Are Children Learning

Indiana rank continues to rise on the national NAEP test

PHOTO: Shannan Muskopf via Flickr

Indiana did as good or better than the U.S. average on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or the “nation’s report card,” this year compared to 2013, while many states saw significant drops.

For 2015, the state was ranked fourth in the nation in fourth-grade math and 11th for eighth-grade math, up from a ranking of fourth and 19th, respectively, in 2013. In reading, Indiana students ranked 10th for fourth-grade reading and 16th for eighth-grade reading, up from 15th and 27th. Back in 2013, the state made huge jumps in scores that some questioned the validity of at the time, said Mark O’Malley, the state’s NAEP coordinator.

“That was a big deal and that made the headlines,” O’Malley said. “As Indiana repeats again the fourth highest math score in fourth grade, it kind of validates the student performance that has happened, so that is exciting. It’s not a phenomenon, it didn’t happen by chance.”

 

Indiana students scoring at or above proficiency on NAEP math

 

Indiana students scoring at or above proficiency on NAEP reading

Data source: NAEP and National Center for Education Statistics, Graphics by: Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat

None of the change in this year’s score have “statistical significance” from 2013, meaning they don’t necessarily indicate student achievement is any lower or higher this year than last time — likely the change is due to chance, O’Malley said.

However he said that’s not necessarily a bad thing given the state’s more challenging academic standards and big changes to state tests that can cause some chaos in the classroom.

“Indiana held on and plateaued,” O’Malley said. “The state assessment is up and down, and in the classroom it’s just so chaotic and frustrating. The students were able to hold on to their student performance in the NAEP assessment, and all the other states around us, their scores went down dramatically.”

Compared to 2000, Indiana students have measurably improved in fourth-grade math and reading and in eighth-grade math over 15 years. Eighth-grade reading scores aren’t significantly different from 2000.

Massachusetts, Minnesota and New Hampshire outranked Indiana in fourth-grade math scores, yet the differences are very small. Indiana English-learners achieved scores 16 points higher than the national average among other students learning English as a new language.

In general, Indiana saw strong performance from English-learners and students with special needs. All states are required by the federal government to take NAEP, which is given to sample of students every other year. About 12,000 students took the test in Indiana, O’Malley said.

In some states, lower scores might be affected by having more students with special needs and English-learners taking the test, but Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, said that shouldn’t be considered a problem.

“This is not a problem or a deficit, it’s a huge opportunity to change the lives of young people through educational opportunities,” Duncan said. “We should be proud schools are becoming more diverse, and we should be proud to hold ourselves accountable for the education of all students.”

Nationwide, fourth- and eighth-graders posted slightly lower scores on the math and reading tests than in 2013, the last time the tests were administered.

“We’re trying not to read too much in a decline in at this point,” said Peggy Carr, acting commission of the National Center of Education Statistics, which administers NAEP. “We understand it’s a pattern consistent across many states, but … we don’t know yet if these changes we’re talking about today are long term.”

Scores in both subjects have risen significantly over time, suggesting that the average American student’s skills have improved. Math scores have risen by 27 points out of 500 and reading scores have risen by 10 points since the first time the exams were given, but achievement gaps between black and white students have not narrowed substantially.

U.S. students have taken the NAEP exams for decades in an effort to provide a consistent measure of student performance at a time when states’ standards varied widely.

Now, many states are in the process of adopting new tests that reflect shared standards, potentially allowing for more detailed and frequent comparisons of students across the country. That means for some states, NAEP now serves the dual role of testing student performance across states and assessing whether states have achieved their goal of crafting more “accurate” measures of student achievement with their new exams.

Yet because Indiana abandoned Common Core for state-specific standards in 2014, such comparisons between Indiana’s standards and those in other states aren’t really possible. That makes NAEP even more valuable to educators and policymakers to keep tabs on how students are doing compared to the rest of the country, O’Malley said.

“This is one thing that every state takes in the same format, it’s administered the same,” he said. “It’s the only thing left that … can measure student achievement universally.”

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.