choosing your grad-venture

What should it take to graduate? Inside the growing divide over whether to require New York’s vaunted Regents exams

PHOTO: Elizabeth Vargas
Fernando Garcia on his graduation day is pictured with his former teacher, Dr. Latasha Jones, who told Garcia's mother he had met the requirements to graduate.

The only thing standing between Fernando Garcia and a high school diploma was a single point on his global history Regents exam — or so he thought.

Garcia, a student with learning disabilities from the Bronx, met nearly all the exam requirements needed for graduation, but he fell one point shy of the passing score on global history. So he took the test again, and again, and again over the course of another school year.

Then, a former teacher told Garcia’s mother, Elizabeth Vargas, that her son’s score was actually high enough to qualify for an exception designed to help students with disabilities. But administrators repeatedly told her that wasn’t the case. It wasn’t until Vargas involved a lawyer that the exception was granted, and Garcia was able to graduate at age 21 last year.

“I don’t think that it should be that complicated,” Vargas said. “It’s so much time that I feel that was wasted.”

The confusion surrounding Garcia’s diploma grows out of the system that New York’s education leaders have been creating for years — carving out new ways for students to graduate that rely less on the passing the state’s traditional five Regents exams. The goal is to ensure students like Garcia don’t get left behind while keeping the state’s rigorous graduation standards. But it has also led to a system so complicated that the state had to create a six-part video series explaining the process for its website.

This hodgepodge of options has prompted a larger conversation about graduation among policymakers and advocates. At one end of the spectrum, some wonder if New York should follow the 37 other states that have already eliminated exit exams amid growing evidence that they don’t prepare students for life after high school. A different camp, though, thinks the state should double down on the basic graduation framework, sticking to exams and high standards as states like Massachusetts have done.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Rosa at Thomas A. Edison Career and Technical Education High School

Each option holds promise but also drawbacks. Higher standards may motivate some to push themselves and give educators a benchmark — but other students will likely never reach those goals. Different pathways may ensure more students graduate, but marginalized students may be pushed into less challenging coursework. Leaving the system the way it is, however, makes it confusing and disjointed.

If the debate gets any farther in New York, it will likely prove to be an emotional one in a state where the term “Regents exam” has long been synonymous with wearing a cap and gown.

“We’re at the starting line of saying, what do students need to know and how do we know what they know?” said Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa recently. “We’re exploring all of our options.”

The history of exit exams in New York

To understand New York’s graduation requirements in 2018, it is important to look back at 1995, when state officials began a march toward rigorous graduation standards.

In the early ‘90s, there were two tracks for high school students. College-bound students took the Regents exams, which were first authorized in 1876, while all other students took the much less rigorous Regents Competency Tests.

An astounding number of graduates — about 80 percent in New York City — were being steered into less challenging courses. For those students, there was little motivation and an extremely elementary review of material, said Peter Goodman, who was a teacher in New York City in the 90s.

“I used to put 40 kids in the [Regents Competency] classes because I knew only 20 of them would show up,” Goodman said. “They were on their way to dropping out of school and the school didn’t really care.”

Then the state’s Commissioner of Education, Richard Mills, had a solution: Promising “much higher levels of performance for everyone,” Mills proposed that New York adopt what would become some of the toughest graduation requirements in the country centered on passing a series of Regents exams. Initially, the plan was for students to be able to pass exams with a score of 55 and then later raise that score to 65.

“We ought not to have two levels of education with two standards,” Mills declared during a news conference at the time.

When Mills, who died in 2017, announced his plan, it was met with an outpouring of support across the education sector. Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents who worked at the state teachers union office during the 90s, remembers “a lot of positive energy” surrounding the concept among lawmakers, policymakers, and union members. He recalls a fellow staffer at NYSUT turning to him to say, “We finally put our conscience behind the proposition that every student can learn.”

But it soon sunk in that the requirements would inevitably lead to some students not graduating. Still, Mills defended the plan.

“Some critics still assert that some students should be awarded a diploma with fewer than five Regents exams, or even none,” Mills said in 2005. “That would return us to the two-tiered system the public rejected.”

