Future of Schools

Near unanimous support has bills to shield teachers, schools from ISTEP sanctions flying

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Lawmakers begin the 2018 session Jan. 3.

How badly does Indiana want to give its teachers and schools a break for for falling state test scores last year?

This bad: Just two of 145 state legislators voted no on two bills to give schools a reprieve from sanctions that usually accompany the kind of drop in scores the Indiana Department of Education reported last week.

A hasty overhaul of academic standards in 2014 led to a quick overhaul of the state ISTEP tests in English and math for students in grades 3-8 in 2015. It didn’t go well. The statewide rate of students passing both tests dropped by 22 percentage points to 53.5 percent, and all but four of 1,500 public schools saw their scores go down.

That prompted Gov. Mike Pence and fellow Republican leaders in the House and Senate to rush two bills to ease the pain schools would usually expect. Schools with  persistently failing grades can face state takeover and teachers of students who don’t show test score gains from the prior year can be blocked from pay raises.

But not this year, thanks to House Bill 1003 and Senate Bill 200, two bills with the same goal of providing that relief that sailed through their latest tests in the two chambers today. Lawmakers hope to have final bills ready for Pence to sign into law by mid-month.

“It’s a win-win for educators,” said House Education Committee Chairman Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis.

Behning’s bill says that 2015 ISTEP scores could not be used in a teacher’s evaluation for that year unless it would improve a teacher’s rating. The bill also makes sure teachers cannot be blocked from bonuses or salary increases because of the scores or forthcoming A-F school letter grades. It passed the House today 95-1, with Rep. John Bartlett, D-Indianapolis, voting no.

Although Rep. Terry Goodin, D-Austin, voted in favor of the bill, he cautioned lawmakers to really consider the action they were taking and whether it was in the best interest of kids.

“We’ve talked about hold harmless for our schools, we’ve talked about hold harmless for our teachers, but really by passing this bill we are really having a hold harmless of legislators and our governor,” Goodin said. “But I think our focus has been misdirected, I really do. The focus has been wrong … the focus needs to be a hold harmless of our students.”

Gov. Mike Pence was staunchly opposed to an accountability “pause” for teachers or schools but reversed course in an announcement last fall, where he encouraged legislators to spare teachers from lower ISTEP scores.

Then in another statement last week, Pence came out in support of a similar pause for school A-F grades. State Superintendent Glenda Ritz has long supported such a pause, and the passage of these bills marks a rare political victory for her administration.

In Senate Bill 200, which passed the full Senate today 48-1, schools could not receive a letter grade for 2015 that is lower than what they received in 2014. Sen. Scott Schneider, R-Indianapolis, voted no.

The A-F grade pause would only count for 2015. This year, schools will be on a new accountability system that more actively factors in student improvement on tests from year to year.

Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, said the bill lines up with what educators have said they wanted all along — time to acclimate to tougher standards ands tests.

“I know we spend a lot of our time dealing with tests an cooer s and grades, but I think in addition to what this bill does in terms of righting some wrongs is that we now are in a position where I think we have listened to those persons on the front lines,” Rogers said. “We’ve listened to our teachers, we’ve listened to our superintendents and to our parents.”

Legislative leaders said this week they hope to have both bills to Pence to be signed into law by the end of the month.

Idea pitch

Despite concerns, Jeffco school board agrees to spend $1 million to start funding school innovations

Students at Lumberg Elementary School in Jeffco Public Schools work on their assigned iPads during a class project. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Jeffco school employees can apply for a piece of a $1 million fund that will pay for an innovative idea for improving education in the district.

The school board for Jeffco Public Schools on Thursday approved shifting $1 million from the district’s rainy day fund to an innovation pool that will be used to provide grants to launch the new ideas.

The district will be open for applications as soon as Friday.

The board had reservations about the plan, which was proposed by the new schools superintendent, Jason Glass, in November, as part of a discussion about ways to encourage innovation and choice in the district. The board was concerned about how quickly the process was set to start, whether there was better use of the money, and how they might play a role in the process.

Glass conceded that the idea was an experiment and that pushing ahead so quickly might create some initial problems.

“This effort is going to be imperfect because it’s the first time that we’ve done it and we don’t really know how it’s going to turn out,” Glass said. “There are going to be problems and there are going to be things we learn from this. It’s sort of a micro experiment. We’re going to learn a lot about how to do this.”

During the November discussion, Glass had suggested one use for the innovation money: a new arts school to open in the fall to attract students to the district. He said that the money could also be used to help start up other choice schools. School board members balked, saying they were concerned that a new arts school would compete with existing arts programs in Jeffco schools. The board, which is supported by the teachers union, has been reluctant to open additional choice schools in the district, instead throwing most of their support behind the district-run schools.

Board members also expressed concerns about what they said was a rushed process for starting the fund.

The plan calls for teachers, school leaders and other district employees to apply for the money by pitching their idea and explaining its benefit to education in the district. A committee will then consider the proposals and recommend those that should be funded out of the $1 million.

Board members said they felt it was too soon to start the application process on Friday. They also questioned why the money could not also help existing district programs.

“I think a great deal of innovation is happening,” said board member Amanda Stevens.

Some board members also suggested that one of them should serve on the committee, at least to monitor the process. But Glass was adamant.

“Do you want me to run the district and be the superintendent or not?” Glass asked the board. “I can set this up and execute it, but what you’re talking about is really stepping over into management, so I caution you about that.”

Glass later said he might be open to finding another way for board members to be involved as observers, but the board president, Ron Mitchell, said he would rather have the superintendent provide thorough reports about the process. The discussion is expected to resume at a later time.

Stevens said many of the board’s questions about details and the kind of ideas that will come forth will, presumably, be answered as the process unfolds.

“Trying is the only way we get any of that information,” Stevens said.

Future of Schools

Indiana’s graduation rate has barely changed in 6 years while most of the nation is on the rise

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum
Mbeomo Msambilwa walks down the hallway at the newcomer school

Indiana has failed to significantly increase the number of students who finish high school even as it leads the nation in embracing school choice policies that have been praised by some education advocates across the nation.

From 2007 to 2011, Indiana’s graduation rate steadily climbed from 78 percent to 87 percent. But since 2011, it has risen just one-tenth of one percentage point. Data released by the state this week showed 87 percent of students graduated in 2017, down slightly from 89 percent in 2016.

That’s a sharp contrast with trends across the country. The most recent national graduation rate was lower than Indiana’s, but it increased by about 5 percentage points between 2011 and 2016. The rate is calculated by dividing the number of students who graduate after four years by the number in a high school cohort.

While Hoosier graduation rates have remained stagnant over the past six years, state education policy has been in upheaval.

Since 2011, Indiana policymakers have limited the power of teachers unions, changed how teachers are evaluated, created an A-F grading system for schools and began taking control of schools with poor performance. They vastly expanded the state’s charter school system and established a statewide program where some students could get public money to pay for private school tuition.

Although politicians at the time did not promise that these changes would guarantee widespread higher academic performance, it was part of their arguments in advancing the new policies. But graduation rates have barely budged.

“We recognize there is still work to be done, and will continue to partner with local districts to ensure every student graduates prepared for life beyond high school,” state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in a statement.

The picture is more positive in Marion County, with notable gains in some schools and districts. Wayne Township’s Ben Davis University High School graduated 100 percent of its seniors, the highest in Marion County.

At the district level, Franklin Township had the highest graduation rate (97 percent). Beech Grove Schools, which enrolls just over 3,000 students, made the biggest jump of any district in the county, increasing 8 percentage points to 95 percent.

Indianapolis Public Schools also made gains in graduation rates for the second year in a row. Eighty-three percent of students graduated, up 6 percentage points from 2016. The improvement significantly narrowed the gap between the district and the state average. The increase this year is especially notable because there was also a decline in the number of graduates who earned diplomas without passing state tests. Indiana requires students to pass state tests to graduate unless they can get a waiver by meeting other criteria.

The district has made increasing the number of students who graduate a priority in recent years, including by hiring high school graduation coaches who are tasked with helping students get to the finish line.

In IPS, most of the gains were at schools slated to close at the end of this year. The only campus with a substantially higher graduation rate that will remain open is Arsenal Technical High School. The district’s highest graduation rate was at Broad Ripple High School (98 percent), which will close.

Across the state, Asian (88 percent) and white (89 percent) students, and students who do not come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (95 percent) have the highest graduation rates. Black students and kids with special needs had graduation rates below 80 percent.

The biggest change was among students who are learning English as a new language. They had a graduation rate of 61 percent, down 14 percentage points from last year.