Future of Schools

Rejecting Ritz's logic, state board promises A-to-F grades will be issued

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
State Superintendent Glenda Ritz speaks with reporters after Indiana's request for a waiver from some rules of the federal No Child Left Behind law was approved in 2014.

Indiana schools will have A-to-F grades for 2014-15, although they probably won’t be publicly released until 2016.

The Indiana State Board of Education today approved a resolution that orders state Superintendent Glenda Ritz to issue school A-to-F grades for 2014-15 despite earlier questions raised by Ritz about whether the board’s earlier actions caused the rules for calculating those grades to expire.

That could have meant the Indiana Department of Education would have no formal guidelines for assigning grades. But the state board rejected Ritz’s argument and insisted last year’s rules are still in effect.

“This has been a very confusing process with the rules expiring, the emergency rules,” Ritz said. “I just want to say I’m glad we’re headed to the new rules and the new measures and the new metrics, and we’re moving as fast as we can toward that.”

Education department spokesman Daniel Altman said the tentative date for final grades being submitted to the state board for approval is Jan. 18. Typically, grades are finalized well before year’s end, but the company that makes ISTEP, California-based CTB, reported scoring problems last month that have caused the delay. Schools are expected to get preliminary score data by Dec. 1.

“Obviously we’re dealing with the delay from CTB,” Altman said. “We’ve been working significantly with state board staff and legislative staff and stakeholders to get the timeline as reduced as it could be, and we’re going to get information to schools as soon as it’s possible.”

A letter from Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, expressed concern that grades wouldn’t be issued before the state’s Jan. 31 deadline for when districts must give performance bonuses to teachers. Brown chairs the budget making Ways and Means Committee in the Indiana House. If that bonus money is not used by then, state board spokesman Marc Lotter said, it could go back to the education department rather than be paid to teachers.

The board voted 9-0 to approve the resolution to issue the grades, with Ritz abstaining. When asked by board member Gordon Hendry why she chose not to vote, Ritz cited the confusion about the rules.

“I choose to, I guess, because of the confusing nature of the entire piece and the resolution enacting a rule that is expired,” she said. “It’s probably more procedural than anything.”

Lotter said 2014-15 grades would be determined using the same system as in 2013-14. A new model for figuring out school grades will equally weigh student scores and improvement over prior years. It will be used for the first time for 2015-16 grades.

An A-to-F grade delay can cause schools a variety of problems, as the scores are used in part to determine teacher raises, as well as guide the state board to decide if it needs to take over schools with repeated F-grades.

Ritz’s team argued earlier this month that the state board’s actions last year to change the way they issued grades for a handful of schools with unusual grade configurations — such as those with some elementary grades and some high school grades — had a secondary effect of invalidating the entire A-to-F system.

The rules, they said, indicate even a small change means there is a new system, and that the old system no longer is in effect.

The Indiana attorney general’s office said in a letter to the board and the department that an expiring emergency rule would not invalidate A-to-F grades and doesn’t negate state law that requires grades to be issued each year.

A legal opinion from Matt Light, with the state’s attorney general’s office, also blocks another proposal Ritz has made. She has suggested A-to-F school grades be “paused” for 2014-15. Ritz proposed grades only be changed and made public if they were better than those from 2014. If scores went down, she said, grades should stay the same.

Pausing grades is “inconsistent with statutory requirements and provisions relating to placement of schools in A-F categories for school performance and accountability,” Light wrote.

Ritz and her team have tried to persuade the state board to “pause” accountability and school grades several times. Recently, those arguments have been spurred on by difficulties schools have had as they quickly implement new academic standards and give new tests after Indiana dumped Common Core standards in 2014.

Light wrote that while it might be valid to argue that new standards and new tests had an effect on accountability, it doesn’t mean that withholding grades is the best option. Plus, he wrote, there’s no evidence that the 2015 ISTEP test isn’t valid or reliable.

“There is always a difficult balance to be struck between the need to establish the validity and reliability of the test items against the burden of time needed to test the items,” his letter said.

'indigenized' curriculum

Denver doesn’t graduate half of its Native American students. This charter school wants to change that.

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Tanski Chrisjohn gets help adjusting the microphone at a school board meeting from Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

The Denver school district is not serving Native American students well. Fewer than one in four Native American sixth-graders were reading and writing on grade-level last year, according to state tests, and the high school graduation rate was just 48 percent.

Even though that percentage is lower than for black or Latino students, educator Terri Bissonette said it often feels as if no one is paying attention.

“Nobody says anything out loud,” said Bissonette, a member of the Gnoozhekaaning Anishinaabe tribe who graduated from Denver Public Schools and has worked in education for 20 years as a teacher and consultant. “We’re always listed as ‘others.’”

Bissonette aims to change that by opening a charter school called the American Indian Academy of Denver. The plan is to start in fall 2019 with 120 students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades and then expand into high school one grade at a time. Any interested student will be able to enroll, no matter their racial or ethnic background.

The Denver school board unanimously and enthusiastically approved the charter last week – which is notable given enrollment growth is slowing districtwide and some board members have expressed concerns about approving too many new schools.

But the American Indian Academy of Denver would be unlike any other school in the city. The curriculum would focus on science, technology, engineering, art, and math – or STEAM, as it’s known – and lessons would be taught through an indigenous lens.

Bissonette gives a poignant example. In sixth grade, state academic standards dictate students learn how European explorers came to North America.

“When you’re learning that unit, you’re on the boat,” Bissonette said. “I’d take that unit and I’d flip it. You’d be on the beach, and those boats would be coming.”

