Are Children Learning

Mike Pence killed Common Core in Indiana. Now, the state’s choosing a test based on it.

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Gov. Mike Pence and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz battled over education policy for years, but they agreed on dumping Common Core and PARCC.

Indiana officials are recommending that the state pay American Institutes for Research $43 million over three years to design ILEARN, set to replace ISTEP as the state exam in 2019.

AIR, a 66-year-old not-for-profit based in Washington, D.C., worked on tests for Smarter Balanced, one of the exam groups affiliated with Common Core. In its business proposal, AIR says it will use its bank of test questions from Smarter Balanced to build Indiana’s English and math tests.

“This approach — using Smarter Balanced as an item bank, rather than a fixed assessment — offers Indiana a hybrid between an off-the-shelf product and a custom test,” the proposal stated.

ILEARN would replace ISTEP as the yearly exam for students in grades 3-8 and high school. They’re tested in English, math, science and social studies, depending on grade level. Going forward, high school tests will likely go back to end-of-course exams in various subjects rather than a single 10th grade test.

Currently, ISTEP is administered by Pearson, which was chosen in 2015 after the state had several problem-plagued years with the testing company CTB (although Pearson has had its share of issues as well). Pearson will administer ISTEP one last time this spring before that state exam is shelved.

But to those familiar with Indiana’s testing travails, this move might feel like déjà vu, with the state again proposing a test linked to Common Core.

Common Core standards have a fraught history in Indiana, and it’s unclear how educators and parents will react to the state circling back to those academic standards. Indiana took great pains to distance itself from Common Core after then-Gov. Mike Pence and then-state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, in a rare moment of agreement, abandoned the standards and pulled out of the other test consortium, Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).

Since then, state education officials have frequently touted Indiana’s efforts at creating “Indiana-specific” standards and state tests, despite an outpouring of concern and exhaustion from educators and parents. The state has also had to balance the desire to create yet another new test with its limited budget. AIR’s proposed $43 million contract outpaces the state’s $32 million contract with Pearson — but both are less expensive than creating a brand-new test from scratch.

AIR also specializes in computer-adaptive tests, which change in difficulty based on whether students answer questions right or wrong. Both Ritz and state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick have supported using such exams, which they say can more accurately assess what students know.

Given the state’s history, it’s a little surprising Indiana decided to cozy up to a Common-Core-linked exam again, but current officials have connections to the organization. Before coming to the Indiana Department of Education as testing director, Charity Flores was deputy director of content for Smarter Balanced.

“We protected the integrity and transparency of the process by notifying the Office of the Inspector General of Dr. Flores’ involvement with Smarter Balanced,” said press secretary Adam Baker. “Additionally, Dr. Flores served alongside several IDOE staff as one member of an 18-member assessment evaluation committee where IDOE’s vote represented one of 12 votes.”

The team from the Indiana Department of Administration, charged with making the recommendation, also considered proposals from Data Recognition Corporation, Northwest Evaluation Association, Pearson and Questar. Of those companies, Northwest Evaluation Association, whose test products are beloved by a number of Indiana educators, scored the lowest in the state’s evaluation of management and cost. Of the remaining four, Pearson scored third.

AIR reports that 17 states use its exams for their main assessments, including Connecticut, Florida, Utah and Ohio. Also, 43 rely on them for alternate assessments, which are typically for students with severe cognitive disabilities. It has also worked on NAEP, a highly-regarded exam known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” a national alternative exam (NCSC) and an exam used as a benchmark for student learning internationally (PISA). The organization reported that it has not had any contracts terminated outside of those that would naturally end.

The contract stipulates that the state can renew with AIR for up to two more years, at five years total. In addition to ILEARN, AIR would also administer IREAD, the state’s third-grade reading exam.

Under the proposal, Measurement Incorporated, of North Carolina, will be used as a subcontractor to score paper tests with the involvement of Indiana educators.

