Measuring schools

Beyond test scores: Indianapolis considers new ways to measure school quality

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

When Indiana’s school letter grades debuted in 2011, the purpose was to make it easier for the public to understand school quality — but key players in Indianapolis education say simpler is not always better.

Indianapolis Public Schools, in partnership with The Mind Trust and the mayor’s office, are developing “equity reports” that will use different kinds of school data to better inform parents and community members about the quality of roughly 100 schools in the city — both IPS schools and mayor-sponsored charter schools. The new reports will have much more information than the state-issued letter grades, which currently consider little more than student test scores.

“We know parents and families need more than A-F (grades),” said Kameelah Shaheed-Diallo, the senior vice president of strategy and community engagement with The Mind Trust. “This is a tool to give them something more.”

The new reports, expected to roll out in November, are modeled on similar reports used to measure schools in Washington, D.C. They come at time when states nationwide are searching for better ways to measure schools that don’t just rely on standardized tests.

Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which will replace No Child Left Behind next year, states must include “non-academic” indicators in their accountability systems. The problem? Some of the new qualitative metrics are still being developed. They could include metrics such as graduation rates for high schools or things like school attendance or the results of student and staff surveys.

“This is very much a 1.0 moment for those measures,” said Thomas Dee, a professor from Stanford University’s graduate school of education. “I applaud efforts to pilot innovation, but I guess for me it’s not just about data. It’s about how it’s used, and my concern is that, if it just sits on a website, that it’s going to be under-utilized by parents and by school leaders and by taxpayers.”

The equity reports are one of two efforts underway in Indianapolis to develop a better school measurement systems — both for parents to make more informed school enrollment decisions and for schools to better reflect on what they need to improve. Equity reports are the parent- and community-facing piece.

Some of the data that will be used for the reports is already available from the Indiana Department of Education, but the reports will compile the information in an easy-to-find way that is more user-friendly, said Aleesia Johnson, the IPS’s innovation chief.

“The equity reports to me will be a way in which information is sort of packaged in a more transparent and clear way, both for (district) schools and public charter schools as well as for families,” Johnson said.

Both IPS and The Mind Trust are the process of meeting with community groups to find out exactly what parents want to know. Information on school leadership, discipline and attendance are already on the table.

IPS and the mayor’s office teamed up with The Mind Trust on this project after receiving a grant from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation that is geared toward creating a unified school enrollment system. The reports will be folded into that system as an extra service for parents as they choose schools for their children.

That grant is also funding a second effort on school measurement that is designed to help schools internally assess how well they’re helping students.

The second effort is driven by UChicago Impact, a nonprofit group affiliated with the University of Chicago has been using school climate and culture surveys in Chicago schools for years. The Chicago model — currently being piloted in 20 IPS schools and 20 mayor-sponsored charter schools — is based on a theory about the “five essentials.” Those are five qualities that strong schools share, said Elliot Ransom, the director of the five essentials efforts at UChicago Impact.

According to the group’s research, if schools rate high on three of the five measures — effective leaders, collaborative teachers, involved families, supportive environment, ambitious instruction — they are 10 times more likely to see student improvement than schools that are weak in those areas. But just having the data isn’t enough if you don’t act on it, he said.

“Educators are awash in data at this point in time, and it’s sometimes hard to make sense of what we should pay attention to,” Ransom said “It was foolhardy to think that you give something to someone and they suddenly change. So part of that is making (the data) public because the conversation will fundamentally change about school quality.”

After seeing some progress in Chicago, the state of Illinois voted in 2013 to include the five essentials in tracking school quality. While Illinois’ accountability system doesn’t use explicit ratings like Indiana’s, Ransom said, the commitment from the state shows that Indiana, too, could use such information in a large-scale way.

Dee, the expert from Stanford, urges states to be open to new ideas and to experiment but warns educators against putting too much stock in qualitative measures. Surveys, in particular, can be tricky to use because people don’t always give honest answers.

“You would worry about low response rate, you would worry about the extent to which people filling out the surveys really understood what they were responding to,” Dee said. “So there’s concern there.”

For now, both the equity reports and the UChicago surveys are only funded through the end of this year. Whether they’ll continue next year will depend on whether parents and educators find them valuable and whether anyone is willing to pay for them in the future.

If the new measures are popular, they could serve as a model for the state education department as it expands Indiana’s new accountability system.

The state’s new A-F grading system does factor student test score improvement, graduation rates, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses and college readiness in a school’s grade, which means the system meets most of the new federal school accountability requirements for high school students. But state officials still have work to do to come up with metrics that go beyond test scores for elementary and middle schools.

