Are Children Learning

New rules push high schools to better prepare kids for college

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

A stubborn and costly problem for first-year students at Indiana colleges stems from a simple but frustrating fact: About 28 percent of them simply aren’t fully prepared to do college work, even if they got good grades in high school.

To solve that problem, those kids are shuttled into remedial courses that they pay for but which don’t result in college credit when students pass them. Many of those students fall behind and the risk grows that they will drop out of college, leaving them with student loans they will still have to pay off.

But in 2013, Indiana legislators passed a bill with a potentially game-changing idea in mind: require high schools to figure out which kids aren’t on track for college level work and get them the extra help they need while they’re still in high school.

“We have the tools to identify students who need remediation and the ability to address the need for remediation in high school,” bill author Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, said. “It’s just unacceptable to tell those students they are ready for colleges and careers when in reality, they’re not.”

The bill also designed to reduce graduation waivers, which have come under scrutiny from the state. The waivers allow students to graduate even if they’ve failed one of the state tests so long as they meet other criteria. Earlier remediation should help students pass their end-of-course assessments and graduate without the need for waivers, proponents of the idea believe.

This school year, high schools will begin using a test called Accuplacer — used by colleges to determine if students need remediation — to identify kids who appear to need that extra help. It’s been a challenge.

The logistics of going through student data and figuring out exactly who had to take the test has been the hardest part for Hendricks County’s Plainfield schools. The district began giving the test last spring, assistant superintendent Mary Giesting said. School districts are supposed to identify students who need to take Accuplacer based on their scores from Indiana’s end-of-course exams and national college placement and merit tests, like the PSAT, SAT and ACT. Not all of this data is easily accessible in one place, Giesting said, so compiling it was cumbersome.

“The problem is not as simple as some master spreadsheet that has all that information on it,” Brent Schwanekamp, vice principal at Plainfield High School, said. “And even if it was, you’re going line by line with 400 kids. That’s a really daunting task.”

A new strategy for kids who are behind

The state has two main goals with the new process: Do a better job identifying students who need help before they graduate, and help them more effectively in high school so they can start college taking classes that count toward their degrees, said Jason Bearce, Indiana’s associate commissioner on higher education.

“We heard these stories about students arriving on campus and that’s the first time they find out they’re not college-ready,” Bearce said. “Which is very concerning for the individual, but it also represents a pretty significant missed opportunity. I think that’s where this legislation came into play.”

The state chose the Accuplacer test to determine if students are meet the state’s expectations for what they should know in math and English. The test can pick out specific places where students need more help, and it is currently being used at Ivy Tech Community College, which cuts down on tests students would need to take if they enroll there later.

Indiana schools piloted the test in the 2013-14 school year for any school that wanted to give it, said Michele Walker, director of assessment for the Indiana Department of Education. This year, the testing begins in late January.

Once a district has identified the kids who need extra help, it has a few options for how to bring them back up to speed. Walker said the choice is up to the schools, not the state.

“How schools work with students is local — they know them best,” Walker said. “We want to leave that to a local decision because they may have particular programs in their communities, do something after school or weave it into their curriculum.”

At Plainfield, a student can take a course specifically designed to boost skills in Algebra 1 or sophomore English, the two high school courses that lead to end-of-course exams they must pass to graduate. The course helps them focus on skills they have struggled with in the past. These classes are taught by new and veteran teachers alike and are purposefully kept small with less than 20 students. Teachers work with the students to design a plan for what needs to be improved, and then they have a semester to build up those skills.

Plainfield students can also take additional classes alongside their main Algebra 1 or sophomore English classes that help reinforce the ideas from that week’s lessons and give the students a chance for extra help as they go.

But this method isn’t new for Plainfield, Giesting said. They’ve always had this support in place for students, it’s the extra data analysis that’s new.

Plainfield High School is almost 88 percent white and had a combined math and English ECA passing rate of about 90 percent last year, according to data from the Indiana Department of Education’s website. Giesting said that while the district puts a lot of work into its remediation programs, she knows schools with more struggling students will face a tougher road to meeting the state’s requirements.

“It’s a thorn in our side just from a detail standpoint and practical standpoint,” Giesting said. “But for some school corporations, this is a burden.”

Remediation costs students and the state

Almost one-third of incoming freshmen in the class of 2012 had to take remedial courses in college, costing Hoosiers about $78 million, according to a 2012 Commission on Higher Education report about college readiness.

In Marion County, 1,510 students needed to brush up basic skills in college, about 34 percent of graduates. Most of those student needed help in math, which was also true statewide. State officials hope this new process will cause those numbers start dropping.

A high school junior who either scores less than 46 on the PSAT or fails the English or math ECA twice must take Accuplacer, under the rules. However, if a student has a high enough ACT or SAT score, they can avoid it. Some students might only need to take the English version of Accuplacer, some might need math, and others, both, Walker said.

While schools will test students during junior year and then are expected to ramp up extra help, they are not required to re-test students before they graduate. So students could still enter college needing extra help. Ivy Tech has set up a type of course that offers remediation at the same time as regular instruction, Clere said, so students aren’t wasting time paying for extra classes they can’t use. Most Indiana students needing remediation take their classes at Ivy Tech or Vincennes University.

