Are Children Learning

Nearly all Indiana schools see ISTEP scores plunge

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Shocking drops in ISTEP scores have lawmakers scrambling to protect schools and teachers from sanctions.

Here’s how badly Indiana’s schools did on the new ISTEP: Just four of 1,500 public schools that took the 2015 exam had more kids pass than the year before.

Passing rates sank on nearly every measure after the test was retooled to match tougher standards the state adopted in 2014. In all, 93 percent of public schools that took the test the last two years saw their passing rates drop by at least 10 percentage points. Half of schools saw a drop of 20 percentage points or more.

Almost half of all kids who took the test failed math, English or both. Statewide, the percentage of students who passed both English and math nose-dived by 22 percentage points to 53.5 percent.

Under the prior version of ISTEP, the passing percentage had been going up by a percentage point or two each year for the past three years.

The statewide passing percentage for English tumbled down 13 points in 2015 to 67 percent and math fell 22 points to 61 percent passing. Both were close to the decline the Indiana Department of Education had predicted. The tests are not directly comparable to each other because they are so different, but the data shows the new test is clearly much harder.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s warnings of huge drops to come helped spur a reluctant Gov. Mike Pence and Republican legislative leaders this week to promise to rush a bill that would exempt teachers and schools from consequences for newly low scores.

ISTEP is the backbone of an accountability system that can block teachers from pay raises if their students’ scores don’t rise and sever schools from their school districts under state takeover when they receive years of consecutive F-grades.

But not this year.

A senate bill with broad support would prevent school’s A-F grades from going lower than the grades they received last year and shield teachers from consequences of poor scores earned by their students.

In short, after a long bumpy ride that saw problems with ISTEP’s design, administration and scoring, the state’s schools are getting a mulligan.

That will be a relief to many.

Ritz decried years of changing expectations for students, teachers and schools, but she said they could now build up from this new “benchmark.”

“My top priority is the educational, social and emotional well-being of Hoosier students,” she said in a statement. “That is why I believe that is it time for Indiana to move away from the costly, lengthy, pass/fail ISTEP assessment. The one-size-fits-all high stakes approach of the ISTEP needs to end.”

When it came to the schools that struggled the most with the new ISTEP, many of them were in Marion County.

Four of the 10 schools with the deepest drops in their passing rates were from IPS, and one was from Pike Township.

The passing percentage for IPS School 56, which last year ranked among the best in the district at 82.7 percent, fell a whopping 55 percentage points, the worst in the state. This year just 27.9 percent of its students passed.

Another IPS school, Cold Springs School, wasn’t far behind. At 29.1 percent passing, it fell 48 percentage points from 2014, the second biggest drop in the state.

Pike Township’s Snacks Crossing Elementary School was third worst, down 47 percentage points to 24.8 percent passing, and Harshman Middle School of IPS had the state’s ninth biggest drop, down 43 percentage points to 21 percent passing.

Just four schools in the state saw a greater percentage of students pass ISTEP in 2015 than the prior year — Tindley Renaissance charter school, Eminence High School in Morgan County, IPS School 107 and a juvenile justice center in South Bend. Two of them were helped because they were recovering from big drops in 2014.

IPS School 107, for example, saw a big decline in scores in 2014, with a pass rate 16 percentage points below the prior year. Scores at School 107 rebounded slightly in 2015. Although just 34 percent of students passed, the rate was up 6.7 points over the year before despite the tougher new exam. That was the state’s second biggest gain.

The numbers for the lowest-scoring schools were bleak. In 2015 there were 18 schools had fewer than 10 percent of their students pass ISTEP, including six IPS schools. There were just three such schools statewide in 2014.

Even so, IPS did have the state’s top-scoring school again.

Like last year, Sidener Gifted Academy, a celebrated IPS magnet school for students who are identified as gifted, was the top-rated public school in the state, although its passing rate fell slightly to 95.5 percent passing from 100 percent in 2014.

Sidener wasn’t the only top-scoring school that remained among the state’s highest-scorers even after a dip in its passing rate.

In fact, despite all the changes to ISTEP, many of the usual suspects could be found among the best- and worst-scoring schools.

Including Sidener, six of the top 10 public schools from 2014 were back in the top 10 again. Five of the top 10 were from the wealthy Indianapolis suburbs of Carmel and Zionsville. If anything, those districts were even more dominant on the new ISTEP.

For 2016, ISTEP is set for even more changes. The British-based company Pearson has taken over creating the test after more than a decade with CTB/McGraw-Hill. And the test is supposed to include even more sophisticated technology, creating new ways for students to show how they arrived at their answers.

Pearson’s contract runs through 2017. After that, a growing number of lawmakers have raised the idea of scrapping the exam altogether in favor of a shared national exam that students also take in other states.

 

Detroit Story Booth

Why one woman thinks special education reform can’t happen in isolation

PHOTO: Colin Maloney
Sharon Kelso, student advocate from Detroit

When Sharon Kelso’s kids and grandkids were still in school, they’d come home and hear the same question from her almost every day: “How was your day in school?” One day, a little over a decade ago, Kelso’s grandson gave a troubling answer. He felt violated when security guards at his school conducted a mass search of students’ personal belongings.

Kelso, a Cass Tech grad, felt compelled to act. Eventually, she became the plaintiff in two cases which outlawed unreasonable mass searches of students in Detroit’s main district.

Fast forward to August, when her three great-nephews lost both their mother and father in the space of a week and Kelso became their guardian. Today, she asks them the same question she has asked two generations of Detroit students: “How was your day in school?”

The answers she receives still deeply inform her advocacy work.

Watch the full video here:

– Colin Maloney

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.