Testing

IPS sees test scores drop at top schools and first ‘innovation’ restart in 2016

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Find our all our stories and databases on the 2016 ISTEP test results, as well as other testing coverage, here.

It’s another bad year for Indianapolis Public Schools when it comes to state tests.

The state’s largest district saw drops in ISTEP scores at the vast majority of schools. Scores fell across the state, but the situation was worse in IPS, where the passing rate went down by 4 percentage points to 25.3 percent in 2016.

IPS consistently scores lower than surrounding suburban communities, but after two years of falling scores, passing rates are particularly low. Just one in four elementary and middle school students passed the math and reading sections of the test — and fewer than 10 percent of high school students passed the new 10th-grade exam.

The news is a blow to a district that has embarked on a radical new course with the aim of improving student outcomes.

School board president Mary Ann Sullivan, who had not yet seen results, said she couldn’t draw conclusions without analyzing the scores more closely but said low scores could be concerning.

“The whole point of doing the strategies that we’ve implemented is to improve student achievement,” she said. “So we’re going to need to know, if student achievement is not improving, what’s going on?”

The district declined to comment on the test results.

Last year was the first test of the district’s new strategy for turning around failing schools by converting them to innovation schools, which are run by outside charter operators or nonprofits but still considered part of the district. (Teachers at innovation schools are not part of the union.)

The jury is still out on whether the approach will be successful, but the first results are disappointing.

School 103, which was the first failing school to convert to innovation status, actually saw a decline in the number of students passing the test during its first year under the new charter manager, Phalen Leadership Academies. Just 4.6 percent of students passed (down from 9.6 percent the year before).

Schools undergoing wrenching changes frequently see their scores drop at first. That’s exactly what happened at School 103. But another school that made the switch this year, School 93, saw its scores rise by 11 percentage points.

School 93 was taken over by the team that developed the Project Restore turnaround model last year, and it converted to innovation status this fall.

Principal Nicole Fama said one reason she thinks their students did comparatively well is that the Project Restore approach relies on regularly testing students.

“To our kids, who take tests every day, it’s nothing,” Fama said. “They are not scared because they are used to that rigor.”

But overall, the results do not look good for the district. One particularly bleak outcome is that some of the district’s marquee schools saw double-digit declines in passing rates.

At School 79 — which has won praise for serving a huge population of English language learners — scores dropped by 17 percentage points. At School 74, a thriving Spanish immersion magnet school, they were down 15 percentage points. Nearly all of the eight IPS schools with double-digit declines had previously earned high marks from the state.

One low-performing school saw a double-digit decline in passing rates: At School 43 they went from low (16.2 percent) to dismal (5.3 percent). The neighborhood school on the mid-north side of downtown had a tumultuous year: The school struggled with discipline, some classes went months without permanent teachers and the principal left without warning in the middle of the year. (The school has a new principal this year, and community leaders are working to develop a long-term plan.)

For the first year, high school students were also required to take ISTEP, and across the state, they did far worse than elementary and middle school students on the test. In IPS, just 9.9 percent of 10th-graders passed the test.

The results come as the value of standardized testing increasingly is being questioned in Indiana and beyond.

School board member Gayle Cosby declined to discuss the results because she said there are more accurate measures of school performance, and Sullivan also suggested they get too much emphasis.

“I think they are a very incomplete measure of how schools are doing,” Sullivan said. But, she added, “I am still a supporter of having some sort of assessment that can take the temperature across the state and across the nation.”

Correction: an earlier version of this story misreported the passing rate at School 103. It was 4.6 percent.

measuring up

After criticism, Denver will change the way it rates elementary schools

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Eva Severance, a first-grader, concentrates on a reading lesson at Lincoln Elementary in Denver.

Facing criticism that its school ratings overstated young students’ reading abilities, the Denver school district announced it will change the way elementary schools are rated next year.

The district will increase the number of students in kindergarten, first, second, and third grade who must score at grade-level on early literacy tests for a school to earn points on the district’s rating scale, and decrease how many points those scores will be worth, officials said.

The changes will lessen the impact of early literacy scores on a school’s overall rating, while also raising the bar on how many students must ace the tests for a school to be considered good. Denver rates schools on a color-coded scale from blue (the highest) to red (the lowest).

“We want to see more students making more progress,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said.

Local civil rights groups, elected officials, educators, and education advocates criticized Denver Public Schools this year for misleading students and families with what they characterized as inflated school ratings based partly on overstated early literacy gains.

“At a time when this country is at war on truth, we have an obligation to Denver families to give them a true picture of their schools’ performance,” state Sen. Angela Williams, a Denver Democrat, told Boasberg and the school board at a meeting in December.

The groups had asked the district to revise this year’s ratings, which were issued in October. Boasberg refused, saying, “If you’re going to change the rules of the game, it’s certainly advisable to change them before the game starts.” That’s what the district is doing for next year.

The state requires students in kindergarten through third grade to take the early literacy tests as a way to identify for extra help students who are struggling the most to learn to read. Research shows third graders who don’t read proficiently are four times as likely to fail out of high school. In Denver, most schools administer an early literacy test called iStation.

The state also requires students in third through ninth grade to take a literacy test called PARCC, which is more rigorous. Third-graders are the only students who take both tests.