“Think about finishing your first semester at Ivy Tech and realizing that you’ve accomplished nothing in terms of completing your degree,” Clere said. “That can be very discouraging and it also has implications for financial aid if you’re burning up your financial aid eligibility on remediation.”

Going forward, Clere’s bill makes students who use a waiver to graduate because they could not pass state tests ineligible for some kinds of financial aid, including scholarships from the state’s 21st Century Scholars program, Bearce said. Now to even qualify for the program’s scholarships, Bearce said students must graduate with a Core 40 diploma, which has more difficult course requirements than the state’s general diploma.

“If you graduate with a waiver, you’re more likely to need remediation,” Bearce said. “We don’t want students to graduate with a false sense of readiness that has the unfortunate consequence of a dashed dream when you leave and think you’re ready and find out you aren’t.”

KaNeasha Koebcke, director of guidance in Plainfield, said it’s also hard to get the students to take the test seriously.

“It’s hard to explain to kids what it’s about and why they have to take it,” Koebcke said. “It’s hard to explain to parents what this test is. Does it prevent them from graduating? No. What does it do for my child?”

It will be a few years to find out the effects of this new approach, Bearce said. But so far, school districts have struggled to organize so much student test data to meet the law’s requirements.

“This is an example of the legislature in the room saying we need better evidence that our students are college- and career-ready, so they created this statute, which standing alone sounds really good,” Giesting said. “But I think what we all need to understand is that if we don’t walk in tandem and if different people make different rules, it just adds a lot of extra energy and resources being used not to educate, but to test.”

New research

From an ‘F’ to an ‘A’, Tennessee now sets high expectations for students, says Harvard study

PHOTO: Lisegagne/Getty Images

Criticized for setting low expectations for students just a decade ago, Tennessee has dramatically raised the bar for standards that now rank among the top in the nation, according to a new analysis from Harvard University.

The state earned an “A” for its 2017 proficiency standards in a study released Tuesday by the same researchers who gave Tennessee an “F” in that category in 2009.

The researchers have been tracking state proficiency standards since 2006. Their latest analysis focused on changes since 2009 when, like Tennessee, most states began adopting Common Core academic standards, then began retreating one by one from the nationally endorsed benchmarks.

Did the exodus from a consistent set of standards cause states to lower expectations for students? The researchers say no.

“Our research shows that most all the states have actually improved their standards, and Tennessee has probably improved the most because its standards were so low in the past,” said Paul Peterson, who co-authored the analysis with Daniel Hamlin.

The grades are based on the difference between the percentages of students deemed proficient on state tests and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, the exam administered by the U.S. Department of Education to measure what students know in math and English language arts. The narrower the proficiency gap between those tests, the higher the grade a state received.

Tennessee’s 2009 proficiency gap was 63 percent, an amount that Peterson called “ridiculous” and “the worst in the country” compared to 37 percent nationally.

In 2017, Tennessee’s gap narrowed to less than 3 percent, compared to 9 percent nationally, under revised standards that reached classrooms last fall after the state exited the Common Core brand.

“It’s a dramatic improvement,” Peterson said of Tennessee’s work to align its standards with national expectations.

Interestingly, in other states, the study found virtually no relationship between rising proficiency standards and test score growth — a finding that the researchers called “disheartening.”

“The one exception was Tennessee,” Peterson said of the state’s academic gains on NAEP since 2011. “It has not only raised its standards dramatically, it saw some student gains over the same period.”

Since 2010, higher academic standards has been an integral part of Tennessee’s long-term plan for improving public education. The other two components are an aligned state assessment and across-the-board accountability systems for students, teachers and schools, including a controversial policy to include student growth from standardized test scores in teacher evaluations.

Tennessee poured millions of federal dollars from its 2010 Race to the Top award into training teachers on its new standards. The process began in 2012 with large-scale Common Core trainings and shifted last year to regional trainings aimed at equipping local educators to prepare their peers back home for Tennessee’s revised standards.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Karyn Bailey (left), a facilitator from Williamson County Schools, coaches elementary school teachers during a 2017 exercise on Tennessee’s revised standards for English language arts as part of a two-day training at La Vergne High School, one of 11 training sites across the state.

Implementation really matters. You can’t just make the shift on paper,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, who will take part in a panel discussion on the study’s findings Tuesday in Washington, D.C. “You have to do the hard work to implement it on the ground. And that is a long game.”

The Harvard study comes on the heels of a separate but related report by pro-Common Core group Achieve that says Tennessee is essentially being more honest in how its students are doing academically. The state was called out in 2007 by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce because Tennessee tests showed students doing well, while national tests reported otherwise.

Both analyses come as Tennessee tries to regroup after a problem-plagued return to statewide online testing this spring.

While supporters of Tennessee’s current policy agenda fear that headaches with the state’s standardized test could undo the policies it may be getting right, Peterson said a study like Harvard’s can provide a birds-eye view.

“What happens over a period of years is a better way to look at how a state is doing,” he said, “because things can fluctuate from one year to the next.”