Originally, the plan was for all students to pass exams with a score of 65 by 2001, but that requirement kept getting delayed. In 2012, state officials finally implemented Mills’ vision of requiring students to pass five Regents exams with a score of 65 or higher to graduate.

At the same time, the state was rolling out the Common Core standards, which spell out what skills and knowledge students need at each grade level. When the tests were aligned with the new standards, they became more difficult.

There was some reason for concern during the rollout of these changes. Graduation rates decreased by slightly less than one percentage point in New York City after students were required to pass all Regents with a 65. The first year New York phased in the more difficult Common Core algebra Regents exam, passing rates plummeted statewide, falling nearly 10 percentage points.

But as standards were raised, work was happening behind the scenes to prevent major drops in graduation rates among the state’s neediest populations — namely, the creation of new exemptions. For instance, a new option that allowed students with disabilities to use a higher score on certain Regents exams to compensate for a lower score on others enabled that group’s graduation rate to shoot up seven percentage points in New York City between 2012 and 2013. Overall, statewide graduation rates have increased by about 15 percentage points since 2005.

Parent rally outside the state education building for more diploma options. (Courtesy Betty Pilnik)

Still, parents — particularly those with children who had disabilities — did not feel their children had enough options to earn a diploma. They started a Facebook page, which has more than 5,000 members, and began packing into Regents meetings wearing T-shirts and uniting under the slogan “Diplomas for All.”

It wasn’t only activists rethinking testing. The years of discussion broke open a larger conversation among policymakers and advocates about how students should demonstrate their skills and knowledge before they graduate. And shifting dynamics at the Board of Regents, coupled with a growing testing boycott movement, created greater skepticism of traditional standardized tests.

Instead of backing away from the tests entirely, which officials feared would look as though they were lowering standards too much, officials came up with more exemptions and compromises. They allowed students to substitute work in the arts, career and technical education, or a skills certificate for a Regents exam; let more students appeal a failed score; and tried to establish a set number of questions students had to answer correctly on certain exams so that graduation rates would not change.

Students with disabilities can now graduate without passing any Regents exams, and State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia quietly suspended the state’s plans to require all students to pass exams at the “college-ready” level by 2020.

State officials have stood by the series of changes as a way to keep standards rigorous but provide different paths for students to show they have mastered the material.

“We’re not saying that they have to do less,” said Angelica Infante-Green, a deputy education commissioner, during the Regents’ monthly meeting late last year when they changed the rules for students with disabilities. “What we’re talking about is, if you have a disability that precludes you from actually passing the exam, or demonstrating what you know with the current exams, this is the mechanism to do it.”

It’s unclear how much each of these changes has affected the graduation rate, but state officials said 9,900 students used the option to swap out their final Regents exam for another assessment this past year and appeals tripled in New York City in 2016 after the state made it easier to appeal a failed score.

Some worry that making too many exceptions to the traditional graduation requirements could have serious consequences.

Without a meaningful way to tell students whether they are prepared for college, students will arrive without the skills they need, said David Steiner, the former New York state education commissioner. Already, far too many students end up dropping out of college saddled with debt, Steiner said.

“It sends you a false signal about readiness,” Steiner said. “This isn’t academic. It’s real. Things have consequences.”

[For a full timeline of events click here.]

A scrambled system that frustrates educators and students

By sticking to this particular set of tests and carving out exceptions, the state has created a system that is confusing to many students and educators.

The Algebra Regents exam is a perfect example. The state wanted to phase in the difficult Common Core algebra exam, but officials were also committed to keeping graduation rates stable.

To accomplish both, state officials adjusted the number of questions students answered correctly in order to achieve a passing score. For instance, if students had to answer fewer questions correctly on the more rigorous test, the same number of students could pass the test and eventually graduate.

But some teachers worry that this shifting has gone too far. Students only needed to earn 27 out of 86 points June 2017 Algebra exam in order to pass. That amounts to only about 30 percent of the total points. Students can slide by with only a basic understanding of eighth-grade math, said Bobson Wong, who teaches math at a high school in Queens.

“With the way the Regents exams are set up right now,” Wong said, “it’s hard to demand mastery.”

The state’s changing cut scores frustrated Jean McTavish, who was the longtime principal of a transfer school in Manhattan and is now retired. She says that when the state changes cut scores, the Regents exams become fairly meaningless.