AIR’s proposal didn’t mention Tennessee’s recent experience with Measurement Inc.: Almost two years after signing an $108 million contract with the state to develop its TNReady test, Measurement Inc.’s online platform could not support the number of students testing. The state announced it would switch to paper tests instead, but even then, finding and distributing the 5 million tests overwhelmed them.

Unless the proposal is challenged by other bidders, Flores said the education department is ready to get started,

“We are excited for what the future holds for education here in Indiana,” Flores said. “We will continue to move forward with the procurement process.”

History alive

Inspired by Hamilton, Colorado students perform their own raps and poems on the big stage

PHOTO: Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
From left, West Leadership Academy's Alexandra Andazola Chavez, Jose Torres Andazola, Rossy Martinez Sanchez, and Zehydi Chaparro Rojas perform "The Story of Peggy."

The plush red seats at the Wednesday matinee of Hamilton in Denver were filled with 2,700 teenagers who’d spent weeks studying a special curriculum about the hip-hop musical’s namesake, Alexander Hamilton, and the other Founding Fathers. Even though the show’s four-week Denver run had been sold out for months, the teenagers were seeing it for free.

Some of them had dressed for the occasion in high-heeled boots and three-piece suits. Others wore jeans and Converse. They represented 38 Colorado high schools that serve high proportions of students from low-income families, and many of them were students of color.

That’s notable because most of the cast of Hamilton are actors of color. Hamilton, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson are played by black and Latino actors, a decision creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has said reflects America’s racial makeup and is meant to pull the audience into the story of an immigrant, Hamilton, who played an important role in the nation’s founding.

Before the show, 23 students took the stage to perform their own spoken word poems, raps, monologues, and scenes inspired by what they’d learned from the Hamilton Education Program curriculum, which was devised in part by Miranda and has its own hashtag: #EduHam.

“My body felt electrified,” said Josiah Blackbear, a 15-year-old sophomore at West Early College in Denver, who performed a rap he’d written about Alexander Hamilton. “The words I was speaking brought power and truth to the rest of the venue.”

Here is video of six of the student performances, including one entirely in Spanish.


During Memphis visit, former Newark schools chief touts ways to change student discipline

PHOTO: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Cami Anderson when she was superintendent of schools in Newark, New Jersey.

As the top schools chief in Newark, Cami Anderson was horrified at the strict discipline policy she saw in one of her high schools. Since then, she has left the New Jersey district and taken her ideas on the road about reducing suspensions and moving away from exclusionary discipline practices.

This week, Anderson came to Memphis as part of her Discipline Revolution Project at the invitation of Stand for Children Tennessee, The Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, School Seed, and Shelby County Schools. The New Teacher Project is partnering with her on the national tour.

Anderson has been meeting with Shelby County Schools administrators and board members as well as charter school leaders, philanthropists, education advocates, and students. Her time will culminate in a public event hosted by Stand for Children on Thursday at the National Civil Rights Museum.

Chalkbeat sat down with Anderson after she explained to a group of about 40 charter leaders her six focus areas to reduce classroom disruptions while also preventing sending students home when they’re in trouble. (This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.)

Related story: Tennessee students more likely to be suspended if they’re black boys — or live in Memphis

Question: How did you land on student discipline as an area you wanted to focus on?

Answer: If there’s actually a thread in my career, it’s this. I essentially ran the system of supports for the kids in New York City who are on their last stop on the train, so to speak. I’ve always worked with kids who are marginalized, the ones who really struggled in school. So, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what we need to get better at collectively to serve all kids, to really embrace the “all means all.” That’s been my lifelong question.

The three areas to me where inequities are most obvious are: enrollment policies, how we handle discipline, and mobility and how a kid stays connected to school. Discipline is where it comes to a head. It’s both a place where our collective inability to reach all kids shows up and it’s also an opportunity if we actually figure out how to prevent young people from misstepping in the first place, but then respond in healthy ways when they do Then we’d actually start to solve the broader equity issues.

Q. School leaders say they don’t want to have a lot of suspensions because students miss out on class. But they’re also not sure what to replace suspensions with to manage student behavior well. What would you say to them?

