Last year, 171 students at Arlington High School took the state English and math exams. None of them passed. At Broad Ripple and Northwest high schools, just two students at each school passed both exams.
All three Indianapolis Public Schools campuses were closed at the end of last year, as part of a broad effort to redesign high school for students in the state’s largest district. But the results at most of the schools that remained open were not much better. Across the district, just 5.3 percent of students passed both the English and math grade 10 ISTEP. That’s down 3.5 percentage points from last year. Statewide 33.7 high schoolers passed both exams, a dip of 0.6 percentage points.
While district officials attributed the dismal results to the high school closing process, some education advocates said there was reason for concern. Most students must pass the test to graduate, and students often take it over and over again until they pass both sections.
“We can’t escape the fact that students, in particular students of color, are not receiving a great education. And there’s just no way around it,” said Brandon Brown, CEO of the Mind Trust, a nonprofit that supports charter schools and plays an influential role in Indianapolis Public Schools. “That should make all of us reflect on what we are doing to serve kids well.”
Superintendent Lewis Ferebee attributed the low passing rates at high schools to the fact that some of those schools were already slated for closure when students took the exams and students may not have taken them seriously. This year, the district is rolling out a redesign of its four remaining high schools. The new, all-choice model allows students to select specialized academies based on their interests. The district expects the reconfigured schools to have higher performance, Ferebee said.
The test results are part of a broader statewide trend of stagnant passing rates that has persisted since new, harder tests were introduced for grades 3-8 in 2015 and grade 10 in 2016. The declines come at the same time Indianapolis Public School is embracing an aggressive strategy of giving principals more freedom, partnering with charter schools, and intervening in low performing schools.
The dip in scores was relatively small for students in grades 3-8. The percentage of Indianapolis students who passed both the English and math ISTEP in 2018 was 23.7 percent, down 0.8 percentage points from last year. Students performed better on the English test, which 37.1 percent passed, compared to the math exam, which 30.6 percent passed. One bright spot for the district were passing rates on the grades 3-8 math exam, which improved by 0.4 percentage points.
Ferebee also highlighted that math passing rates significantly improved at 17 schools and gains on the English exam at about nine schools. The district also saw notable improvement in middle school grades, he said.
“Clearly we are not satisfied with where we are but we don’t want to lose sight that there is progress being made,” he said.
Ferebee said the district is more focused on student growth than proficiency. Growth scores, which are used for state letter grades, take into account how much students improve on the test each year. They have not yet been released. “Proficiency is just a small piece of how we measure progress,” he said.
This year could be one of the district’s few opportunities to use trends from passing rates to assess its schools. Next year, Indiana elementary and middle school students will take a new exam, ILEARN, that won’t be directly comparable to ISTEP, state education officials said. High-schoolers will continue to take ISTEP for at least another year.
Ferebee said he is reluctant to look at trends over the last four years because he does not believe the tests have been consistent. During that period, the state hired a new company to administer the exams, and the tests have also seen various technical problems. But for the most part, Indiana officials consider the tests to be comparable.
ISTEP scores are also a test for innovation schools, a controversial new strategy the district embraced three years ago. The schools are still considered part of the district, but they are managed by outside nonprofits or charter operators.
Most of those innovation schools also saw declines in passing rates on the combined exam, a contrast with last year when the schools saw some large gains in proficiency. One notable exception is Herron High School, a charter school in the innovation network that had a 12 percentage point jump in passing rates on the grade 10 exam.
Indianapolis Public Schools Board member Mary Ann Sullivan said it is too soon to judge the impact of the district’s different approaches. Officials have been implementing the most aggressive strategies only for a short time, and it can take years to see results. Over the long term, she wants to see students showing growth on tests.
“The status quo was our schools weren’t very good,” she said. “If our interventions don’t move the needle, then it’s the wrong intervention, and we need to do something differently.”
But Sullivan said she believes there’s reason for optimism because the portfolio strategy of giving principals more autonomy and taking aggressive steps to improve low-performing schools is working in other cities. Ultimately, she said, education policy leaders often abandon strategies without giving them enough time to succeed.
“I’m still feeling incredibly hopeful,” she said. “I’m going to be very reluctant to abandon this strategy in the absence of something more promising.”
Across all grades, there is wide variation among schools. More schools had declines than improvement in passing rates on the combined exam between 2017 and 2018.
The school with the largest drop in passing rates on both exams was School 99, also known as Arlington Woods, where proficiency rates plummeted by over 15 percentage points to 7.5 percent. The school with the greatest improvement was School 55, which was converted to a magnet school this year in partnership with Butler University.