Are Children Learning

Dumping ISTEP? Legislators are at a crossroads

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
On the last day of the 2016 legislative session, lawmakers move ahead with plans to ditch ISTEP.

Will Indiana stick with ISTEP, as planned, or move toward a national “off-the-shelf” test as soon as next year?

Gov. Mike Pence and legislative leaders in the Indiana House said this week that they’d seriously consider scrapping ISTEP for a cheaper, shorter alternative. Two bills have already passed the Indiana Senate and would push the state in the direction of a national test.

But the bills conflict — should ISTEP be replaced next year, or the change come later, allowing lawmakers to continue conversations over the summer?

Senate Bill 566, which passed the Senate 46-3, would get rid of ISTEP in favor of a national test, and Senate Bill 470, which passed 45-5, proposes to study the issue of test alternatives over the summer. Originally, Senate Bill 470 was written to allow private schools accepting publicly funded vouchers to replace ISTEP if they chose to, but that language was dropped when the bill was amended by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz in December told a state budget committee that an overhauled 2016 ISTEP test could cost more than $65 million, almost 45 percent more than in recent years. That led Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, to propose Senate Bill 566, co-authored with Sen. Ryan Mishler, R-Bremen.

The bill would scrap the Indiana Department of Education’s plan to hire to create a new ISTEP test to fit Indiana’s new, more demanding academic standards for next year. The department is reviewing proposals from companies bidding to make the test. Instead, the bill would direct the department to adopt a test used by other states, like the Iowa Test of Basic Skills or a test created by the Northwest Evaluation Association that educators already use to prepare kids for ISTEP.

Gov. Mike Pence said the future of ISTEP, though not on his agenda for education this year, was worth discussing now if Senate Bill 566 gains more traction in the legislature this year. Pence said he’s supported in the past measures that would let private schools opt to use a standardized test that isn’t ISTEP for state accountability.

“There’s proposals that we have strongly supported know as ‘freedom to test,’ where our administration came out in favor of allowing private schools opt for a different standardized test, and I think that’s a very sensible proposal,” Pence said. “Other proposals to replace the ISTEP we’ll consider in due course.”

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said he still needs to learn more about the bills, but would welcome options that would make testing cheaper and more efficient.

“The $65 million proposal that the superintendent made I think has shocked us all,” Bosma said. “We’ve talked about having an Indiana test — we’ve had one since 1987 — it’s not inexpensive. There may be some nationally normed alternatives we can turn into Indiana tests with more efficiency and less cost.”

House minority leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, said he thought Kenley, who chairs the budget-making Senate Appropriations Committee, was taking a pragmatic approach. Testing shouldn’t be overly complicated or needlessly costly, he said.

“Making testing simpler and less expensive and less long — those are generally positive goals, and I think they merit some degree of pursuit,” Pelath said.

But as to whether ISTEP could vanish sooner or later — it will be up to lawmakers to decide.

Senate Bill 470, if passed by the legislature and signed by Pence, would hold off on changing the test and create a committee of legislators to discuss and study the issue over the summer, leaving the state to move forward with its plans for a brand new test.

But Bosma said he wasn’t ready to rule anything out.

“If we can find a solution now in the time that’s left (in the session), I’m favorable to that,” Bosma said. “I’m not unfavorable to taking a harder look at it over the summer. Either one of those could be possibilities.”

Future of Schools

How this Indiana district realized counselors weren’t spending enough time counseling

PHOTO: Denver Post file

About a year ago, the counselors in the Beech Grove school district made a discovery: They were spending less than half of their time on counseling.

Instead of meeting with students one-on-one or in small groups, they were spending most of their days on routine tasks, such as overseeing lunch, proctoring exams, and filling in for secretaries.

When they realized how much time those other tasks were taking away from counseling work, it was “an eye-opener for everyone,” said Paige Anderson, the district college and career coordinator.

The counselors began tracking their time as part of a planning grant from the Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy. In 2016, the foundation launched Comprehensive Counseling Initiative for Indiana K-12 Students, a $49 million effort to improve counseling in Indiana. Experts say meaningful counseling can help schools support students as they navigate problems both at home and in the classroom. (The Lilly Endowment also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

What Beech Grove staff members learned during their planning process is already changing their approach to counseling, said Trudi Wolfe, a counselor at Central Elementary School, who was instrumental in applying for the Lilly grants. Now, administrators are taking on more tasks like proctoring tests. And one intermediate school hired a new counselor.

“The schools will take counselors and meet the needs of the school,” Wolfe said. “Part of the process is helping administrators understand, school counselors need to be doing school counseling.”

Last month, the endowment announced its second round of implementation grants, which awarded about $12.2 million to 39 schools and districts. Beech Grove will receive $259,727 to redesign its counseling program to focus on the social and emotional needs of students, with the largest chunk of that money going to staff training.

The aim is to develop a strategy for handling the trauma that students face at home, said Wolfe. Over the past 10 years, the number of students in the district who are poor enough to get subsidized meals has risen by about 25 percentage points to 72 percent of students.

