breaking news

Could new plans to adapt a test teachers love work for Indiana?

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Indiana educators who want the state to consider replacing ISTEP with an exam that would give teachers immediate feedback about their students might have new reason to be optimistic.

Chalkbeat reported last week that teachers have called on the state to use something like the popular MAP test, which is beloved by teachers for providing real-time information about what students know. At the time, the company that makes the test said MAP isn’t designed to meet testing requirements demanded for federal accountability and Indiana law.

Now, however, the Oregon-based testing company that makes MAP says it’s looking for a way to respond to demand from states like Indiana that have school accountability systems that require a single yearly score to indicate which kids are performing at grade level.

“Our state assessment experts will work with states to understand their goals and devise full solutions to meet those needs,” Jason Mendenhall, the senior vice president of strategic solutions for the testing company, the Northwest Evaluation Association, wrote in an email.

The email said NWEA will soon be creating a new division to work specifically with states to create tests and accountability systems that both meet state and federal education guidelines and encompass aspects of MAP — Measure of Academic Progress — that teachers say they like.

The MAP, which is typically given three times a year, not only gives immediate results that can help guide instruction, teachers say, it also takes less time to administer than year-end comprehensive exams like ISTEP.

Plans to adapt to state accountability systems like Indiana’s had been in the works for some time, Mendenhall said in the email, but the company decided to announce it sooner than originally planned in response to questions raised by Indiana educators after Chalkbeat reported on the issue.

It’s not clear yet what the new NWEA tests will look like or how the company will manage to create a test that both meets Indiana testing and accountability requirements and works well as a teaching tool.

The NWEA initiative bears some resemblance to a vision for Indiana’s testing program that came up today during the second meeting of the state’s ISTEP replacement panel.

The committee, charged with choosing a new suite of tests for Indiana schools once ISTEP ends in 2017, convened at the state capitol Tuesday morning. Some educators and administrators spoke in favor of a “computer adaptive” testing system that measures how students improve over the course of a year, which is how MAP currently works.

“(Teachers) want a growth model, and they want it short and sweet,” said Roncalli High School Principal Chuck Weisenbach.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz said she thinks new flexibility under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act would allow Indiana to move away from a pass/fail test and toward a MAP-like exam. Ritz said she thinks such a test could be modified to include parts that can measure students according to grade level, too.

“When the federal government gave the states, so to speak, the rights to use a computer adaptive test, I think they really did have in mind that you don’t have to have a pass/fail approach,” Ritz said.

Ritz’s vision, however, is likely to meet resistance from other members of the committee including House Education Committee Chairman Bob Behning and the panel’s chairwoman, Indianapolis Public School 93 Principal Nicole Fama.

Most members of the ISTEP panel were appointed by Gov. Mike Pence and the GOP leaders of the state legislature who have long supported high-stakes testing in schools.

Behning, Fama and other policymakers say they are more likely to support an exam that’s more similar to the current ISTEP in how it is administered once a year and measures where students perform within grade level expectations.

“At the end of the day, we have to come up with something that assesses (students) on grade level,” Fama said.

Behning also said he worried that using MAP-like tests that are given on computers could create issues for schools with fewer computers or less updated technology systems.

When the conversation ended Tuesday afternoon, there wasn’t a clear way forward. Parts of the panel’s conversations were very premature, some members said — It’s pointless to try to figure out test specifics before there’s a solid understanding what the test should be for.

At the group’s last meeting, discussion focused on the purpose of state exams. Experts said tests could be designed to determine whether students have improved from one year to the next, evaluate teachers or help rank schools and districts.

But they cautioned that a test that tries to do everything at once would be quite long.

Today, teachers and principals seemed against taking on too much with one test and instead urged the panel to remember that their charge involves more than coming up with a single new state test.

“I’m just concerned we’re getting (too much) into the details,” said Wendy Robinson, superintendent of Fort Wayne Schools. “Teachers don’t know any more what the state is expecting … We have a broken test that is being used like it’s a system, and it’s not.”

