the integrity of those numbers, including sudden jumps.

“It’s our goal to aggressively increase academic performance and graduation rates at a more rapid pace, and we’ve implemented a number of strategies to do so,” the district said in a statement. “Therefore, it would be imprudent to see jumps in graduation rates alone as an indicator of improper grading practices.”

Grade changes had an impact on how many students graduated at Trezevant High School, the first school implicated in the controversy. Fifty-three students over four years obtained a diploma without passing the necessary classes, an investigation found.

Leaving high school with a diploma greatly increases a student’s chances of finding a job with a living wage and avoiding jail. But Tennessee policymakers have been pushing for more education beyond high school since college graduates and those with job certifications through technical colleges and similar schools have an even better chance of higher incomes later in life.

School districts often tie student performance to their graduation rates, citing better academics as one factor in rising graduation rates. In addition, federal law requires states to report their districts’ rates every year to monitor if some groups of students are lagging behind their peers.

Marisa Cannata, who consults with districts through Vanderbilt University on how to improve high schools, said getting a high school diploma “doesn’t mean that they’re college-ready.” The only thing the number of students who graduated truly measures is “accumulating credits in a timely manner.”

“I think of them as only one indicator of how well a school is serving a student,” she told Chalkbeat. “True improvement is going to be reflective in multiple indicators.”

Nonetheless, the district’s rising graduation trends reflect a similar upward trajectory for state and national graduation rates. The rate is calculated by dividing the number of students who graduate after four years by the total number in a high school cohort.

Tennessee is ahead of the pack in figuring out how to get more students to stay in and complete high school, said Jennifer DePaoli, the lead author on a recent national report analyzing federal graduation rate data.

“Tennessee is a state that we would say has really proven itself when it comes to raising student graduation rates,” she told Chalkbeat, adding it “still has some room to grow.”

In 2013, Tennessee was applauded in a national graduation report for outpacing the national average in nearly every category, including students from low-income families and students with disabilities. But in DePaoli’s report released last week, Tennessee’s growth in graduating its students has slowed, and has the 8th highest percentage of black students who didn’t graduate on time. The state’s graduation rate for students from poor families still ranks among the highest in the nation, however.

Before 2013, most students in the former suburban district, commonly referred to as legacy Shelby County Schools, consistently exceeded the state and national average with as many as 96 percent of students graduating on time. The number of students graduating from Memphis City Schools, which dissolved in 2013 after city school board members voted to consolidate with the county district, lagged behind the national and state average, hovering between 62 and 72 percent.

Legacy Shelby County Schools and Memphis City Schools graduation rate compared to U.S. (2008-2012)

Source: Tennessee Department of Education; Graphic by Sam Park

Since then, more students have graduated from high school. After the merger in 2013, the county split again into seven school systems.

One of Shelby County Schools’ goals is to have 90 percent of students graduating on time by 2025. The district, which is the largest in Tennessee, now sits at 79.6 percent for the class of 2017. Official numbers for the class of 2018 are expected to be released this fall.

Shelby County Schools, municipal districts, and the Achievement School District compared to U.S. (2013-2017)

Source: Tennessee Department of Education; Graphic by Sam Park

In the middle of all that, Tennessee raised the bar for students to graduate. The state had been stung in 2007 by a national report saying the existing state standards were weak and misled parents about how their students ranked against their peers nationwide. So, Tennessee started phasing in new graduation requirements in 2009 that increased the number of credits needed to graduate and introduced the current end-of-course exams.

Also, the state changed how schools and teachers are evaluated. In 2009, Memphis City Schools got a $90 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to overhaul how the district recruits, trains, and evaluates its teacher workforce.

In 2010, the Tennessee Department of Education got a $500 million federal grant to recreate how it measures school success and partially tie teacher evaluation scores to student test results.

The state-run Achievement School District was born from that grant and started taking over low-performing schools in 2012. (The district didn’t have graduating seniors at high schools until 2014.)

In recent years, Shelby County Schools began to use data to help target students who might be at risk of dropping out. That kind of early warning system is part of a growing national effort to use mounds of student data to remove barriers to graduating, such as getting help with schoolwork, or pointing families to community resources to reduce absences early in a student’s high school career.

The district has also added reading specialists for ninth grade students who are behind and night and online classes for high school students so they wouldn’t have to wait until summer to retake failed courses. And before a student fails a class, district leaders have increased the number of offerings during the semester for a student to recover their grade.

In Memphis-area schools, 11 of the 48 in the region have fewer students graduating now than they did in 2008. Four of them dropped more than 5 percentage points:

  • Wooddale High School
  • Raleigh Egypt High School
  • Bolton High School
  • Ridgeway High School

Though there are 13 schools that have seen significant growth in the number of students who have graduated since 2008, they haven’t kept up with the district’s average ACT score, a common indicator of a student’s readiness for college.

But graduation rates and the ACT don’t actually measure the same things, said DePaoli.

“A lot of people would like to argue if graduation rates go up, we should be seeing gains in ACT scores and things like that,” she said. “We would like to see those things track together, but I don’t think there’s enough alignment there.”

Still, she said, “if kids aren’t getting higher scores on the ACT but the graduation rate is increasing, there is something to be really fearful of.”