“They’ve been playing around with cut scores on Regents exams for as long as I can remember because of the graduation rate,” McTavish said.

State officials say that is not a fair characterization of their work. It is standard to adjust the number of questions students must answer correctly based on the difficulty of the exam. For that reason, simply looking at the number of questions answered correctly does not explain the test’s toughness. Additionally, officials said teachers were involved in setting these bars to ensure they are at an appropriate level for students.

There is also a danger that students — particularly low-income students of color — will be pushed into the less rigorous paths.

Already, an analysis shows early signs that black and low-income students are more likely to use one of the less rigorous or career-focused diploma paths. (The analysis doesn’t tell us whether those students would have otherwise taken a more rigorous path or not graduated at all in the past.)

One of those options allows students to substitute a Regents exam for a basic test that examines readiness for entry-level work.

Plus, for students, teachers, and families in New York, the mishmash of rules and exceptions that the state has carved out to make earning a diploma more achievable has made it challenging to decipher pathways to graduation, said Ashley Grant, a supervising staff attorney at Advocates for Children.

Grant says she helps families through the process, but that the state should create a more coherent system — one that doesn’t require an attorney’s assistance to understand.

“It shouldn’t take six tip sheets and a full-time staff,” Grant said. “It’s a really, really cumbersome process.”

But state officials defend the middle ground as the best method for giving students many ways to demonstrate the skills and knowledge they’ve mastered while also keeping the state’s rigorous standards.

“The Board of Regents and the State Education Department have made it a priority to allow students to demonstrate their proficiency to graduate in many ways,” said state education department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis. “This is not about changing our graduation standards. It’s about providing different avenues – equally rigorous – for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma.”

In order to avoid confusion for educators or families, state officials also said they have posted a significant amount of information about their graduation requirements on their website. Additionally, they have put on presentations across the state, have tools for school counselors to help determine whether students are making process toward a diploma, and have special requirements that the parents of students with disabilities are informed of children’s progress towards a diploma.

Is it time to get rid of the test as a graduation requirement?

The state could have taken other approaches beyond tinkering with the Regents exams.

Across the country, exit exams have not been shown to improve student achievement, graduation rates, or college-readiness– and they may even put low-income and minority students at an increased risk of dropping out of high school, according to a 2014 report by New America, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

Additionally, experts say officials work to make tests easier as the stakes get higher, both for students and for districts concerned about low graduation rates. Nationwide, officials have ended up making exit tests easier, since the drawbacks of failing are so high for individual students, said Michael Cohen, president of the nonprofit Achieve, which helps states work on academic standards and tests. A study conducted by Achieve in 2004 found that in the six states analyzed, students could pass the tests with knowledge and skills that the authors argue are about at a 7th through 9th grade level.

“Graduation tests have not set high bars, and it’s easy to understand why they don’t,” Cohen said.

Other states have already eliminated the requirement that students take a test before graduating. Of the states that didn’t have an exam in 2015, officials chose instead to base graduation on credit requirements, or provide a menu of possible requirements that local districts can choose from. Of those states, only one other state required five tests for most students.

New York state officials seem to be leaning toward switching to different types of assessments, rather than scrapping the testing requirement all together. In 2016, the state’s education policymaking body discussed allowing students to take a project-based test if they fail a Regents exam, and a few months ago floated the idea of having students complete a capstone project on their path to graduation. It is unclear what projects the state would require, but officials discussed an option earlier this month that would allow art students to write an essay, complete a project, and finish an end-of-course task in place of a final Regents exam.

Lisa Rudley, a parent from Ossining who helped organize the movement to boycott state tests, favors dropping the Regents exam requirement and finding other ways to track student progress.

“I think it’s a misnomer that Regents exams are equal with high standards in schools,” Rudley said. “I think we’ve opened up a door that’s an important door.”

The state’s education policymaking leader, Rosa, said it would be very difficult to imagine not having Regents exams as part of the graduation mix — but she didn’t rule it out entirely, saying instead that she would support an option that shows students are prepared to graduate.

“The Regents exams have been part of our core … so that would be a challenge to sort of say, ‘Let’s get rid of Regents exams,’ ” Rosa said.

