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Chalkbeat’s best-read stories: ISTEP, Glenda Ritz, school funding and snow

Two years ago today, Chalkbeat Indiana was born as the state’s first nonprofit education news website.

It’s been a pretty wild ride. What started out as a harried one-man team now includes three professional journalists covering educational change in state policy and in schools throughout Marion County.

If you’re a regular reader, you probably know about our network by now, but in case you have recently discovered us, please check out our sister sites in New York, Tennessee and Colorado.

As we’re taking a look back this morning, we thought we’d share our all-time top 10 list of our best read stories. It’s an interesting collection. Not all the stories were the ones we expected. But it’s a good study of what sorts of education stories get your attention.


1. Try out new 2015 ISTEP practice questions

This year-old story started out as a simple idea. The state was changing the ISTEP test with a goal of making it harder to measure more challenging academic standards.

Readers were eager to learn about the new ISTEP.

Readers were eager to learn about the new ISTEP.

Scott Elliott

Reporter Shaina Cavazos was at a meeting where educators discussed some brand-new sample questions intended to give classroom teachers a feel for the new exam.

She thought our readers, especially students, parents and educators, might also like to get a feel for the new exam. Perhaps they get a better sense of it by trying out some of the practice questions?

Did they ever. This story garnered more than four times the page views of our previously best-read story. It still regularly ranks among our best read stories of the week.

2. Despite Ritz’s pleas, committee passes bill to remove her as chair

Indiana state Superintendent Glenda Ritz is clearly a fascinating person to our readers and Indiana media consumers in general. Since the moment she shocked the state’s political establishment by upsetting her predecessor, Tony Bennett, in 2012, Democrat Ritz has been in conflict with Republican leaders in the Statehouse.

Glenda Ritz speaking to the Indiana House Education Committee in January.

Glenda Ritz speaking to the Indiana House Education Committee in January.

Scott Elliott

So it’s no surprise that a move earlier this year to strip from state law the guarantee that Ritz chair the Indiana State Board of Education got our readers’ attention.

Several of the stories we wrote about that debate got high readership. But it was Ritz’s dramatic and emotional testimony on her own behalf before the House Education Committee — and that committee’s subsequent dismissal of her pleas — that really exploded reader attention on what was happening in the Statehouse.

This story was passed around at lightning speed on social media. Ritz supporters later held a statehouse rally and Republicans scaled back some of the elements of their plan.

Still, a bill passed that will allow the state board to elect its own chair, but not until 2017. So we have a year to wait to see if Ritz is re-elected and then whether board members decide to keep her as their chairwoman or push her aside to choose someone else.

3. Ritz might permit schools to make up snow days in hours or online

This is an off-beat story and perhaps the biggest surprise on this list.

Schools lost lots of class time to snow days in 2014

Schools lost lots of class time to snow days in 2014

Scott Elliott/Chalkbeat

Back in 2014’s snowmageddon winter, lots of schools were way over their allotment of snow days and worried about extending the school year deep into the summer.

Ritz sought creative solutions, and she said she would entertain plans to make up lost time online or by adding time to the school day.

Some districts took her up on that. But the idea was so new for Indiana, that our first story on it really got a lot of attention from parents and teachers wondering how schools were going to handle all the snow days.

4. A third of George Washington High School’s teachers won’t return

The difficulties at George Washington High School last year popped up in the media a few times when there were fights and conflicts at the school.

George Washington High School.

George Washington High School had a difficult year in 2014-15.

Scott Elliott

But it wasn’t until Chalkbeat’s Hayleigh Colombo took a deeper look at what was going on that we realized how worried many students were about the atmosphere in the building.

Chalkbeat’s reporting showed Hispanic students were fleeing the school, and students reported regular problems with discipline. This story from the summer focused on a large number of teachers who did not return to the school.

The IPS school board just heard an upbeat report this week that the culture at the school was improving and noted that although much of the staff turned over, their replacements were hired early enough for the school to be the first IPS high school to fill all its open spots.

5. IPS starts the summer with 300 teacher, staff vacancies

Before all the talk about whether there was a teacher shortage in Indiana this school year, Chalkbeat was reporting that IPS was behind on hiring and having more trouble than in prior years attracting teachers.