Cynthia Roach, testing director for the Indiana State Board of Education, said the state is weighing its options, but no decisions have been made. Coming up with test alternatives and non-test based metrics is one of the goals of the new state panel that was created by lawmakers this year to explore a new accountability systems for Indiana schools after ISTEP is retired next year.

There haven’t been any conversations at the state level about how either of these new pilots might address gaps in Indiana’s accountability system, but the potential is there, said the Mind Trust’s Shaheed-Diallo.

“Changing the state accountability is a bigger lift than I think we have capacity for, but I think it gets to this demand question,” Shaheed-Diallo said. “If people know there are other ways to measure (schools), perhaps it does create additional momentum for those conversations.”

Building Better Schools

How a new principal led her neighborhood school to the biggest ISTEP gains in Indianapolis Public Schools

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 39 had the largest jump in passing rates on the state math and English tests in the district.

Breakfast at School 39 was a little bit hectic on a recent Wednesday, as staff urged kids to eat their bananas, yogurts and cereal.

But principal Stacy Coleman was calm as she stood among the tables of kindergartners and first graders. “Big bites now,” she said, as the bell approached.

Coleman is in her second year as principal of School 39, also known as William McKinley, a traditional neighborhood school on the edge of Fountain Square. In Coleman’s first year of leadership, the school achieved an unusual feat: Passing rate on both the math and English ISTEP climbed to 28 percent in 2017, up 9.7 percentage points over the prior year — the biggest jump of any school in Indianapolis Public Schools.

That progress caught the eye of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, who highlighted McKinley as a school the district could learn from.

“We hired a great new leader,” said Ferebee. “She’s really focused on the culture of the school and using data to inform instruction.”

A Michigan native, Coleman has been an educator for seven years. She joined IPS three years ago as assistant principal at School 31, also known as James A. Garfield, a neighborhood school two miles from the campus she now leads.

Chalkbeat sat down with Coleman to talk about School 39 and the school’s remarkable jump in passing rates. Below is an excerpt from our conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

What’s your school community like here?

We are a working-class neighborhood. Our families are working class — very supportive parents. Teachers call, they answer. They are up here. They care about their child’s well-being.

The neighborhood around us is changing. Gentrification is occurring, and it’s moving fast. However, we have not seen a change in our population of students yet.

We canvas the neighborhood quite often, me and my parent involvement educator. A lot of people we’ve talked to don’t have kids, and if they do have kids, they are not school-age yet.

You guys had this big bump in your test scores — the biggest in the district. What did you think when you saw that?

I felt so filled with emotion because I saw all the hard work that my teachers were doing, and I saw what we were doing with the kids. It just was nice to see the gains from the hard work.

You’re seeing the flowers that you’ve planted.

What do you think led to this big jump in test scores?

We really focused on making this a positive and safe environment for our students — and our staff. Changing staff morale, changing student morale and motivation.

We focused on empowering our teachers and putting that ownership on them.

What did you do to empower your teachers?

Allowing for professional learning community meetings to be teacher directed. It’s not like a staff meeting. It’s teachers talking and collaborating with each other, being transparent in our teaching practices, opening the doors of our classroom for other teachers to come in.

We did instructional rounds. Teachers went into other classrooms and observed a problem of practice and debriefed about those and put specific strategies into their classrooms.

As a teacher, I found a lot of power in those professional learning community meetings because that was when you got to delve into the numbers. You delve into the data and really understand how your students are doing.

Was there anything you feel like you stole from the last school you were at where you were assistant principal?

We do a lot of positive behavior interventions and supports here at William McKinley. We did a lot of them at James A. Garfield. We amped them up, last year and again this year.

Like, this year, we have Coleman cash. Every day a student is nominated by their teacher, and they get to go to the front of the lunch line. They get to sit at a special table in the cafeteria with a tablecloth and a centerpiece. They also get to invite a friend. They get to talk when everybody else is silent. All those good things.

On Friday, for staff, we are going to be superheroes. Then we take a picture, and classes are going to vote on them.

The students get to see us enjoying ourselves, and it’s a little bit of a fun Friday.

We’re just making it a great place to work and a great place to learn for our students.

Educator diversity

Aurora Public Schools’ principals more racially diverse this year, but district still lagging behind

File photo of kindergarten students at Laredo Elementary in Aurora.

In the most diverse city in Colorado, school district officials have struggled to hire and retain principals of color.

The issue isn’t unique to Aurora Public Schools. But one change made three years ago to how Aurora hires principals is now slowly increasing diversity among school leaders, officials say.

The revamped hiring process wasn’t aimed at increasing diversity, but rather at increasing quality and minimizing biased or preferential hiring decisions, officials say.

“Systems that are more likely to have bias are less likely to have diversity,” said John Youngquist, Aurora’s chief academic officer. “Systems that are engaging these kinds of processes that allow people to demonstrate behaviors they’ve practiced over time, are ones that allow those high quality candidates to get to the top. I know is this is a practice that increases the level of diversity.”

This fall, 10 percent of Aurora principals are black, and 14 percent are Hispanic, up from 9 percent that were black and 7 percent that were Hispanic last year.

It’s an improvement, but the numbers still represent a gap with the diversity in the district and in the city. Eighteen percent of Aurora Public Schools students are black and more than 50 percent are Hispanic. The city of Aurora has similar demographics, according to the most recent U.S. Census estimates.

State data tracking both principals and assistant principals by race showed the Aurora district had lower percentages of school leaders who were black or Hispanic in 2016 than in 2013. Numbers for the current school year are not yet available.

This year, the numbers of teachers who are not white are smaller and farther from representing the student or community demographics than they are for principals.

Research has shown that students of color benefit from having teachers of color. Having diverse and highly qualified principals helps leaders in turn attract and hire high quality and diverse teachers, Youngquist said.

Aurora superintendent Rico Munn said that increasing diversity is a priority but said he isn’t sure how many educators of color Aurora schools should aspire to have.

“For our workforce to mirror the community, I don’t know that there’s enough educators in the state,” Munn said.

Elizabeth Meyer, associate professor of education and associate dean for undergraduate and teacher education at CU Boulder, said all districts should be striving to see an upward trend in the numbers, not necessarily trying to reach a certain percentage as a goal.

She said that issues in diversifying teachers and principal pools are similar, but that teachers of color who are supported can be the ones who can then go on and become principals.

“We’re already limited because teaching demographics are overwhelmingly white women,” Meyer said. “We do need to find ways to make teaching a more desirable profession, especially for people of color.”

Meyer said that while there are nationwide and statewide issues to be addressed, districts need to incentivize teachers by paying higher wages, create environments that are inclusive for teachers already in the district and have visible leaders of color.

“It’s not enough to just want to recruit people in,” Meyer said. “Retention is the other part of the problem.”

When Youngquist’s office led the change in how the Aurora district hires principals, the focus was to increase the quality of school leaders and remove bias that could allow a person to be invited into the process “just with a tap on the shoulder,” he said.

The new process requires a team of district leaders and other principals to observe candidates as they are asked to model practices through scenarios and demonstrations of situations they’re likely to confront as principals.

Yolanda Greer, principal of Aurora’s Vista Peak Exploratory was one of the first to go through that new hiring process three years ago.

Yolanda Greer, principal of Vista Peak Exploratory in Aurora.

“I will tell you at the end of it I certainly felt like I had been through a triathalon of some sorts,” Greer said. “But I do recall saying at every point, ‘I’m so impressed. I’m so appreciative that APS is taking the thoughtfulness that went behind creating this process to make sure we have leaders that are prepared.’ It made me want to be here even more.”

Speaking at a community meeting last month, Munn said the neighboring districts of Denver and Cherry Creek can offer more money, so Aurora must focus on other appeals to hire and retain diverse educators.

“We have to think about what’s the right atmosphere or what’s the right way that we can recruit or retain people in a way that makes them want to be part of what we’re doing here in APS,” Munn said. “Our ultimate winning advantage there is that we have a strong connection to the community. We also demonstrate to potential staff members that we are a district that has momentum. We are a district where there is opportunity. We are a district that can truly impact the community that we serve.”

Greer said she felt that draw to Aurora long before she applied for the principal position.

“I think because there was a public perception that Aurora was an underdog,” Greer said. “It’s a great opportunity to not only impact the school but the district and community.”

Though Aurora district officials are happy with how the principal process is playing out, they started working with a Virginia-based consultant last year to look at all hiring practices in the district. Munn said part of that work will include looking at whether the district is doing enough to increase diversity.

Like most school districts, Aurora has sent officials to recruit new educators from Historically Black Colleges and Hispanic Serving Institutions.

One thing that Greer said is in a district’s control is allowing a culture where issues of inequity can be discussed. In Aurora, she said she feels comfortable raising issues of student equity if she sees them.

For her, seeing other people of color in leadership positions in the district, including the superintendent, also made her feel welcome.

“In Aurora when I walk into leadership meetings, there’s a lot of people that look like me, so there’s that connectivity,” Greer said. “There’s open conversations and people listen.”

Earlier this year, Greer was reminded of the impact that leaders of color can have when her elementary students were asked to dress up for the job they hoped to have when they grew up.

Several of the students came to school dressed as their principal, Greer said.

“I want to make sure students of color can see someone that looks like them,” she said. “When they can see me in the specific role in education and they can say, ‘Wow, that can be something admirable and I want to aspire to that,’ it’s a big deal.”