Beech Grove has also been affected by the opioid crisis, said Wolfe. “We have kids living with parents who are dependent on drugs, and they are not meeting the needs of their children.”

Those growing challenges mean that it is essential for counselors to have a plan for helping students instead of just meeting the needs of each day, Wolfe said.

Counseling is an investment that can have long-term benefits. After Colorado began an initiative to hire more school counselors, participating schools had higher graduation rates, increased enrollment in career-and-technical programs, and more students taking college-level courses. A 2016 report found that by keeping students from dropping out, the Colorado program saved taxpayers more than $319 million.

But in Indiana schools, counselors often have large caseloads. In 2014-2015, Indiana had an average of 543 students per counselor, above the national average and significantly higher than the American School Counselor Association recommendation of no more than 250 students per counselor.

Hiring more counselors alone is not enough to create stronger school counseling programs, said Tim Poynton, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies counseling. They also have to spend their time on meaningful counseling work.

“You need more school counselors. That’s necessary, but it’s also not sufficient,” said Poynton. “If you hire more school counselors, and you have them doing lunch duty and things that basically you don’t need a master’s degree in school counseling to do, then you’re not going to see those important metrics move.”

When schools were applying for the Lilly Endowment grants, many reported that counselors were focused on urgent social and emotional challenges and struggled to help students plan for the future, according to the endowment.

Those challenges can have ripple effects, making it harder for school staff to tackle long-term goals such as ensuring that students sign up and meet the requirements for the state’s scholarship program, 21st Century Scholars.

If counseling is done well, most students will be prepared to go to college, even if they do not seem interested when they are in high school, Poynton said. But when counselors are dealing with urgent problems, they have significantly less time to devote to college preparation, he said.

“In urban schools, school counselors are often focused on getting students to school and meeting their immediate needs,” Poynton said. “In the higher-performing suburban schools, where the students and families don’t have those same kind of issues or concerns, the emphasis is almost entirely on the college-going process.”

In a statement from the endowment, Vice President for Education Sara B. Cobb said the response to the Lilly grants shows increased awareness of the crucial need for counseling programs.

“We are impressed with how school leaders have engaged a wide variety of community partners to assess the academic, college, career and social and emotional needs of their students, and respond to them,” Cobb said.

The Lilly grants are going to a broad array of schools, and they are using the money in different ways. At Damar Charter Academy, which educates students with special needs, few students earn traditional diplomas or have good options for higher education. That’s why school staff plan to use the $100,000 counseling grant they received to build relationships with employers and create training programs for skills such as small engine repair, automotive maintenance, landscaping, and culinary arts, said Julie Gurulé, director of student services.

“If we can commit to getting them the skills they need while they are with us,” she said, “they will be able to go out and gain meaningful employment, and … lead the kind of lives that we all want to.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Beech Grove City Schools $259,727
  • Damar Charter School $100,000
  • Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township $671,300
  • Purdue Polytechnic Indianapolis High School $100,000

more digging

Kingsbury High added to list of Memphis schools under investigation for grade changing

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Kingsbury High School was added to a list of schools being investigated by an outside firm for improper grade changes. Here, Principal Terry Ross was featured in a Shelby County Schools video about a new school budget tool.

Another Memphis high school has been added to the list of schools being investigated to determine if they made improper changes to student grades.

Adding Kingsbury High School to seven others in Shelby County Schools will further delay the report initially expected to be released in mid-June.

But from what school board Chairwoman Shante Avant has heard so far, “there haven’t been any huge irregularities.”

“Nothing has surfaced that gives me pause at this point,” Avant told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

The accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman is conducting the investigation.

This comes about three weeks after a former Kingsbury teacher, Alesia Harris, told school board members that Principal Terry Ross instructed someone to change 17 student exam grades to 100 percent — against her wishes.

Shelby County Schools said the allegations were “inaccurate” and that the grade changes were a mistake that was self-reported by an employee.

“The school administration immediately reported, and the central office team took the necessary actions and promptly corrected the errors,” the district said in a statement.

Chalkbeat requested a copy of the district’s own initial investigation the day after Harris spoke at the board’s June meeting, but district officials said they likely would not have a response for Chalkbeat until July 27.

Harris said that no one from Dixon Hughes Goodman has contacted her regarding the investigation as of Thursday.

The firm’s investigation initially included seven schools. Kingsbury was not among them. Those seven schools are:

  • Kirby High
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Bolton High
  • Westwood High
  • White Station High
  • Trezevant High
  • Memphis Virtual School

The firm’s first report found as many as 2,900 failing grades changed during four years at nine Memphis-area schools. At the request of the board, two schools were eliminated: one a charter managed by a nonprofit, and a school outside the district. The firm said at the time that further investigation was warranted to determine if the grade changes were legitimate.

The $145,000 investigation includes interviews with teachers and administrators, comparing teachers’ paper grade books to electronic versions, accompanying grade change forms, and inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades.

Since the controversy started last year, the district has restricted the number of employees authorized to make changes to a student’s report card or transcript, and also requires a monthly report from principals detailing any grade changes.