At least one top state official, though, said he is not afraid to take a hard look at whether Regents exams should be part of that mix. Regent Roger Tilles said that while failing these tests can exclude students from the college or career or their choice, he has not seen evidence that passing them helps students prepare for life after college.

“This is something that needs to be discussed,” Tilles said. “As far as I’m concerned [we should] start from scratch.”

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regents Luis Reyes and Beverly Ouderkirk go over some paperwork at July’s Board of Regents meeting.

But some worry that Regents exams can be a tool to ensuring students are prepared for college. Only about 64 percent of graduates in New York City meet the City University of New York’s bar for avoiding remedial work, which is how the city measures college-readiness. That number has been increasing over time, but still lags behind the city’s graduation rate. And CUNY’s college graduation rate for four-year schools after six years is under 60 percent for the latest year on record.

Mark Anderson, a former special education teacher who now supports instruction at schools in the Bronx, said he used to sit with his colleagues each year and figure out how to make sure his middle school students would be ready for Regents-level work. Without that requirement for graduating high school, he worries teachers and students will not have a solid benchmark to work towards.

“What is the goal? What is the bar? What are you shooting for?” Anderson said. “If they know they won’t get penalized, then why try?”

Those in favor of exit exams point to Massachusetts as an example of a state that stuck by its test and achieved positive results. The exam requirement is an important part of the state’s ability to top the nation on national test scores, said David Driscoll, the former Massachusetts Education Commissioner.

The key, he said, was not to undercut the standards and instead be firm that the exams were here to stay —  something that New York did not do by adding so many exceptions.

“We stuck with it, and it became clear to people that we weren’t going to blink,” Driscoll said. “People spent all their time focused on getting people up over the bar and not on trying to lower the bar.”

Beyond the politicians, the debates and the exams themselves, graduation has many meanings. For Vargas, watching her son walk across the stage with a cap and gown was a deeply personal moment, full of pride and relief.

As she fought back tears last year at her son’s graduation, Vargas thought about how hard she and her son had worked for that diploma — and how close they came to missing it all together.

“I was waiting for this moment for a long time and for a second I thought we weren’t going to make it there,” she said. “It was very emotional to see him finally accomplish that.”

next steps

Adams 14 pledges ‘transformational change’ as Colorado revisits school improvement plans

Aris Mocada-Orjas, left, and Abel Albarran work on a math problem at Hanson Elementary in Commerce City. (Denver Post file photo)

Two Colorado school districts face critical hearings this fall that will determine how much autonomy they’ll retain after failing to turn around years of dismal performance.

Two schools in the Pueblo 60 district in southern Colorado, Adams City High School, and the entire Adams 14 district based in Commerce City are now in their eighth year on a state watchlist and will need to come back before the State Board of Education in November to explain why improvement plans approved last year didn’t generate the hoped-for progress in student achievement.

These hearings will mark the first time state officials revisit the school and district improvement plans. While state takeover isn’t on the table, as it has been in other states, they could tell school administrators to keep working on their plans, make small tweaks, or order more drastic intervention, including closing schools, turning over management to outside organizations or even dissolving districts, though that last option would be politically challenging.

A spokesman for the Adams 14 district said leaders there recognize they need to make “transformational change.”

“We will have to prove to the state board that we are serious this time,” said Alex Sanchez, the district spokesman. “We’ve been at this eight years, and we need to be reflective of those eight years and make sure we are moving forward with an actual plan that will truly address the needs of Adams 14 children.”

The Colorado Department of Education released preliminary school ratings based on spring test scores and other data late last month. Adams 14 remained on “priority improvement,” the second lowest tier in the state’s five-tiered rating system for districts.

Through multiple school boards and three superintendents, the district did not meet promises to raise scores enough to escape from the state’s watchlist — also known as the accountability clock. The State Board of Education last year gave Adams 14 just one year to demonstrate progress. Most other schools and districts on the list got at least two years to see if their plans yielded better outcomes.

In test scores and then ratings released in August, Adams 14 showed some areas of improvement, but not enough to raise the state’s overall rating for the district.

Schools and districts can appeal their ratings, and they don’t become final until December.