The issue is that many third-graders who scored well on iStation did not score well on PARCC. At Castro Elementary in southwest Denver, for example, 73 percent of third-graders scored at grade-level or above on iStation, but just 17 percent did on PARCC.

Denver’s school ratings system, called the School Performance Framework, or SPF, has always relied heavily on state test scores. But this year, the weight given to the early literacy scores increased from 10 percent to 34 percent of the overall rating because the district added points for how well certain groups, such as students from low-income families, did on the tests.

That added weight, plus the discrepancy between how third-graders scored on PARCC and how they scored on iStation, raised concerns about the validity of the ratings.

At a school board work session earlier this week, Boasberg called those concerns “understandable.” He laid out the district’s two-pronged approach to addressing them, noting that the changes planned for next year are a stop-gap measure until the district can make a more significant change in 2019 that will hopefully minimize the discrepancy between the tests.

Next year, the district will increase the percentage of students who must score at grade-level on the early literacy tests. Currently, fewer than half of an elementary school’s students must score that way for a school to earn points, said Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova. The district hasn’t yet settled on what the number will be for next year, but it will likely be more than 70 percent, she said. The more points a school earns, the higher its color rating.

The district will also reduce the impact the early literacy test scores have on the ratings by cutting in half the number of points schools can earn related to the tests, Cordova said. This makes the stakes a little lower, even as the district sets a higher bar.

The number of points will go back up in 2019 when the district makes a more significant change, officials said. The change has to do with how the tests are scored.

For the past several years, the district has used the “cut points” set by the test vendors to determine which students are reading at grade-level and which are not. But the discrepancy between the third-grade iStation and PARCC reading scores – and the public outcry it sparked – has caused officials to conclude the vendor cut points are too low.

District officials said they have asked the vendors and the state education department to raise the cut points. But even if they agree, that isn’t a simple or quick fix. In the meantime, the district has developed a set of targets it calls “aimlines” that show how high a student must score on the early literacy tests to be on track to score at grade-level on PARCC, which district officials consider the gold standard measure of what students should know.

The aimlines are essentially higher expectations. A student could be judged to be reading at grade-level according to iStation but considered off-track according to the aimlines.

In 2019, the district will use those aimlines instead of the vendor cut points for the purpose of rating schools. Part of the reason the district is waiting until 2019 is to gather another year of test score data to make sure the aimlines are truly predictive, officials said.

However, the district is encouraging schools to start looking at the aimlines this year. It is also telling families how their students are doing when measured against them. Schools sent letters home to families this past week, a step district critics previously said was a good start.

Van Schoales, CEO of the advocacy group A Plus Colorado, has been among the most persistent critics of this year’s elementary school ratings. He said he’s thrilled the district listened to community concerns and is making changes for next year, though he said it still has work to do to make the ratings easier to understand and more helpful to families.

“We know it’s complicated,” he said. “There is no perfect SPF. We just think we can get to a more perfect SPF with conversations between the district and community folks.”

The district announced other changes to the School Performance Framework next year that will affect all schools, not just elementary schools. They include:

  • Not rating schools on measures for which there is only one year of data available.

Denver’s ratings have always been based on two years of data: for instance, how many students of color met expectations on state math tests in 2016 and how many met expectations in 2017.

But if a school doesn’t have data for one of those years, it will no longer be rated on that measure. One way that could happen is if a school has 20 students of color one year but only 12 the next. Schools must have at least 16 students in a category for their scores to count.

The goal, officials said, is to be more fair and accurate. Some schools complained that judging them based on just one year of data wasn’t fully capturing their performance or progress.

  • Applying the “academic gaps indicator” to all schools without exception.

This year, the district applied a new rule that schools with big gaps between less privileged and more privileged students couldn’t earn its two highest color ratings, blue and green. Schools had to be blue or green on a new “academic gaps indicator” to be blue or green overall.

But district officials made an exception for three schools where nearly all students were from low-income families, reasoning it was difficult to measure gaps when there were so few wealthier students. However, Boasberg said that after soliciting feedback from educators, parents, and advocates, “the overwhelming sentiment was that it should apply to all schools,” in part because it was difficult to find a “natural demographic break point” for exceptions.

Contract review

Here’s what a deeper probe of grade changing at Memphis schools will cost

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The board of education for Shelby County Schools is reviewing another contract with a Memphis firm hired last year to look into allegations of grade tampering at Trezevant High School. Board members will discuss the new contract Feb. 20 and vote on it Feb. 27.

A proposed contract with the accounting firm hired to examine Memphis schools with high instances of grade changes contains new details on the scope of the investigation already underway in Shelby County Schools.

The school board is reviewing a $145,000 contract with Dixon Hughes Goodman, the Memphis firm that last year identified nine high schools as having 199 or more grade changes between July 2012 and October 2016. Seven of those are part of the deeper probe, since two others are now outside of the Memphis district’s control.

The investigation includes:

  • Interviewing teachers and administrators;
  • Comparing paper grade books to electronic ones and accompanying grade change forms;
  • Inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades

In December, the firm recommended “further investigation” into schools with high instances of grade changes. At that time, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson emphasized that not all changes of grades from failing to passing are malicious, but said the district needs to ensure that any changes are proper.

Based on the firm’s hourly rate, a deeper probe could take from 300 to 900 hours. The initial review lasted four months before the firm submitted its report to Shelby County Schools.

The school board is scheduled to vote on the contract Feb. 27.

You can read the full agreement below: