Are Children Learning

Test scores jumped in innovation schools, but IPS leaders aren’t declaring victory just yet.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Nearly every innovation school in Indianapolis saw a jump in its passing rates on state achievement tests — some by 8 percentage points or more — giving advocates hope that their management approach is working.

Of the eight innovation schools that took the ISTEP test last spring, seven had higher passing rates on both the math and English tests than in the previous year. Five had among the largest gains in the district. In contrast, the number of grade 3-8 students districtwide who passed both tests slipped 1 percentage point.

Indianapolis Public School leaders have embraced innovation schools over the past three years as a way to turn around long-struggling schools and give extra freedoms to successful schools. But this is one of the earliest signs that the strategy may help improve test scores.

“It’s the first quantifiable validation that the direction of IPS, especially in terms of innovation network schools, is really off to a promising start,” said Brandon Brown of the Mind Trust, which has been influential in pushing for innovation schools in the district.

Innovation schools are run by nonprofits or charter operators, but they are ultimately overseen by the district, which gets credit for their test scores on its state evaluation. The approach has been a source of persistent controversy, in part because teachers work for the school manager rather than the district, and are not part of the district union.

Officials have expanded the network of innovation schools over the last three years, and 16 innovation schools now enroll about 6,307 students, nearly 20 percent of the students in the district. But district leaders reacted cautiously to the improvement in test results, describing the innovation schools approach as simply one of its many turnaround strategies.

“It’s super promising,” said school board President Mary Ann Sullivan. “But it’s certainly way, way, way too early to say that this is a successful strategy.”

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said that while some innovation schools are “bright spots” whose success may hold lessons for the district, it is too early to draw conclusions from ISTEP results.

Two of those bright spots are School 93 and School 103, where passing rates rose by more than 8 percentage points. The campuses are run by the Phalen Leadership Academies charter network, which joined with the team behind the Project Restore turnaround model last year.

Network leader Earl Phalen attributed the rising scores, in part, to the staffing flexibility at innovation schools. Because teachers are not part of the Indianapolis Education Association union, managers can easily replace teachers. They can also offer financial rewards for teachers who are doing a great job, he said.

The network has also had the flexibility to develop its own curriculum, technology, weekly assessments and other practices, he said.

“Those pieces I think all kind of help drive outcomes for our scholars,” Phalen said.

Skeptics and supporters of innovation schools alike emphasized that they don’t consider the test a reliable measure of school quality because of changes in the test and glitches with scoring and administration and because it doesn’t capture information on school culture.

Dountonia Batts, spokeswoman for the IPS Community Coalition, raised the possibility that passing rates might be improving because innovation schools are attracting higher scoring students or pushing out lowering scoring children.

The Coalition, which includes parents and advocates, has been skeptical of the current IPS administration and the embrace of innovation schools.

“ISTEP has gone through a lot of changes in the last couple of years,” Batts said. “Test scores leave out a lot of information about the schools and students.”

Are Children Learning

Chicago schools to delay plan for tackling the gifted gap

PHOTO: Frederick Bass

Chicago Public Schools wants to delay for a year a plan to make gifted services available to more children outside of selected enrollment, or test-in, schools.

On Wednesday morning, the Chicago Board of Education is holding a hearing on a request for a one-year extension to comply with a new Illinois law that compels school districts to better accommodate gifted children. The public can sign in to comment beginning at 8:30 a.m. in advance of the 9:30 a.m. meeting.

The law requires Illinois districts to identify students who are gifted using “multiple, reliable and valid indicators” and put programs in place to challenge them. That could include offering the chance to start kindergarten and first grade early, accelerating a child in a single subject, or having the child skip a whole grade.

But those steps are a big undertaking, one that Chicago wants to delay for a year. Emily Bolton, a spokeswoman for CPS, said the district is seeking the extension to “allow us more time to thoughtfully develop and execute” a plan to comply with the scope of the new law.

The law, which went into effect July 1, also stresses that district approaches should be “fair and equitable”—and in Illinois, gifted services have been anything but. In the early 2000s, the state was considered a leader in gifted education. But by 2017, only 33 percent of high-poverty schools statewide offered gifted programs, lower than the national average of 69 percent.

Carolyn Welch, policy and advocacy committee co-chair of the Illinois Association for Gifted Children, says the new law is a “critical step” — especially for low-income students, who tend to be underrepresented in gifted programs if their schools offer them at all. In high-poverty public school districts like Chicago, many families don’t have the resources to pay for classes or enrichment activities outside of school. So students depend on public schools to meet their needs.

Prior to the new law, which is called the Accelerated Placement Act, about 55 percent of Illinois districts lacked policies allowing early entrance to kindergarten and first grade and 46 percent lacked policies for accelerating students in specific subjects. Only one in 10 allowed kids to skip a grade, according to a study by the Illinois Association for Gifted Children and the Untapped Potential Project.

In Chicago, students can test in to competitive academic centers, classical schools, and other gifted programs, but outside of those, program offerings are ad-hoc. Like at a lot of big urban districts, what’s available at individual schools can vary quite a bit throughout Chicago schools, said Eric Calvert, associate director of the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University. And there are more children in Chicago than the centers can serve, with three applicants vying for every seat, he said.