Adams 14 may appeal the ratings of up to three schools, and that could change the district’s overall rating. But Sanchez said Superintendent Javier Abrego, his new leadership team, and the school board recognize that the district needs to make large-scale changes regardless of the outcome of those appeals.

“It’s not about going after a decimal of a point here and there,” Sanchez said. “We really need to address the hard realities.”

State education officials don’t want to wait too long before looking at next steps for struggling schools and districts.

“We’re moving forward,” Colorado Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Alyssa Pearson told the state board earlier this month.

Colorado Department of Education

A state review panel will visit Adams 14 schools and make recommendations by October. The state also plans to solicit written feedback from community members before the next hearing.

State accountability officials want the state board to render a decision on the same day as the hearing.

The quick turnaround is intended to allow plenty of planning time if the state board wants to order more substantial changes. The first time the state board reviewed improvement plans, in spring 2017, it largely accepted districts’ proposals and shied away from more aggressive interventions.

But some board members complained that the short time frame essentially gave them no choice. How, for example, were they to order turning over school management to a charter organization for the next school year if no potential operator had been identified in the spring?

Will the state board press for more changes this time? That remains to be seen. State board member Jane Goff asked skeptically if her fellow board members want districts to “start from scratch” and suggested these meetings would be a “check-in” rather than a full hearing.

Board member Val Flores said pushing for too much change can hurt kids.

“We want change for the better, but change can hurt — and the people who hurt the most are kids,” she said. “We can’t hurry along a process that is going to take time.”

The improvement plan for the 7,500-student Adams 14 district includes a partnership with Beyond Textbooks, an Arizona-based nonprofit now also working in the Sheridan district. The nonprofit’s role in Adams 14 includes training teachers to help students reach state standards and to better work with students who don’t grasp material the first time, as well as train coaches for teachers.

The improvement plan was partly tied to a biliteracy program that the district has put on hold, a source of ongoing disagreement and frustration in the district, which has one of the highest percentages of English language learners in the state.

The pressures of turnaround work have frayed relationships with the community and with district staff, with parents pushing back against the loss of the biliteracy program, cuts to recess, and other changes. The top leadership team saw extensive turnover in the past year, and the board president resigned.

Communication has not always been smooth either. State officials went to Adams 14 board meetings throughout the year to provide updates, often alerting the school board that the district was not on track to meet targets. School board members were sometimes surprised to hear the news. After hearing the concerns of one state official at a meeting in February, board members argued about whose responsibility it was to keep up progress toward the state-ordered plan.

Sanchez said district officials and board members know they need to work with the state and that the district may need outside help to make big changes.

“Moving forward, we have to think big, we have to think bold, we have to think transformational change,” he said. “It will take many resources and many strategic partners to get that work done.”

Chair Angelika Schroeder said the state board will be focused on the needs of students.

“Poor education hurts kids,” she said. “The kids are why we’re thinking about intervening in a district.”

Reporter Yesenia Robles contributed.

Indiana online schools

Here’s how some of Indiana’s online schools are trying to fix low testing turnout

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Some Indiana parents, students, and educators praise online schools for allowing students to learn anywhere they want, but it’s exactly that flexibility that leads to one of the schools’ biggest struggles: ensuring students sit for state exams.

Virtual schools have historically struggled to get all of their students tested, compared to their brick-and-mortar peers. While 99 percent of traditional school students are tested throughout the state, in online schools, rates generally fall below the federally mandated 95 percent. In 2017, the most recent data available, most of Indiana’s online schools had test participation rates in the mid-80s and low 90s, with Indiana Virtual School testing just 35 percent of its students.

The schools say they struggle to get a higher number of students tested because they are scattered across the state and often have to drive long distances to testing sites. Also the parents of students at virtual charter schools are often more likely to want their children to “opt out” of tests for philosophical reasons, school leaders say.

Low turnout for state tests can have ramifications for schools: If more than 5 percent of a school’s students skip the ISTEP exams, schools lose points on their state A-F grades.

What’s more, if enough students don’t take tests, the state can’t get a full picture of how they are performing. This could pose a significant problem for virtual schools that already have trouble educating their students, some of whom struggle with bullying, medical issues, or come in far behind grade level. Every virtual school in Indiana received an F grade from the state in 2017.

