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.”


Memphis moves from problem child to poster child on Tennessee’s new school improvement list

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Memphis has been a hub of local, state, federal, and philanthropic school improvement work since Tennessee issued its first list of "priority schools" in 2012.

The city that has been the epicenter of Tennessee’s school improvement work since 2012 got encouraging news on Friday as fewer Memphis schools landed on the state’s newest list of troubled schools.

Forty-three public schools in Memphis were designated “priority schools,” compared to 57 in 2014 and 69 in 2012.

Meanwhile, more schools in Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jackson were among the 82 placed on priority status, either for being ranked academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent or having a graduation rate of less than 67 percent. They are now eligible for a share of $10 million in state grants to pay for extra resources this year — but also interventions as harsh as state takeover or closure.

Half of the schools are new to the list but won’t face takeover or closure. Those school communities will begin working with the state education department to develop district-led improvement plans, a change from previous years.

Charter schools face the most dire consequences for landing on the list if they’re authorized by local districts. In Memphis, seven will close at the end of the school year, impacting more than 1,700 students:

  • City University School Girls Preparatory
  • Du Bois Elementary of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Leadership Public Policy
  • Granville T. Woods Academy of Innovation
  • Memphis Delta Preparatory
  • The Excel Center (adult education)

Two other priority-status high schools already closed their doors in May. They were operated by former city schools superintendent Willie Herenton’s W.E.B. DuBois charter network.

This was the first priority list issued under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable and is based mostly on student test scores from 2015-16 and 2016-17. No negative results from last school year were factored in because of emergency state legislation passed to address widespread technical problems that disrupted Tennessee’s return to online testing in the spring.

The distribution of more priority schools beyond Memphis was notable.

“Shelby County in particular has had some momentum … (but) we have other districts that have not had that same momentum,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen during a morning call with reporters.

She praised Shelby County Schools for “changing the landscape” in Memphis by closing at least 15 priority schools since 2012 and for creating its own Innovation Zone to improve other schools. Another catalyst, she said, was the 2012 arrival of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which has taken over dozens of low-performing Memphis schools and assigned them to charter networks, spurring a sense of urgency.

But student gains have been better under the iZone than within the state-run district. Of the 25 priority schools absorbed by the iZone, 16 have moved off of priority status, compared to eight that have been taken over by the state. 

“When you really try and find great school leaders and great teachers, when you extend time, when you focus on professional development, and when you also focus on accountability, good things are going to happen in schools,” said Brad Leon, a Shelby County Schools strategist who supervised the iZone in its early years.

Of the 43 Memphis schools on the newest list, less than two-thirds are within Shelby County Schools, and five of those could be eligible for state takeover, according to Antonio Burt, who oversees priority school work for Tennessee’s largest district. He declined to name them.

The state Board of Education signed off on the priority list on Friday during a special meeting. The board also approved its 2018 list of “reward schools” to acknowledge a fifth of the state’s public schools for student achievement and academic growth in the last year.

Tennessee’s priority list is issued every three years, and this was the third one since 2012. But unlike with the two earlier rosters, 2018 priority status does not necessarily put a school on track for state takeover. That’s now an option of last resort as the state seeks to be more collaborative with local school leaders.

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits classrooms and students in 2015. He’s led Tennessee’s largest district since 2013.

“Our new school improvement model takes a student-focused, evidence-based approach to tailor interventions for our priority schools,” said McQueen, who promised to work closely with school communities to provide new resources. 

Those new resources will be welcomed in Memphis, where Shelby County Schools has absorbed the cost of continuing interventions even as federal and state grants expire.

“At the end of the day, we’re very proud of the work, but we’re not satisfied,” said Superintendent Dorsey Hopson. “We’re going to keep on working.”

In Nashville, Mayor David Briley called the increase from 15 to 21 priority schools “unacceptable” and promised to make swift improvements in the state’s second largest school system.

Below is a sortable 2018 list, and you can learn more about the state’s 2018 accountability work here.

Priority schools

Struggling Tennessee schools find out Friday if they could face state intervention

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Tennessee's 2018 list of priority schools will chart the state's school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year. The state issued earlier priority lists in 2012 and 2014.

School communities hovering at the bottom on student achievement have been watching anxiously to see how they could fare under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable.

They’ll begin to find out on Friday when the Education Department releases its 2018 list of “priority schools” in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent, the threshold for determining state investments such as extra money — and interventions as harsh as takeover and even closure.

The unveiling will come as the state Board of Education signs off on the list during a specially called meeting.

The 2018 priority list will be the state’s first in four years, as well as the first under a new accountability system developed in response to a 2015 federal education law. The roster will chart the state’s school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year.

Underperforming charter schools could face the toughest consequences. Those making the list will be shuttered next spring if they were authorized by local school districts. (Tennessee has state-authorized charters too, but those schools face closure only if they rank at the bottom in both 2018 and 2021.)

Calculating this year’s priority list — which initially was supposed to factor in the last three years of student test scores — has not been simple.

Because technical problems marred Tennessee’s return to online testing this spring, state lawmakers passed legislation ordering that the most recent scores can’t be used to place new schools on the priority list or move them into the state’s Achievement School District for assignment to charter networks. Instead, the newest priority schools are based mostly on student achievement from the two prior school years. However, a school on the 2014 list could potentially come off the new roster if its scores were good this year.

The legislation doesn’t mean that some repeat priority schools can’t be taken over by the state based on previous years’ test results. However, most of those are expected to continue under their current state-monitored school improvement plans. Schools that are new to the list will have to develop similar plans in collaboration with the Education Department.

READ: One state, three lists of troubled schools — another consequence of Tennessee’s testing mess

The newest priority lineup will be among a flurry of school accountability lists being released on Friday. The State Board also will sign off on “reward schools” that have achieved the highest performance or made extraordinary progress since last year, as well as a district roster that rates 145 Tennessee school systems based on a multitude of new measures under the state’s education plan as part of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

You can find the list of schools at risk of making the newest priority list here.