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.”

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”