And low test turnout might also be a piece of a larger problem with a school’s ability to create community and engage far-flung students.

In recent years, several virtual schools have made it a priority to get students to sit for state exams. One school says it spent $500,000 last year on testing, including hotel rooms for proctors near testing sites. Another has a “war room” where school leaders tackle testing issues, an approach that has led to a 15 percentage point jump in testing rates, the school says. We’ll learn if some of these efforts are paying off in the coming months, when the state is expected to release updated test participation rates along with A-F grades.

“You can probably imagine it’s a massive undertaking,” said Melissa Brown, head of schools for Indiana Connections Academy, which enrolls more than 4,600 students. “We try to remind people that they agreed to do this, that the test is just a look at their performance and it allows Indiana to evaluate our school … we try to be positive.”

Ensuring online students take standardized tests is a challenge nationally, as well. According to a 2018 report from the National Education Policy Center, low testing participation rates for virtual schools “allows their performance to go largely unchecked” because in many states a low enough rate lets schools duck state ratings. States should adjust their policies to close this loophole, the researchers said.

Test participation is one of the areas that state officials are examining as they consider further regulating virtual charter schools after Gov. Eric Holcomb called for reforming the schools in response to a 2017 Chalkbeat investigation. In Indiana, almost 12,000 students attend full-time virtual charter schools, or about 1 percent of public school students.

At a meeting last month of the Indiana State Board of Education committee charged with re-examining the virtual school rules, state officials presented test participation data from 2017.

Virtual charter schools say ensuring their students take state exams during two-week-long windows twice a year is expensive and time-consuming. At Connections, Brown said, the school spends about $500,000 on testing each year. Coordinating test days are expensive in part because staff must travel and stay overnight in hotels in order to procter.

Connections has 18 testing locations across the state, and no family should have to travel more than 50 miles to their assigned location. Students might test at a library, convention center, hotel, or community college — but the schools have to rent the space, furnish it with computers, and contract with vendors to ensure servers meet state security guidelines. They also spend time training teachers and staff on test security.

Because families often are traveling some distance, Brown said school leaders try to schedule siblings on the same day and condense testing as much as state rules allow so parents aren’t driving back and forth multiple times a week. That means students might have more testing in a single day, but test for fewer days overall than in a brick-and-mortar school. In 2017, 91 percent of Connections students were tested.

Like at traditional schools, students with special needs receive their required testing accommodations, such as longer test times or a specific environment. At its largest site, 30 students might be in one room at a time, but usually the group is much smaller, Brown said, especially in rural communities.

For students attending the Insight School, a full-time virtual charter school under the Hoosier Academies umbrella that caters to students far behind grade level, the testing process is similar. Elizabeth Lamey, head of school at Insight, said she oversees 12 sites across the state, and families shouldn’t have to travel more than 30 minutes to their assigned spot. If families cannot get there on their own, the school helps provide transportation. In 2017, 84 percent of Insight students were tested.

“It’s quite a process — we have a war room here at our administration building where it’s an all-hands-on-deck approach,” Lamey said.

School leaders find it challenging to sell the importance of state tests to virtual families, many of whom signed on explicitly to avoid what they see as restrictive school rules or intimidating social situations. Families at virtual schools are also more inclined, in Brown’s experience, to advocate for “opting out” of state tests intentionally on principle, not just for logistical reasons.

Last year, between 80 and 100 students opted out at Connections. Lamey said Insight has families who choose to opt out as well. In Indiana, there is no state-approved way for opting out of tests — state officials do not give schools any leeway in accountability for families who deliberately refuse to test.

“We do have a good chunk of families that want to own their child’s education, and that’s probably one of the reasons why they’re in our school, and so they’re more likely to (opt out),” Brown said. “Many of those children that are opting out are really high-performing students who just don’t believe in state testing.”

Brown and her staff, as well as those at Insight, communicate frequently with families leading up to tests to ensure they know where to go and when, and to remind them that testing was something they agreed to when they enrolled.

