Are Children Learning

Indianapolis Public Schools sees little A-F change but innovation schools got top grades

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students at Phalen Leadership Academy at IPS School 103 one of several innovation schools that got A grades from the state in 2017.

Of the nine Indianapolis Public Schools that received A grades from the state, six are innovation schools.

The state letter grades, which were approved Wednesday, are another sign that innovation schools are improving test scores at some of the district’s most chronically low-performing schools. The other three IPS schools that received top marks from the state are magnet schools on the district’s north side.

The innovation schools are part of a controversial new effort to improve education by handing over management to outside partners and giving principals at top-performing schools more freedom. They are managed by outside charter operators or nonprofits but ultimately overseen by the district. The program has been rapidly growing, and 20 percent of IPS students now attend innovation schools.

Nonetheless, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said “it’s too early to name the innovation model as the panacea for struggling schools.”

The improvement in grades at innovation schools is not altogether surprising. For elementary and middle schools, the grades are based on results of the state ISTEP test, including passing rates and student improvement. The grades for innovation schools are currently being calculated in the same way the state assesses new schools, giving them the option to be graded based only on their student improvement. When test results were released last month, passing rates jumped at graded based only on their student improvement. When test results were released last month, passing rates jumped at several innovation schools.

A neighborhood school near Fountain Square that had the biggest jump in ISTEP passing rates in the district — School 39, also known as William McKinley — went from an F to a B.

Of the eight innovation schools that were graded last year, none received F grades. The news is especially important for schools with repeated F grades. Global Prep at School 44, which improved from an F to an A, would’ve been eligible for state takeover if it received another F this year. Kindezi Academy at School 69, which improved from an F to a D, was eligible for takeover last year because of chronically low grades, but the district had already restarted the school with an innovation partner.

Five years ago, four chronically underperforming schools were severed from the district by the Indiana State Board of Education, which handed over management to charter operators. But it seems increasingly unlikely that any of the district’s schools will face state takeover going forward. Ferebee has a friendly relationship with the state board, and the district has taken steps to intervene in schools before they would face state takeover.

Since the district began creating innovation schools three years ago, IPS has converted several schools to innovation status, at least in part in an effort to fend off takeover.

The only IPS schools that are eligible for state takeover based on the 2017 letter grades are Northwest Jr. High School and John Marshall Middle School. Both schools will face significant changes next year as part of a high school reconfiguration plan. The combined middle-high school at Northwest will be replaced with a dedicated middle school, and Marshall will relocate to the Arlington campus.

Across the district, grades stayed relatively stable. At 33 of the district’s 68 schools, grades were unchanged from last year. Grades improved at 14 schools and went down at 18 schools. Three schools did not have grades for both 2016 and 2017.

“We’ll continue to employ our strategies for transforming our schools that are struggling with student achievement,” Ferebee said. But he added that not everyone is solely focused on test results. “Families who choose those schools often times don’t buy into the letter grade system as the sole measure of progress for a school.”

Find your school’s 2017 grade using our interactive database.

Here is the breakdown of grades across the district:

you got data

Can Colorado do a better job of sharing school report cards with parents? Data advocates say yes.

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Just as the Colorado State Board of Education is expected to approve the latest round of school quality ratings, a national organization is calling on all states to do a better job of providing this kind of information to parents and taxpayers.

The Data Quality Campaign last week released a report highlighting states that are providing more and clearer data on its schools. Colorado, once known as a leader in collecting and sharing school data, was not among the all-star list.

The Washington-based nonprofit, which advocates for school data transparency across the nation, is suggesting states use plain language, disaggregate more data and communicate specific education priorities to parents and the public.

The campaign and other supporters of making school data more public believe the information can empower school leaders, teachers and parents to make better decisions for students.

“Colorado has long been a leader in making sure there is robust data,” said Brennan Parton, the Data Quality Campaign’s director of policy and advocacy. “But if you want the normal mom, community member, or policy maker to understand the data, maybe the goal shouldn’t be comprehensive and complex but meaningful and useful.”

State education department officials acknowledged they could do a better job of making data more accessible to parents, but said in a statement this week that they do not consider its annual “school performance framework” to be a report card for schools.

“We look at the SPF as more of a technical report for schools and districts to understand where the school plan types and district accreditation ratings come from,” Alyssa Pearson, the education department’s associate commissioner for school accountability and performance, said in an email.

The ratings, which are largely based off of student performance on state English and math tests, are used in part to help the state education department target financial resources to schools that aren’t making the grade. All schools are also required to submit improvement plans based on the department’s rating.

The department posts the ratings online, as do schools. But the reports are not sent directly to parents.

Instead, the department suggests that its school dashboard tool is a better resource to understand the status of a nearby public school, although Pearson acknowledged that it is not the most parent-friendly website.

“This tool is very useful for improvement planning purposes and deeper understanding of individual schools and districts — both in terms of demographics, as well as academic performance,” Pearson said. “We are also working on refreshing and possibly redesigning other tools that we have had on the website for reporting, including creating a more user-friendly parent-reporting template.”

Trezevant fallout

Memphis orders a deeper probe into high school grade changes

The firm hired to assess the pervasiveness of grade changes in Memphis high schools has begun a deeper probe into those schools with the highest number of cases.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the firm plans to “search for documentation and figure out what happened” at those schools, noting that not all grade changes — changing a failing grade to passing — are malfeasant.

Still, Hopson promised to root out any wrongdoing found.

“Equally important is figuring out whether people are still around changing grades improperly, and creating different internal controls to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” he told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

Dixon Hughes Goodman, an accounting firm from North Carolina, was hired over the summer as grade tampering was confirmed at Trezevant High School. The firm’s report found the average number of times high schools changed a failing final grade to passing was 53. Ten high schools were highlighted in the report as having 199 or more grade changes between July 2012 and October 2016.

Source: Dixon Hughes Goodman

The report was one of several released Tuesday by the Shelby County Schools board following an investigation instigated by allegations in a resignation letter from former Trezevant Principal Ronnie Mackin.

The firm’s analysis concluded that “additional investigation around grade changes is warranted,” prompting Shelby County Schools to extend the firm’s contract to dig deeper.

The investigations have already cost the school system about $500,000, said Rodney Moore, the district’s general counsel. It is unclear how much the contract extension for Dixon Hughes Goodman will cost, but board chairwoman Shante Avant said it is less than $100,000, the threshold for board approval.

Hopson said there’s not a timeline for when the school audits will be complete. He said the district is already thinking through how to better follow-up on grade changes.

“For a long time, we really put a lot of faith and trust in schools and school-based personnel,” he said. “I don’t regret that because the majority do what they’re supposed to do every day… (but) we probably need to do a better job to follow up to verify when grade changes happen.”

Avant said the board will determine what policies should be enacted to prevent further grade tampering based on the outcome of the investigation.

“The board is conscious that although we know there’s been some irregularities, we do want to focus on moving forward and where resources can be better used and how we’re implementing policies and strategies so that this won’t happen again,” she said.

Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.