Are Children Learning

House committee saves ISTEP, calls for study of replacement options

PHOTO: Shannan Muskopf via Flickr
State officials are closing as many 38 Michigan schools with low rankings due to test scores but they might have trouble finding higher scoring schools nearby

A proposal to replace ISTEP with an off-the-shelf national test was derailed today as a House committee sent the idea to a summer committee for further study.

But new proposals that affect teachers unions were revived at a meeting of the House Education Committee.

A major amendment to Senate Bill 566 completely changed the bill, which has been at the center of a stand-off with powerful legislative leaders who manage the state budget on one side and the Indiana State Board of Education on the other.

Unnerved by the growing cost for a proposed overhaul of ISTEP, Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, and Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, who chair the Senate and House committees that create the state budget, backed Senate Bill 566 with the idea that Indiana could save money by using a test other states use rather than creating its own exam.

Kenley often used the example of an exam from the Northwest Evaluation Association, which some Indiana schools use to prepare for ISTEP, as an off-the-shelf test that could be adapted to serve as the state test.

But state board members last week said the cost for ISTEP was reasonable and urged legislators to keep it. Unless the language that was removed from Senate Bill 566 today is revived in a different bill later, the state board will have prevailed. Committee Chairman Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, said that was unlikely. Brown, he said, helped craft the amendment.

“Any off-the-shelf test would need more study,” he said.

John Barnes, a spokesman for state Superintendent Glenda Ritz and the Indiana Department of Education, had testified in the Senate that Ritz was open to exploring the idea of a replacement test for ISTEP. Barnes said Ritz and the department opposed the amendment.

“It seems to take away the entire spirit of the bill,” he said. “We would not be in support.”

Union leaders also were chagrined to see a series of changes to the bill that inserted language they view as an effort to diminish their influence and ability to serve their members.

The amended bill passed the committee 8-4 on a party line vote. It moves next to the the budget-making House Ways & Means Committee.

The union proposals come from Senate Bill 538, which passed the Senate in February but was stalled in the House labor committee. Adding that language to Senate Bill 566 puts those changes back on track for a vote of the full House.

The bill now would allow non-union organizations to pitch their services to represent teachers in contract negotiations. It would require unions to report how many members they have to the state and trigger an investigation and allow state officials to order an election in cases where unions report representing less than a majority of the teachers in a school district.

Gail Zeheralis of the Indiana State Teachers Association said the amendment created new dangers as teachers or school officials could be charged with perjury  if the the state determines the membership numbers reported for local unions are inaccurate. The bill would make the membership report the equivalent of a sworn statement under a section of state law dealing with interference with government operations. That means knowingly providing false information could result in a felony charge.

“We have this open-ended authority to a state level entity to come in,” she said. “We are creating the crime of perjury if the school district or union turns in numbers someone decides they don’t believe in.”

Caryl Auslander, lobbyist for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, said the union language in the bill would benefit teachers by giving them more information and other routes to participate in debates about issues. The bill also would provide what has been described as a “teacher bill of rights” to teachers spelling out their employment rights. Unions have not opposed that concept.

“Its important for teachers to be aware of their rights, have a voice and to increase transparency,” Auslander said.

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.

Silver Lining Playbook

Memphis’ youngest students show reading gains on 2018 state tests — and that’s a big deal

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A student works on reading comprehension skills at Lucie E Campbell Elementary School in Memphis and Shelby County Schools.

Those working to improve early literacy rates in Shelby County Schools got a small morale boost Thursday as newly released scores show the district’s elementary school students improved their reading on 2018 state tests.

The percentage of Memphis elementary-age students considered proficient in reading rose by 3 points to almost one-fourth of the district’s children in grades 3 through 5. That’s still well below the state average, and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said “we obviously have a long way to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has overseen Tennessee’s largest public school district since 2013.

Strengthening early literacy has been a priority for the Memphis district, which views better reading skills as crucial to predicting high school graduation and career success. To that end, Shelby County Schools has expanded access to pre-K programs, adjusted reading curriculum, and made investments in literacy training for teachers.

Hopson said the payoff on this year’s TNReady scores was a jump of almost 5 percentage points in third-grade reading proficiency.

“It was about five years ago when we really, really, really started pushing pre-K, and those pre-K kids are now in the third grade. I think that’s something that’s really positive,” Hopson said of the gains, adding that third-grade reading levels are an important indicator of future school performance.

TNReady scores for Shelby County Schools, which has a high concentration of low-performing schools and students living in poverty, were a mixed bag, as they were statewide.

Math scores went up in elementary, middle, and high schools in Tennessee’s largest district. But science scores went down across the board, and the percentage of high school students who scored proficient in reading dropped by 4 percentage points.

The three charts below illustrate, by subject, the percentages of students who performed on track or better in elementary, middle, and high schools within Shelby County Schools. The blue bars reflect the district’s most recent scores, the black bars show last year’s scores, and the yellow bars depict this year’s statewide averages.

Hopson said he was unsure how much the scores of older students — all of whom tested online — were affected by technical problems that hampered Tennessee’s return this year to computerized testing.

“From what people tell me, kids either didn’t try as hard in some instances or didn’t take it seriously,” Hopson told reporters. “We’ll never know what the real impact is, but we have to accept the data that came from these tests.”

But students in two of the district’s school improvement initiatives — the Innovation Zone and the Empowerment Zone — showed progress. “We’re going to double down on these strategies,” Hopson said of the extra investments and classroom supports.

In the state-run Achievement School District, or ASD, which oversees 30 low-performing schools in Memphis, grades 3 through 8 saw an uptick in scores in both reading and math. But high schoolers scored more than 3 percentage points lower in reading and also took a step back in science.

The ASD takes over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent and assigns them to charter operators to improve. But in the five years that the ASD has been in Memphis, its scores have been mostly stagnant.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said she and new ASD Superintendent Sharon Griffin are reviewing the new data to determine next steps.

“We are seeing some encouraging momentum shifts,” McQueen said.

Chalkbeat illustrator Sam Park contributed to this story.