Not all students face testing challenges. Jeremiah Hitch, a 14-year-old freshman at Indiana Connections Academy, said he and his family haven’t had any big problems with getting to and from testing sites. Hitch lives in Evansville, and the testing site was at a convention center just a few miles from his home. He actually enjoys testing days, since he gets to see his teachers face-to-face.

Usually, Hitch said, he’s in a small room with few other students testing, in part because of his special education plan that requires that accomodation for his ADHD. Last year, he spent two days testing in each testing period. Compared to his previous traditional public school, this set-up is not nearly as distracting.

“Even during ISTEP (in the traditional school) you would still have something happening,” Hitch said. “It was a lot more quiet than usual, but it could still be very distracting. With ISTEP now, it’s a lot better.”

Both Connections and Insight expect their participation rates to be about the same or higher than last year, citing rates of about 90 percent and 98.5 percent respectively. Brown and Lamey said communication has been key — between teachers and parents, teachers and administrators, and teachers and students.

“That approach is something that has changed from the previous year,” Lamey said. “We’re undergoing a huge cultural shift at our school … we’re really trying to create an atmosphere, a culture of measurement. No one person holds the responsibility, it’s all of us.”

Indiana Virtual School did not return multiple requests for comment, but at a public meeting last month, school officials said they expected a 92 percent participation rate, up from 35 percent in 2017. Clark said they incentivized students to show up.

“We bought a lot of pizza,” he told the state board’s virtual school committee members.

A jump of that magnitude, in one year, would be a major achievement for the school, which has a history of testing issues. Until 2017, just a small fraction of students took tests each year. And last year, when the school’s rate was 35 percent, superintendent Percy Clark told Chalkbeat that many students still took tests on paper because the school couldn’t control outside computer security.

Even when Clark arrived at Indiana Virtual, he said they “were in hot water” in regards to taking ISTEP, though the school had far fewer students then compared to more than 3,300 today. Details about testing during Indiana Virtual’s early years came to light in a 2014 lawsuit brought against the school by then-superintendent Dave Stashevsky, who was suing for non-payment. At the time Stashevsky was also an educator in Daleville Public Schools, the small rural district that oversees Indiana Virtual School. Depositions in the case revealed that the school had tested very few students, if any — a result of disorganization at the school level and students being scattered across the state.

“Many of them didn’t make it that far to take the test,” a former teacher who taught at the school early on told Chalkbeat last year, requesting her name be withheld out of concerns about backlash from the school. “They left, or they didn’t complete the curriculum, or they kind of fell off the face of the Earth … (I) had no clue about when they took it, if they took it.”

Virtual schools’ struggles to engage families in state testing might also speak to the schools’ larger problem keeping students active and engaged in an online learning environment.

“Engagement” has become a buzzword in conversations Indiana policymakers have about improving online charter schools. If schools are more engaged with students and parents, and students are more engaged with their coursework, there’s more success, the theory goes.

Testing is one part of that relationship. Although, like brick-and-mortar schools, virtual schools can’t force students to take tests, the absence of a physical schooling environment can make it more even more difficult to make testing a priority.

But neither online schools nor policymakers have found a surefire way to ensure that those strong relationships are built. Stronger introductions to online learning when parents enroll their children could be a factor, as could policies some online school advocates praise that let schools expel students who fail to participate after a certain length of time.

Lamey said that a new state policy that lets online schools remove students who aren’t a good fit for that type of learning has been beneficial for the school and for families.

“We don’t want a child to stay in this situation if they’re not finding success,” Lamey said. “We feel like we have a strong culture of support here for our students, but if it’s not working we want them to have success in school.”

Here’s the breakdown of ISTEP participation rates for each virtual charter school in the state that tested students last year, per state data.

2017 ISTEP Math Expected to test Tested Participation rate
Indiana Connections Academy 2,173 1,973 91%
Insight School of Indiana 317 267 84%
Indiana Virtual School 890 314 35%
Hoosier Academy Virtual* 1,594 1,489 93%

 

2017 ISTEP English Expected to test Tested Participation rate
Indiana Connections Academy 2,170 1,947 90%
Insight School of Indiana 320 268 84%
Indiana Virtual School 890 308 35%
Hoosier Academy Virtual* 1,597 1,470 92%

*Hoosier Academy Virtual closed this past June.