Five Memphis area schools have now exceeded the district average for students graduating. Here are the 13 with the most growth:

  • B. T. Washington High School*
  • Oakhaven High School*
  • Martin Luther King College Preparatory High School (formerly Frayser High School)**
  • Hamilton High School
  • Sheffield High School
  • Westwood High School
  • Kingsbury High School
  • Manassas High School
  • East High School*
  • Craigmont High School*
  • Fairley High School**
  • Mitchell High School
  • Whitehaven High School*

*Schools that now exceeds Shelby County Schools’ graduation rate
** Taken over by the Achievement School District in 2014

Below you can look at your high school’s graduation rates over the years.

What went down

‘There was no cyber attack,’ investigator says of Tennessee’s online testing shutdown

PHOTO: Manuel Breva Colmeiro/Getty Images

Questar’s unauthorized change of an online testing tool — not a possible cyber attack, as earlier reported by the company — was responsible for shutting down Tennessee’s computerized exams on their second day this spring, the state’s chief investigator reported Wednesday.

An independent probe determined that “there was no cyber attack,” nor was any student data compromised, when thousands of students could not log onto the online exam known as TNReady on April 17.

Instead, investigators said, Questar was mostly responsible for this year’s testing miscues. The main culprit was a combination of “bugs in the software” and the slowness of a computerized tool designed to let students turn text into speech if they need audible instructions.

Comptroller Justin P. Wilson reviewed early findings of his office’s internal review and the external investigation by a company hired by the Education Department during a legislative hearing in Nashville.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen also told lawmakers that Tennessee is docking Questar about $2.5 million this year out of its $30 million contract because of the online problems that plagued many students and schools during the three-week testing window.

Payments being withheld are punitive, as well as to cover the state’s costs to address the problems, she said, adding that other discounts could follow.

Last week, McQueen announced that the state plans to launch a new search this fall for one or more testing companies to take over TNReady beginning in the 2019-20 school year. She said a track record of successful online testing is a must.

The text-to-speech tool worked fine last fall when a smaller number of high school students tested online. But the state said Questar made a “significant and unauthorized change” to that feature before the launch of spring testing that affects the vast majority of Tennessee students.  

“We now know this decision led to the severity of other issues we experienced during online testing,” the Education Department said in a statement.

House Speaker Beth Harwell and Rep. Jeremy Faison asked the comptroller to review the state’s contract with Questar, particularly related to reports of a possible cyber attack. Wilson’s office also looked into other technical snafus that disrupted student testing for days, prompting the legislature to pass emergency laws that make this year’s scores inconsequential.

“We believe that the student testing issues occurred primarily because of how Questar set the student assessment system up to work,” said Brent Rumbley, the comptroller’s information systems audit manager.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen testifies during Wednesday’s hearing, where specialists in the state comptroller’s office also testified.

On the second day of exams, Rumbley said, those issues manifested themselves in a suspiciously high volume of internet traffic to the testing platform.

“That’s what led the Department of Education and Questar to believe that there may have been a cyber attack,” he told lawmakers. “This traffic eventually shut the system down.”

Even though Questar upgraded the processing capability of its equipment in response, students and educators continued to report problems logging in, staying online, and submitting tests until Questar turned off the text-to-speech tool beginning May 1.

The comptroller’s office also found that Questar was ill-prepared to handle the fallout from the technical glitches. For instance, the company struggled to manually recover the high number of tests that students couldn’t submit online. And school personnel calling the customer service line experienced wait times as long as 60 minutes, prompting many to just hang up.

New details emerged Wednesday about other testing problems, too.

On April 25, a Questar employee “inadvertently overrode” custom rosters statewide that allowed schools to match students with available testing devices. “As a result, teachers and test coordinators had to scramble to get students the tests they should take,” Rumbley said.

The next day, more problems erupted when an internet cable was severed by a dump truck in a traffic accident in Hawkins County.

“According to the vendor that manages the fiber optic line, 21 districts were without internet from approximately two to four hours,” said Rumbley, adding that neither Questar nor the department could have prevented the outage that day.

Lawmakers will get an expanded look at the Education Department and its testing program in November when Wilson’s office presents the results of a year-long performance audit, along with findings from a massive survey of Tennessee educators about TNReady.

The two-hour hearing gave lawmakers a platform to take jabs at McQueen and her department for their handling of testing.

Rep. Bo Mitchell admonished the Education Department for tweeting on the second day of testing that Questar “may have experienced a deliberate attack” that morning.

“This gets into the public trust and throwing out information to the public from the Department of Education that the failure was a hack … Whose decision was that to put that out into the public domain without any proof?” asked Mitchell, a Democrat from Nashville.

McQueen clarified that the department never used the word “hack,” but reported that the testing system was experiencing a “pattern of data that was consistent with a cyber attack.” The description was based on what was known as the time, she said.

Sen. Janice Bowling, a Republican from Tullahoma, said Questar’s $2.5 million penalty “seems like a smack on the wrist” given the disruption caused by the company’s mistakes.

McQueen responded that the state is withholding almost $11 million invoiced by Questar for online testing as it continues negotiations. She added that the state’s biggest testing expenses stem from printing and transit costs for paper materials used by about half of its students this year. The state is transitioning to computerized testing and has decided to slow the switch for a second time in the wake of this year’s challenges.

Justin P. Wilson

Questar officials told Chalkbeat last week that the company plans to pursue the state’s new contract next year, but Rep. Craig Fitzhugh told McQueen that he doesn’t want the Minnesota-based company involved after it completes its current contract.

“I don’t think we can let Questar get in the ballgame again,” said the Ripley Democrat.

The proposal will be competitively bid, said Wilson, adding that Questar’s past performance will be taken into account.

For more on how Tennessee got here, read why state lawmakers share blame, too, for TNReady testing headaches.