The Harvard research is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. (Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news organization and also receives funding from both foundations. You can find the list of our supporters here and learn more about Chalkbeat here.)

How I Lead

This Memphis principal says supporting teachers and parents helped pull her school out of the bottom 10 percent

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Principal Yolanda Dandridge has led Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary for the last two years, and was previously the academic dean.

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Principal Yolanda Dandridge walks almost 14,000 steps a day — double the national average.

It takes a lot of walking to manage two schools. Dandridge has led Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary for the last two years and was previously the academic dean. She temporarily took over Frayser Achievement Elementary when the schools had to share space this year because of maintenance issues at Georgian Hill’s original building.

“I am constantly on the move,” Dandridge said. “How else can you keep up with elementary students?”

Both schools are part of the Achievement School District, which is charged with turning around the state’s lowest-performing schools but has struggled to accomplish the task.

This year, Georgian Hills not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent. In 2016, before Dandridge took charge, Georgian Hills was in the worst 2 percent of schools.

Dandridge was honored by the achievement district for her work.

“She is a real standout among our principals of someone who understands what it takes to turn things around,” said interim achievement district leader Kathleen Airhart.

Dandridge talked to Chalkbeat about how she gets to know her students, her efforts to motivate teachers, and why school buildings are important.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Dandridge walks almost 14,000 steps a day — double the national average.

I tell my teachers to always stay focused on the “why” behind their careers. For me, my “why” was the fact that my little brother got all the way through elementary school without learning to read. He wasn’t able to read until the fifth grade. He came from a family of educators, and he still slipped through the cracks. If that could happen to him, it could happen to so many kids.

I started teaching in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, and I taught in that state for more than a decade. I came to Memphis as a teacher, I was asked later to consider taking on the principal role at Georgian Hills. I said, “You want me to do what?” Now, I’m grateful for all those years in the classroom and as an academic dean to prepare me for this role.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?

Any chance to get into the classroom, I will. If a substitute teacher doesn’t come, which does happen sometimes, I will teach the students in that classroom for a day. I love getting to know students by helping out in the classroom.

I am also constantly walking the hallways of both schools. That’s how I start the morning — I greet students and their parents by name when they walk into the school. I walk students to their classrooms. I’m constantly monitoring the hallways.

When a new student registers for classes, the first thing the office staff knows to do is call me down so I can meet them.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?

I really prefer to always consider the experiences that a child may have had prior to entering our building.  When you approach discipline with a keen awareness of the types of situations a child might have or experience, it really makes you a better educator.  And you understand that the best thing for us to do is to ensure that students know and understand that we have their best interests in mind. When children connect with you and other teachers in this way, discipline is less challenging.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?

I’m very proud of what we’ve done at Georgian Hills and now at Frayser to really focus on our teachers.

Every Wednesday after school, we’ll have a period of professional development. I try to be attentive to what my teachers tell me they want to learn more about. There is a lot of coordination on lesson plans in particular. Teachers work together on their lesson planning, and I also will personally give feedback on a teahers’ lesson plans. My biggest, driving question is “What do my teachers need most?” They don’t need to be spending hours everyday lesson planning when they can collaborate. We can help there.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?

Evaluating teachers has always provided me with the opportunity to hear and see the creativity and passion that our teachers bring to the classroom.  My thought on evaluations is to take the anxiety out of it and ensure that teachers are comfortable and understand that the overall process is about improving their skills and enhancing the tools in their toolbox.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
This year, Georgian Hills not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent of schools in Tennessee.

When I was early in my teaching career in Mississippi, I had a student with a single mom. Her mom was an amazing support system for me and my classroom. She was always wanting to volunteer at the school. But she struggled to provide basic needs for her daughter — she was struggling to get a job. But she was trying so hard. There’s a stigma of parents, especially in low-income communities, not participating or caring about their child’s education. This mom was giving her all, and it changed my view of parental support. The school needed to find ways to also support her.

And so as a principal, I’m always thinking about how I can support my parents and invite them into the school. So that they feel welcome and wanted, and also so they are encouraged in their own role in their child’s education. We hold math and science nights, where parents learn how to do math games or science experiments at home with their kids. We provide them with materials and knowledge so that they can provide enrichment in their own home.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?

We, like many schools in Memphis, don’t have the facilities we need for our students. Georgian Hills had to vacate our school building due to an issue with the roof. That created a hard environment for this school year — moving to a new building where we share space, and then me taking on that school as its school leader when the principal left. Honestly, I thought this year could break me as a school leader. But it didn’t, and it didn’t break our school either. We had a culture in place where our teachers felt supported among the chaos of the start of the year. After a year of repairs, we’re planning on moving back to our original building this fall.

But the issue here is that we don’t have the school buildings we need. Schools should be palaces in a community.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

You have to mobilize people’s efforts to “win.” The first secret to this is to love your people. They are here for a purpose and you have to help them understand the higher purpose that they are here to serve.  You have to have the right people in place, be responsible for developing them, and have the courage to let them go when student’s needs aren’t being met. Finally, transparency rules.