IPS struggled to fill all its open teaching jobs late in the summer.

IPS struggled to fill all its open teaching jobs late in the summer.

Alan Petersime

With the early-August start of the school year fast approaching, officials were scrambling to ensure every classroom had a teacher.

The situation improved by the time the new school year began.

District officials are hoping that the first raises for teachers in five years, which were announced this fall as part of a new contract negotiated by the administration and the teachers union, will help attract and retain the district’s best teachers.

6. Here’s what ‘technology-enhanced’ ISTEP questions will look like

After the success of our No. 1 ranked story, which gave readers a chance to try out ISTEP questions, we knew our readers would also want a closer look at new types of questions that were made possible only by taking ISTEP online, as most students do now.

Most students take ISTEP online these days.

Most students take ISTEP online these days.

Alan Petersime

Technology-enhanced questions ask students to manipulate items on the computer screen and go beyond a simple multiple choice selection to get credit for a right answer. Students might have to assemble items in the right order or match movable objects, for example.

Test-makers hope the next generation of online tests will be better at gauging what students know and can do, but for now the new online questions are still in their infancy.

A simple animation gave Chalkbeat’s readers a sense for what these questions are like.

7. The basics of school funding in Indiana: Difficulty defining fairness

Our “basics” posts are background stories on key education issues in Indiana, and all of the nearly 20 basics stories have been well-read (Find a complete list here). But the basics of school funding was well-timed and drew a huge number of readers.

The story published in January, just as the Indiana legislature embarked on an effort to overhaul the state’s school funding system.

Every state’s school funding system is complex, and the choices lawmakers make to create those systems say a lot about what they value and what they don’t.

In Indiana’s case, there is a strong desire on the part of legislators from across the political spectrum for a “fair” funding system that gives each district what its students deserve.

The biggest difficulty is that Republicans and Democrats defined fairness differently, and there never seemed to be enough money to make everyone satisfied.

8. Indiana dumps CTB/McGraw-Hill, picks Pearson to create future ISTEP

Over the course of California-based CTB/McGraw-Hill’s latest four-year contract to create and score ISTEP, there have been repeated problems.

ISTEP has been plagued by problems.

ISTEP has been plagued by problems.

Shannan Muskopf via Flickr

Online glitches, scoring errors and validity questions have plagued the exam, and the repeated problems have frustrated students, teachers, education department officials and legislators alike.

So when the company’s contract was up last year, the state picked a competitor — British-based Pearson — to create the future ISTEP.

That handoff is underway, with the first Pearson exam coming in 2016.

But CTB didn’t go quietly.

Scoring problems have again delayed ISTEP, this time until at least December before 2015 scores will be released.

9. IPS teachers protest $125K salary for new ‘talent officer’

It’s not surprising that changes in the way IPS manages its recruiting and hiring are important to our readers. But it was a bit surprising there was so much interest in this particular move.

The Indianapolis Public School Board approved hiring a new talent officer in May.

The Indianapolis Public School Board approved hiring a new talent officer in May.

Hayleigh Colombo

Mindy Schlegel was Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s choice to take a different approach to managing the district’s hiring.

The talent officer is supposed to find a way to create a talent pipeline that will lead not only to placing great teachers in IPS schools but also developing future school and district leaders.

But the selection of Schlegel, and her high salary, stirred some questions. Schlegel came to IPS from a consulting job with North Carolina-based Public Impact but previously had worked for Bennett at the Indiana Department of Education.

In that role, she helped invent the teacher evaluation system the state uses today.

10. A year after Washington Township went all-IB, teaching is changing

Our first story on Washington Township’s move to become the first district in the state to make International Baccalaureate curriculum the backbone of its entire K-12 program was a hit with readers, too.

Washington Township teachers meet for IB training last year.

Washington Township teachers meet for IB training last year.

Shaina Cavazos

But this follow-up from about a year later, looking at how district’s all-IB model changed the way teachers in the district approach their teaching, got even more reader attention.

IB instruction is popular, but challenging, and confined to high school in many places.

Washington Township has broadened the curriculum it to all students in part as a strategy to support its increasingly diverse student body, which includes many immigrant students.