"You can’t just be against something. You have to be for something."Cami Anderson

A. That’s one of the main reasons we started Discipline Revolution Project. We don’t want you to do X, whatever X is: suspend kids, use corporal punishment. But educators are saying, rightfully so, then what are we doing? Our whole framework is trying to answer that question and give them tools to get to the “why” behind finding alternative responses.

Most people who use punitive or exclusionary discipline don’t actually think it works that well. They just don’t have a lot of other tools. So, when you give folks a lot of other tools and they find that it works, it’s a very powerful thing. When people try out a restorative conference, they say “Oh, I feel better. The kid feels better. And we actually got back to the lesson faster.” You can’t just be against something. You have to be for something.

I’ve heard a lot of demand for basics of restorative practices (conflict resolution between students and students and teachers), though I don’t think they should stop there. They want training for student support teams. And overwhelmingly, the places I’ve been want to talk about how teacher bias plays into who gets disciplined, but they don’t know how to start the conversation and for it to be productive.

Q. Memphis’ two school districts have emphasized a bottom-up approach on discipline reform: adding behavior specialists, school counselors, soliciting support from principals and teachers. How have you seen other districts do it?

"Policy-level change is critical but insufficient if you only do that."Cami Anderson

A. I’ve seen districts lead with policy and only make statements declaring they will cut suspensions in half or put a moratorium on suspensions or rewrite their policy. Policy-level change is critical but insufficient if you only do that. What you see is folks who are actually on the ground working with students may not have the strategies to replace it with something productive. That causes people to be more entrenched in their views that discipline reform wouldn’t work, some schools subtly pushing kids out, underreporting discipline data, all that.

I’ve also seen the opposite where it’s all about professional development and capacity but at no point is there is any accountability for those same schools, for example, that suspend 90 percent of the kids. People watch what you do, not what you say. If you don’t align your policies and your actions with your values, then you also have limits to the impacts you have for kids.

Frustrated with high suspension rates, Memphis schools shift to restorative justice

I’ve come to believe you need all of it and you need everyone working together. Stop admiring the problem and get on to the solutions.

Q. What pushed student discipline practices more widely into the national conversation? What have you observed from the conversation here in Memphis?

A. People are looking at data, which is a good thing, and seeing patterns like everyone else. Another thing is I believe a lot of people who got into education reform are completely dedicated to equity. And now they’re seeing this side of it, and like someone said in the training today, they feel a sense of “healthy guilt.” I think it’s great they’re having the courage to be honest. And then a lot of folks had kids. You start thinking, “Do I want any of that happening to my own kid?” I’m personally heartened and encouraged and motivated to see a collective sense of responsibility and focus on this.

There’s a lot of energy and candor in Memphis about this issue. Some other cities I’ve been in think they have it figured out when they don’t. When there’s that much energy, I think anywhere — including in Memphis — people can be tempted to devolve into the blame game, no matter what district or charter hat you wear. That energy can be the greatest asset or greatest liability.

Study: When Chicago cut down on suspensions, students saw test scores and attendance rise

Q. The school shooting in Parkland has been a catalyst for more conversations about the trauma students bring into the classroom — conversations that were already happening about violence in low-income communities of color. What would you say to school leaders on how to address that?

A. I’m most interested to know what adults can do to mitigate those risk factors for young people who experience trauma. I feel like it could take us down a very bad path to just observe that there are things called “adverse childhood experiences.” To me, that’s not enough. The question then is what are the environments and strategies that we can put in place as educators and adults to mitigate the impact of those traumatic experiences. Things like relationships, trust, consistency, high expectations, high supports, and support healthy identity development especially in times of conflict. We know from research that young people who face long odds who ultimately prevail, they are exposed to environments that really embody those things.

You can both be aware of and acknowledge those experiences that make it harder for them to succeed in school. But if you stop there, I don’t think you’re doing justice to young people. There are things we can do in schools to help create the environment to help them succeed.