Future of Schools

Christel House Academy's grade falls from A to F

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Christel House Academy blamed last year's big drop in ISTEP scores on online testing glitches. This year, it's passing rates jumped back up.

Christel House Academy, the charter school that earned an A in 2012 only after former state Superintendent Tony Bennett’s lieutenants made changes to the grading formula, was given an F on Friday for 2013.

But officials from the school, which some accused of receiving special treatment last year, said it’s this year’s F grade that they can prove is unfair. Their appeal, which was denied, should have resulted in a grade change, school officials said.

In fact, Christel House’s CEO Carey Dahncke said the school’s grade called into question new state Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s assertion that testing errors last May had minimal effect on student scores or school grades. Dahncke said the school’s own analysis showed 90 percent of Christel House students who passed state tests last year but failed this year were also among those who were kicked offline during testing.

“That was the common element,” he said. “It is due to the testing disruptions.”

After months of problems, the Indiana State Board of Education Friday issued A to F grades for all schools more than seven weeks later than last year. The delay had become a point of contention between Ritz and the state board, escalating political tensions that had been building over questions of who guides education policy in Indiana.

But the protracted discussion and internal vetting of ISTEP test results and the new grades did not erase questions about whether the grades are valid.

In May, about 80,000 of the roughly 500,000 students who took ISTEP experienced problems taking the test online. In some cases, the test froze or response time lagged. Some students had to repeatedly log back in.

Over the summer the state hired an outside evaluator to verify the validity of the scores. His report found just 1,400 student tests were invalid, causing virtually no impact on school and district results, state officials said.

Still, it’s not just Christel House that is concerned that their grades were impacted by the testing problems, despite the education department’s assurances.

“That was a pretty widespread thought,” said Todd Bess, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals. “Whether that manifested itself into actual grade changes. That’s a good question.”

Ritz’s spokesman, Daniel Altman, said all appeals were carefully considered, including Christel House.

“They went through the exact same process as every other school,” he said.

But Christel House, which has earned A grades since 2006, saw 40 percent of its 679 test takers affected by glitches, school officials said. At several grade levels, it was those same kids who failed the test and contributed to a slide in the school’s passing rates.

Last year 81 percent of Christel House students passed both English and math on ISTEP, about 10 points above the state average. This year, the passing rate for the school dropped to 71 percent.

Some examples from Christel House’s internal review:

  • Last year 95 percent of third graders passed the state’s third grade reading test. In fourth grade this year, just 61 percent passed the English test. All of the 15 students who passed at third grade but failed in fourth grade had a testing disruption.
  • In seventh grade, the passing rate in math fell to 55 percent passing from 91 percent the prior year, when the students were in sixth grade. Again, all 19 students who went from passing to failing faced testing problems.
  • At eighth grade, all eight students who failed in 2013 but passed the prior year experienced ISTEP glitches.

“You’d have to be teaching kids the wrong thing to have that many kids go from passing to failing,” Dahncke said. “None of it adds up.”

So much of Christel House’s test data appeared to be affected by ISTEP problems that it appealed its F grade and asked instead to be given no grade for this year, Dahncke said.

“You can’t calculate a grade with all this bad data,” he said.

Christel House was among about 150 schools that appealed their grades. At Friday’s state board meeting, education department staff said no schools who appealed their grades based on concerns about ISTEP testing problems were approved for a grade change.

The school’s 2012 grade was at the center of a stormy debate over whether Bennett manipulated the A to F formula to help Christel House maintain its A.

News reports last summer revealed emails from the fall of 2012, obtained through public records request, in which Bennett’s staff fretted that Christel House might not receive an A. Research by Bennett’s team led to a proposal to tweak the grading formula in a way that raised grades for Christel House, serving students in grades K to 10, and 11 other schools with unusual grade configurations,. That brought charges from Bennett’s critics that the A was undeserved.

An outside review of Bennett’s formula changes from a pair of consultants hired by Republican legislative leaders later ruled called them “plausible” but declined to explore the motivations of Bennett and his lieutenants.

 

Mixed messages

Is the Board of Regents hostile to charter schools? Depends upon whom you ask.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent Collins and Regent Johnson engage in a discussion after a Board of Regents meeting.

