School choice

It looks like Indiana’s ISTEP test is toast after 2017

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

Whatever standardized test Indiana chooses to give in 2018, it probably won’t be ISTEP.

After a circuitous journey through the legislature, House Bill 1395, which would end the state’s ISTEP testing program in 2017 and create a panel of educators, lawmakers and policymakers to find a replacement, passed the Senate 50-0 and the House 77-19. It next heads to Gov. Mike Pence for his signature.

But the bill’s final vote came only after serious concerns raised by House Democrats, who passionately asserted on the House floor that they were being left out of future discussions over the test.

“It’s probably going to be one of the most important interim committees of the season, and probably the next decade, and the minority group is not going to get a seat at the table,” said Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson.

(Read “Junking Indiana’s ISTEP test: What might come next and at what cost?“)

Austin said Democrats should have a say in who is appointed to the 23-person ISTEP study panel, but the bill’s author Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, said the Senate preferred a committee that would be similar to one that created the state’s new 2016 A-F accountability system.

“This is not the panel that the House passed, this is the panel that the Senate liked and was unwilling to move on,” Behning said. “This is not where I wanted to be necessarily.”

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, who has four appointments under the bill, said he would “at least consult with” Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, before he makes his choices.

Behning said Senate Republicans agreed to require business leader, a parent, a state board of education member and a teachers union representative be appointed to the panel, a proposal that originally was in the House version. The other members of the committee will be educators and legislators to be appointed by Republican legislative leaders, Pence and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, who will also be part of the committee.

Behning originally introduced the bill as proposal to rescore of the problem-plagued 2015 test. Last year’s exam was beset with scoring delays and technical glitches that Behning thought called for a full review of the scores to make sure the state can accurately determine student progress going forward.

Later, Behning’s proposal to rescore ISTEP was removed in the Senate, partially over concern about the cost. The rescore didn’t make it back in the final version of the bill.

Deadlines for appointing panel members is May 1. The group must recommend options for a new test to the legislature by Dec. 1. The goal is for the panel’s recommendations to become legislation on the General Assembly docket in 2017.

Two other bills that were suddenly given new life yesterday also cleared their last hurdles before being forwarded to Pence to sign.

Popular teacher scholarship proposal moved ahead

A scholarship bill that would allow aspiring teachers to apply for up to four years of college aid in exchange for teaching in Indiana schools for five years passed easily in both chambers — 97-0 in the House and 48-2 in the Senate.

Bosma said he was pleased to see House Bill 1002 move ahead. The program now also will see $10.5 million of funding for scholarships that would begin in 2017.

“I’m thrilled, it was a better result that I had hoped for at the start of session,” Bosma said. “What a great way to reinforce the importance of the teaching profession.”

Austin, along with other Democrats, supported the bill and hailed what it could do for Indiana classrooms.

“This is really one of the most substantive things we’ve done this session to address the teacher shortage,” she said.

Lawmakers remain divided on teacher pay raises

A teacher mentoring bill that became surprisingly controversial also passed.

House Bill 1005 had widespread support, but over the last week two controversial ideas were added to it: one giving school districts flexibility to pay some teachers extra and one to extend the deadline to apply for private school tuition vouchers.

House Bill 1005 narrowly passed the House on Wednesday 51-43 and made it out of the Senate 33-17. But some lawmakers still had misgivings about including the teacher pay langauge in the bill, which the Senate and the House had already rejected in other bills earlier this year.

Sen. Liz Brown, R-Fort Wayne, compared the measure to stipends given for extracurricular activities. Plus, Republican lawmakers argued, a similar law already is in place allowing pay bumps for dual credit teachers, establishing a precedent.

“This is not breaking new ground,” Brown said. “This is actually recognizing the hard work that teachers do.”

But extracurricular pay is subject to union negotiations and the extra pay for teaching AP courses is not, said Indiana State Teachers Association spokeswoman Kim Clements-Johnson. Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, said she worried that the provision might change teachers’ willingness to work together and collaborate.

“It sets up an adversarial atmosphere,” Rogers said. “What we try to do is keep the learning atmosphere one in which we work together, teachers and administrators.”

what's public?