It takes a village

What does it mean to be a community school? This Colorado bill would define it – and promote it

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
A teacher leads a class called community living at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School in Jeffco Public Schools.

A Colorado lawmaker wants to encourage struggling schools to adopt the community school model, which involves schools providing a range of services to address challenges students and their families face outside the classroom.

Community schools are an old idea enjoying a resurgence in education circles with the support of teachers unions and other advocates. These schools often include an extended school day with after-school enrichment, culturally relevant curriculum, significant outreach to parents, and an emphasis on community partnerships.

In Colorado, the Jefferson County school district’s Jefferson Junior-Senior High School is moving toward a community school model with job services and English classes for parents. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has made this approach the centerpiece of school turnaround efforts in that city.

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, is sponsoring a bill that would, for the first time, create a definition of community schools in state law and make it explicit that innovation schools can be community schools. The Senate Education Committee held a hearing on the bill Thursday and didn’t kill it. Instead, state Sen. Owen Hill, the Colorado Springs Republican who chairs the committee, asked to postpone a vote so he could understand the idea better.

“My concern is these chronically underperforming schools who are wavering between hitting the clock and not for years and years,” Zenzinger said. “What sorts of things could we be doing to better support those schools? In Colorado, we tend to do triage. I’m trying to take a more holistic approach and think about preventative care.”

Colorado’s “accountability clock” requires state intervention when schools have one of the two lowest ratings for five years in a row. Schools that earn a higher rating for even one year restart the clock, even if they fall back the next year.

Becoming an innovation school is one pathway for schools facing state intervention, and schools that have struggled to improve sometimes seek innovation status on their own before they run out of time.

Innovation schools have more autonomy and flexibility than traditional district-run schools – though not as much as charters – and they can use that flexibility to extend the school day or the school year, offer services that other schools don’t, and make their own personnel decisions. To become an innovation school, leaders need to develop a plan and get it approved by their local school board and the State Board of Education.

Nothing in existing law prevents community schools. There are traditional, charter, and innovation schools using this model, and many schools with innovation status include some wraparound services.

For example, the plan for Billie Martinez Elementary School in the Greeley-Evans district north of Denver envisions laundry services and an on-site health clinic.

District spokeswoman Theresa Myers said officials with the state Department of Education were extremely supportive of including wraparound services in the innovation plan, which also includes a new learning model and extensive training and coaching for teachers. But the only one that the school has been able to implement is preschool. The rest are on a “wish list.”

“The only barrier we face is resources,” Myers said.

Under Zenzinger’s bill, community schools are those that do annual assets and needs assessments with extensive parent, student, and teacher involvement, develop a strategic plan with problem-solving teams, and have a community school coordinator as a senior staff person implementing that plan. The bill does not include any additional money for community schools – in part to make it more palatable to fiscal hawks in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Supporters of community schools see an opportunity to get more money through the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which includes non-academic factors like attendance, school climate, and expulsions in its school ratings and which encourages schools to work with parents and community partners. In a 2016 report, the Center for Community Schools said ESSA creates “an opportune moment to embrace community schools as a policy framework.” And a report released in December by the Learning Policy Institute argues that “well-implemented community schools” meet the criteria for evidence-based intervention under ESSA.

Zenzinger said that creating a definition of community schools in state law will help schools apply for and get additional federal money under ESSA.

As Chalkbeat reported this week, a series of studies of community schools and associated wraparound services found a mix of positive and inconclusive results – and it wasn’t clear what made some programs more effective at improving learning. However, there doesn’t seem to be a downside to offering services.

The State Board of Education has not taken a position on the bill, and no organizations have registered lobbyists in opposition. But there are skeptics.

Luke Ragland of Ready Colorado, a conservative group that advocates for education reform, said he’s “agnostic” about types of schools and supports the existence of a wide variety of educational approaches from which parents can choose. But he worries that the focus of community schools might be misplaced.