Antonio Garcia loves that example. The 17-year-old cites it when talking about why the school would be transformational for Native American youth, a population that has historically been forced – sometimes violently – to assimilate into white culture. For decades, Native American children were sent to boarding schools where their hair was cut and their languages forbidden.

Garcia is a member of the Jicarilla Apache, Diné, Mexikah, and Maya tribes. A senior at Denver’s East High School, he recalls elementary school classmates asking if he lived in a teepee and teachers singling him out to share the indigenous perspective on that day’s lesson.

“Indigenous students don’t have a place in Denver Public Schools,” Garcia said. “We’re underrepresented. And when we are represented, it’s through tokenism.”

According to the official student count, 592 of Denver’s nearly 93,000 students this year are Native American. That’s less than 1 percent, although Bissonette suspects the number is actually higher because some families don’t tick the box for fear of being stigmatized or because they identify as both Native American and another race.

The district does provide extra support for Native American students. Four full-time and three part-time staff members coordinate mentorships, cultural events, college campus visits, and other services, according to district officials. In addition, five Denver schools are designated as Native American “focus schools.” The focus schools are meant to centralize the enrollment of Native American students, in part so they feel less isolated, officials said.

But it isn’t working that way. While the number of students at some of the schools is slightly higher than average, there isn’t a large concentration at any one of them. Supporters of the American Indian Academy of Denver hope the charter will serve that role.

“It’s very hard being the only Native person that my friends know,” second-grader Vivian Sheely told the school board last week. “It would be nice to see other families that look like my own.”

That sense of belonging is what Shannon Subryan wants for her children, too. Subryan and her daughters are members of the Navajo and Lakota tribes. Her 7-year-old, Cheyenne, has struggled to find a school that works for her. Because Cheyenne is quiet in class, Subryan said teachers have repeatedly suggested she be tested for learning disabilities.

“Our children are taught that listening before speaking is more valued than speaking right away,” Subryan said. “She understands everything. It’s just a cultural thing.”

After switching schools three times, Cheyenne ended up at a Denver elementary with a teacher who shares her Native American and Latina heritage. She’s thrived there, but Subryan worries what will happen when Cheyenne gets a new teacher next year. As soon as Cheyenne is old enough, Subryan plans to enroll her at the American Indian Academy of Denver.

In addition to the school’s “indigenized” curriculum, Bissonette envisions inviting elders into the classrooms to share stories and act as academic tutors, exposing students to traditional sports and games, and teaching them Native American languages. Above all, she said the school will work to hire high-quality teachers, whether they’re Native American or not.

The school is partly modeled on a successful charter school in New Mexico called the Native American Community Academy. Opened in 2006, it has a dual focus on academic rigor and student wellness. Last year, 71 percent of its graduates immediately enrolled in college, school officials said. In Denver, only 38 percent of Native American graduates immediately enrolled.

Several years ago, the New Mexico school launched a fellowship program for educators who want to open their own schools focused on better serving Native American students. Bissonette will be the first Colorado educator to be a fellow when she starts this year.

She and her founding board of directors are hoping to open the American Indian Academy of Denver in a private facility somewhere in southwest Denver. That region is home to the Denver Indian Center and has historically had a larger population of Native American families.

However, she said she and her board members realize the Native American population isn’t big enough to support a school alone. More than half of all Denver students are Latino, and they expect the school’s demographics to reflect that. Many Latino students also identify as indigenous, and Bissonette is confident they’ll be attracted to the model.

“This really is a school from us, about us,” she said.

COUNTING TNREADY

School boards across Tennessee scrap TNReady scores from students’ grades

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki

As the school year comes to a close following the standardized testing debacle that concluded in Tennessee this month, many school districts have decided the scores won’t count toward students’ final grades.

Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest district, will take up the issue Tuesday when the school board meets in a work session.

Earlier this year, the district was one of about half of the state’s school systems that reported to the state it likely would not use the scores because the results were not expected to be received at least five school days before the end of the year. But that early tally was unofficial.

“The survey was just to let us know what they were planning for so we could have a sense of what districts were planning on doing, but it was not binding in any way,” said Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.

Now, one by one, a growing number of districts are opting not to count the scores against students whenever the results are released.

This year’s online testing was plagued with a series of testing snafus, including login troubles, an apparent cyberattack, a dump truck cutting a fiber optic line and the wrong test being issued to some students. It’s the third year in a row that TNReady testing has gone wrong.

Bartlett City Schools decided during a special school board session last week not to use the scores on high school report cards after previously saying it would. So did the Franklin Special School District. The week before, Williamson County, Blount County, and Collierville school board members voted the same.

Millington Municipal Schools also will not be using the scores in that district’s final grades. But the district decided in December not to include the scores, said Stacy Ross, a spokesperson for the district.

“The decision was made because the scores from testing would not be back in time for final report cards,” Ross said in a statement to Chalkbeat.

It’s unclear of the 71 school districts that had initially said they planned to count the scores, how many have changed their minds.

Greene County is one of a few districts that has decided to count the scores as 15 percent of students’ final grades.

Before this year’s testing challenges, state law had required that the high school end-of-course exams count for 15 percent of a high school student’s final grade unless the scores came in too late for report cards.

But after the testing snafus, legislators left it in the hands of school boards to decide how much to count TNReady scores — if at all — toward students’ grades.

High school raw scores are expected to be delivered electronically to districts by May 22 and grades 3-8 scores are expected to be available by June 15, according to the state.