Elementary gifted programs also don’t accommodate students who might be gifted at one subject but average at another. And when you look at who attends those programs, they tend to be on the higher end of the socio-economic scale and disproportionately white. Some of that, Calvert added, “is a product of the fact that resources make a difference in achievement.”

Calvert said it’s important to have ways to identify and accommodate gifted students at neighborhood schools because it’s a way that, without new resources or special programs, “schools can provide something to students who need it.”

“If you’re a second grader ready for third grade content that has an option the school can provide, that doesn’t cost any more than serving that student as a second grader.”

A 2016 study titled the Untapped Potential Report examined the gifted gap in Chicago and found that white students, who make up 10 percent of the district, occupied one in four gifted seats. Hispanic students, meanwhile, were particularly underrepresented, comprising 46 percent of total CPS students, but only 25 percent of seats in elementary gifted programs.

Low-income students, more than 82 percent of the district, only comprised 60 percent of gifted seats, according to the report.

The risk of an approach like Chicago’s, which leans on a small number of gifted and classical programs, is that a lot of kids slip through the cracks “and lose their potential,” Calvert said. Then high-ability students who are chronically underchallenged and see school as a waste of time are more likely to underachieve and even drop out.  

Students who are supported in elementary school are more likely to track into advanced coursework in high school, which increases their chances of graduating from college, enjoying more social mobility, and having children who graduate college as well, Calvert said. He pointed out that the largest ethnic group at CPS is Latino students, but that a disproportionately low number of those students are at advanced high schools, and that they matriculate into college at lower rates than their white and Asian peers.

About 65 percent of students at CPS are enrolled at Level 1-plus or Level 1-rated schools, but the population in those schools don’t reflect the school districts’ racial mix, according to a draft of the school district’s Annual Regional Analysis. Only 45 percent of black students and 72 percent of Latino students are in those top-rated seats, compared with 91 percent of white students.

listening tour

Haslam will hit the road to troubleshoot Tennessee’s testing problems

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Flanked by 37 educators serving as Tennessee's new "TNReady ambassadors," Gov. Bill Haslam announces the kickoff of a statewide "listening tour" aimed at improving administration of the state's standardized assessment.

Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday he won’t pause state testing this school year and instead will launch a statewide “listening tour” aimed at fixing problems that have hampered Tennessee’s TNReady assessment in its first three years.

Responding to calls for a break in testing from school superintendents in Memphis and Nashville and from 18 state legislators, the Republican governor said he’s committed to getting TNReady right before he leaves office in January.

“Throwing in the towel on the policies instrumental to our progress should not be an option,” Haslam said during a news conference at the state Capitol.

Critics quickly countered that the listening tour is really just a road show with a predetermined outcome.

“We are in the middle of election season and the governor is in his final days. What more can he add to the education debate after eight years, that he hasn’t already tried?” wrote JC Bowman, executive director of the Professional Educators of Tennessee, in a column following the announcement.

Haslam acknowledged “significant problems” with TNReady, which this spring was marred by technical disruptions during a second attempt in three years at statewide computerized testing. But he added that now is not the time to point fingers.

“Without aligned assessments, we don’t know where our students stand and where we need to improve,” he said.

Declaring that they have “no confidence” in the test, Dorsey Hopson and Shawn Joseph — leaders of Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools, respectively — called earlier this month for a testing moratorium to let the next governor address the problems.

Now Haslam, who is term-limited after eight years in office, is trying to keep intact the linchpin of Tennessee’s blueprint for student improvement, which began under the administration of Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen in the Race to the Top era. Haslam has stood by that sweeping overhaul — including a state test designed to measure how students are learning Tennessee’s new academic standards and to hold teachers accountable for the results. He believes passionately that the policies have led to Tennessee’s gains on national tests since 2011.

"I am committed to doing everything I can as governor before I leave to getting this right. "Gov. Bill Haslam

The listening tour will launch Friday in Knoxville, and will bring together teachers, testing and technology coordinators, and school administrators. Other stops are planned in Hamilton, Shelby, Williamson, Greene, and Gibson counties.

Haslam and his education chief, Candice McQueen, will attend the meetings, which will be facilitated by Wayne Miller, a long-time educator and retired director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

The governor also named a three-member advisory team to help guide the feedback sessions and develop recommendations for him and his successor. Those advisers are Cicely Woodard of Franklin, the state’s current teacher of the year; Hamblen County teacher Derek Voiles, named the state’s top teacher in 2017; and Mike Winstead; director of Maryville City Schools and this year’s superintendent of the year.

The state already has conducted multiple surveys with educators about this year’s testing experience and recently named 37 teachers and test coordinators to serve as “TNReady ambassadors,” advising the state Education Department and its testing companies. McQueen also meets frequently with an educator-laden task force to confer about testing matters.

In addition, Tennessee is developing its request for proposals for one or more testing companies to take the reins from Questar, the state’s current vendor. That request is scheduled to go out late this year for testing administration that would begin in the fall of 2019.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include reaction from a teachers association.