“They try to address a lot of things that are outside the control of the school,” he said. “I wonder if that’s a wise way forward, to improve school by improving everything but school.”

Ragland also worries about the state directing schools to choose this path.

“I would argue that under the innovation statute, the ability to start this type of school already exists,” he said. “We should be thinking about ways to provide more flexibility and autonomy without prescribing how schools do that.”

Zenzinger said her intent with the bill is to raise the profile and highlight the benefits of the community school model. She stressed that she’s not trying to force the community school model on anyone – doing it well requires buy-in from school leaders, teachers, and parents – but she does want schools that serve lots of students living in poverty or lots of students learning English to seriously consider it.

“There is not a roadmap for implementing innovation well,” she said. “There are a lot of options, and not a lot of guidance. There’s nothing saying, ‘This is what would work best for you.’ If they’re going to seek innovation status, we want to give them tools to be successful.”

This post has been updated to reflect the result of the Senate Education Committee hearing.

Cap and gown

Graduation rates in Michigan – and Detroit’s main district — are up, but are most students ready for college?

The state superintendent had some good news to share Wednesday about last year’s four-year graduation rates: They are at their highest level in years.

What’s not clear is whether new graduates are being adequately prepared for college.

Slightly more than 80 percent of the state’s high school students graduated last year, an increase of about half a percentage point from the previous year. It was news state education leaders cheered.

“An 80 percent statewide graduation rate is a new watermark for our schools. They’ve worked hard to steadily improve,” state Superintendent Brian Whiston said in a statement.

“This is another important step in helping Michigan become a Top 10 education state in 10 years. We aren’t there yet, so we need to keep working and moving forward,” he said.

But statewide, the number of students ready for college based on their scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test was about 35 percent, underscoring the fact that graduation rate is not necessarily a great measure of school success. Schools looking to raise graduation rates can find ways to make it easier for students to earn credits toward graduation and, unlike some states, Michigan does not require students to pass graduation exams.

The result is that more students are graduating from high school — but might not be ready to do college work.

In Detroit, graduation rates in the city’s main district remained largely steady, with a little more than three-quarters of its students graduating after four years. But the number of students who were ready for college dropped almost a point to 12.3 percent last year. While most students take the SAT in 11th grade as part of the state’s school testing program, that’s an indication students graduating from high school may not have been adequately prepared for college.

The state dropout rate remained largely unchanged at almost nine percent.

Detroit’s main district had the highest four-year graduation rates compared to other large districts, but more district students dropped out of school than in the previous year. More than 10 percent of Detroit students dropped out of high school in the 2016-17 school year, a slight increase from last year, according to state data.

Nikolai Vitti, Detroit’s school chief, said the report should motivate the district to ensure students are graduating at higher numbers, and are college ready when they leave high school.

“We are focused on creating a college going culture in our high schools by expanding accelerating programs, such as IB, dual enrollment, AP, and Early College,” he said. “We have already expanded SAT preparation during the school day and intend to offer classes within the schedule for this focus with 10th graders next year.”

Focusing on strengthening basic skills among elementary and middle school students also will better prepare them for college after graduation, Vitti said.

“Most importantly, if we teach the Common Core standards with fidelity and a stronger aligned curriculum, which we will next year at the K-8 level for reading and math, our students will be exposed to college ready skills and knowledge,” he added. “We look forward to demonstrating the true and untapped talent of our students in the years to come.”

But in spite of steady dropout rates and relatively low college readiness numbers, state officials were upbeat about the graduation results.

“This is the first time the statewide four-year graduation rate has surpassed 80 percent since we started calculating rates by cohorts eleven years ago,” said Tom Howell, director of the Michigan Center for Educational Performance and Information, which tracks school data. “This increase is in line with how the statewide graduation rate has been trending gradually upward.”

Search below to see the four-year graduation rates and college readiness rates for all Michigan high schools.