Private managers of public schools, charter leaders enjoy extra buffer from public-records laws

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Eva Moskowitz, Success Academy Charter Schools CEO.

When Success Academy officials read the news last month that board chair Daniel Loeb had made a racially charged comment about a New York State senator, what did they do next?

Did Success CEO Eva Moskowitz frantically email confidantes about the incident? Did her team craft a new policy on board member conduct?

It turns out, we may never know.

That’s in part because emails sent by Moskowitz and other leaders of New York City’s largest charter network which oversees 46 public schools and 15,500 students are not subject to the same public-records laws as district school officials, such as Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

Moskowitz and officials at other charter school networks are generally exempt from the law because they don’t work for individual schools or city agencies, both of which are required to hand over certain records to members of the public who request them. Instead, they are employed by nonprofit groups called charter management organizations, or CMOs, which aren’t covered by the state records law.

“Success Academy Charter Schools, Inc. (SACS) is a private nonprofit organization that provides services to charter schools, but it is not itself a charter school or a government agency under FOIL,” wrote Success Academy lawyer Robert Dunn in response to an appeal of a Chalkbeat request for Moskowitz’s emails under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, which the network had denied. “Thus, it is not in and of itself subject to FOIL or required to have an appeal process.”

In addition, Success officials said the emails would not need to be released because they qualify as internal communications that are exempt from the public-records law.

The city’s most prominent charter school networks — including KIPP and Uncommon — have similar CMO structures, which appears to shield their leaders from at least some FOIL requests. While “the KIPP NYC public charter schools themselves are subject to the New York Freedom of Information Law,” KIPP spokesperson Steve Mancini said in an email, the “CMOs are not.”

But some government-transparency advocates argue that the law is not so clear cut.

Because CMOs are so heavily involved in the operation of public schools, it could be argued that the vast majority of their records are kept on behalf of public schools and should be public, said Bob Freeman, executive director of the Committee on Open Government and an expert on public-records laws.

Even though nonprofits aren’t covered by FOIL, he said, “Everything you do for an entity that is subject to FOIL — everything you prepare, transmit, and receive — falls within the scope of FOIL.”

Success Academy officials emphasized that the network does not categorically deny public-records requests involving its management organization. For instance, it may hand over CMO records related to the daily operation of its schools, the officials said. The network decides on a case-by-case basis which CMO records are public and which are not, they added.

“We follow the same policies as all other charter management organizations,” said Nicole Sizemore, a Success Academy spokeswoman.

Uncommon Schools spokeswoman Barbara Martinez said that their individual schools are subject to public-records requests and the nonprofit CMO releases budget information on its public tax forms.

“Uncommon Schools is a non-profit organization that follows all local, state and federal laws regarding disclosure,” she said in a statement.

However, because public-records laws mainly apply to government agencies and institutions, it is likely that some important communications related to charter schools — such as charter officials’ emails to real-estate companies, for example and detailed financial records related to their CMOs would be off limits to the public.

The issue of charter management transparency flared up in Connecticut a few years ago.

After the state accused a CMO of nepotism and financial mismanagement of its charter schools, the Hartford Courant requested CMO records under the state’s Freedom of Information law. The CMO refused to hand them over, saying, “We are not a public agency.”

In response, state lawmakers proposed a law to increase CMO transparency and subject them to public-records laws. After charter advocates decried the law as overly broad, lawmakers amended it and the law was passed. (A similar bill was recently introduced in the California legislature but did not pass.)

Similar scandals involving CMOs could happen elsewhere, said Wendy Lecker, an attorney at the Education Law Center. During the debate in Connecticut, she called for making all CMO records public.

“Something done on behalf of a school should be subject to transparency and Freedom of Information laws,” she said. “I don’t see why they’d want to shield the public from that.”

A large number of charter schools are run by charter management organizations. In 2015, about 55 percent of New York City charter schools were managed by CMOs, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

The nonprofits help their schools hire, pay, and train staff; analyze data; and handle advertising and public relations, according to a report by the NAPCS. The report notes that these organizations are distinct from textbook companies or other vendors that schools contract with because CMOs “have considerable influence over the instructional design and operations of their affiliated charter schools.”

The nonprofit structure has enabled networks to open new schools more easily, including ones in multiple districts and states, said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center.

Even if New York’s public-records laws applied to CMOs, that would not guarantee that all their records would be accessible or easy to obtain.

New York City’s education department, for instance, is notorious for dragging its feet on FOIL requests. And some information is also exempt from the public-records law.

For instance, opinions or recommendations from within an agency or from outside consultants are exempt from public disclosure. Success’ lawyer argued that even if the network’s executives were subject to public information requests, Moskowitz’s emails to or about Loeb would fall under this “inter-agency” communication exception.

However, government agencies would still have to supply the requested emails, just with the exempted information redacted, said Allan Blutstein, the public-records advisor for the political opposition research group America Rising. Even redacted emails can provide a wealth of information, Blutstein said, since simply seeing when the emails were sent, who they were sent to, and how many were exchanged provides insights into how the organization responded.

“You may not get his or her personal opinion back and forth, but there’s value in knowing how soon they reacted, how soon they’re responding to other people,” Blutstein said. “You can make these types of inferences and learn a lot.”

In addition, institutions that are subject to FOIL must hand over more detailed budget information than nonprofits typically disclose, Blutstein said. While nonprofits are required to release general information, like how much they spend on supplies or training, public institutions must hand over almost every record, he said.

good news bad news

Most Tennessee districts are showing academic growth, but districts with the farthest to go improved the least

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

It’s not just Memphis: Across Tennessee, districts with many struggling schools posted lower-than-expected growth scores on this year’s state exams, according to data released Tuesday.

The majority of Tennessee’s 147 districts did post scores that suggest students are making or exceeding expected progress, with over a third earning the top growth score.

But most students in three of the state’s four largest districts — in Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga — aren’t growing academically as they should, and neither are those in most of their “priority schools” in the state’s bottom 5 percent.

The divide prompted Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to send a “good news, bad news” email to superintendents.

“These results point to the ability for all students to grow,” she wrote of the top-performing districts, many of which have a wide range of academic achievement and student demographics.

Of those in the bottom, she said the state would analyze the latest data to determine “critical next steps,” especially for priority schools, which also are located in high-poverty communities.

“My message to the leaders of Priority schools … is that this level of growth will never get kids back on track, so we have to double-down on what works – strong instruction and engagement, every day, with no excuses,” McQueen said.

Growth scores are supposed to take poverty into account, so the divide suggests that either the algorithm didn’t work as it’s supposed to or, in fact, little has happened to change conditions at the state’s lowest-performing schools, despite years of aggressive efforts in many places.

The results are bittersweet for Tennessee, which has pioneered growth measures for student learning and judging the effectiveness of its teachers and schools under its Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, known as TVAAS.

On the one hand, the latest TVAAS data shows mostly stable growth through the transition to TNReady, the state’s new test aligned to new academic standards, in the first year of full testing for grades 3-11. On the other hand, Tennessee has invested tens of millions of dollars and years of reforms toward improving struggling schools — all part of its massive overhaul of K-12 education fueled by its 2009 federal Race to the Top award.

The state-run Achievement School District, which launched in the Race to the Top era to turn around the lowest-performing schools, saw a few bright spots, but almost two-thirds of schools in its charter-reliant portfolio scored in the bottom levels of student growth.

Shelby County’s own turnaround program, the Innovation Zone, fared poorly too, with a large percentage of its Memphis schools scoring 1 on a scale of 1 to 5, after years of scoring 4s and 5s.


District profile: Most Memphis schools score low on student growth


Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called the results a “wakeup call” for the state’s biggest district in Memphis.

“When you have a population of kids in high poverty that were already lagging behind on the old, much easier test, it’s not surprising that we’ve got a lot of work to do here,” he said, citing the need to support teachers in mastering the state’s new standards.

“The good part is that we’ve seen the test now and we know what’s expected. The bad part is we’ve seen the test … and it’s a different monster,” he told Chalkbeat.

You can find district composite scores below. (A TVAAS score of 3 represents average growth for a student in one school year.) For a school-by-school list, visit the state’s website.