When the Board of Regents took the unprecedented step of rejecting two new charter schools last week, it sent shudders through the charter school sector.

Even before the meeting last Monday, the Regents had been making charters “nervous,” said Andrea Rogers, the New York State Director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network. The rejections only heightened the anxiety.

“I think these denials skyrocketed the issue to the front of people’s minds,” she said.  

And yet, during the same meeting, the board praised and signed off on the opening of five other charter schools, which brings the number of new schools approved this year to more than any year since 2013.

The meeting was emblematic of the mixed signals that this Board of Regents have been sending over the last few months, feeding different interpretations among both those who advocate for charter schools and those who champion traditional schools

The board’s willingness to criticize and question charters have many believing the Regents are, at best, skeptics and, at worst, opposed to the publicly funded, privately run schools that they authorize and oversee.

At the same time, the Regents have not been without praise for charters, and some charters say they have appreciated the support of the body and the state’s support staff.

Chancellor Betty Rosa said the Regents’ decisions are evidence of nuance, not rigid ideology or partisanship.

“I think there’s too many times when people want to simply say ‘you’re for’ or ‘you’re against.’ It’s so much more complicated than that,” Rosa told Chalkbeat in an interview Wednesday. “To me, if it’s a wonderful opportunity for kids — you got me. If it’s not, I’m probably going to be your worst enemy.”

As an authorizer, the Board of Regents has the power to approve new schools and decide which of its 87 schools should remain open. In addition to deciding the fate of individual schools, the board is rethinking how it evaluates all of its schools   and whether they should take a closer look at measures like surveys or chronic absenteeism.

With several new members and a relatively new leader, the Regents’ actions have been under particular scrutiny for signs of partisanship. Some have seized on recent events, such as critical statements made by some Regents as charter schools have come before the board for approval or renewal.

One Regent suggested that charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students; another suggested a charter school in Brooklyn is contributing to segregation.

Rosa has fiercely opposed a proposal that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers, calling the idea  “insulting.” The board also rejected a batch of Success Academy renewals, arguing that their authorizer attempted to renew the high-performing but controversial charter schools too soon. (The move had little practical effect, since their authorizer, SUNY, can override the board’s decision.)

Rosa said the sum of these decisions does not mean either she or the board is anti-charter. Her opposition to the teacher certification proposal had nothing to do with the source of the proposal — a charter authorizer — but because, she said, she believes the idea is an affront to the teaching profession and will allow unqualified teachers to enter classrooms.

The Success Academy renewals, she said, were returned based on legal requirements — and were not an appraisal of the charter network.

But taken together, observers of different educational ideologies have concluded that the board is more likely to probe problems with charter schools than in the past.

“It is quite a change from a couple years ago, and it does show greater misgivings about charter schools than what we saw under the board as it was previously constructed,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. (Lowry said he appreciates that the board is paying more attention to how charter schools will affect the funding of surrounding school districts.)

The state’s teachers union has picked up on the change and praised the board for providing more oversight of charter schools, while calling on them to do more.

“The Regents, at this point, are providing much overdue scrutiny of the charter sector,” said NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn. “We believe that the Regents and the state education department need to do more, but this is a good step.”

Charter school advocates agree, seeing the Board of Regents’ actions as worrying. Since the board’s philosophy is hard to pin down, schools are starting to wonder if they can switch authorizers, Rogers said.

Yet there are signs that charters’ fear are based on conclusions that are far too sweeping. As the board rejected two schools outside of New York City, they also lauded applications for schools opening in the city a fact that may suggest differences in how the Regents assess schools in different areas of the state.

Regent Christine Cea welcomed a new school in Staten Island, saying she is “totally in favor of it.” Rosa expressed excitement about a new KIPP school in the Bronx, saying the community has “tremendous support” for its opening.

Rosa said Regents are more thoughtful and involved in reviewing schools now. She suggested that there are educational innovations that can be learned from charter schools, but also offered some critiques. At the top of her list, she worries that charter schools are not well-equipped to serve students with the most severe disabilities.

Several schools that are currently authorized by the board expressed their appreciation for the Board of Regents and those in the state education department’s charter school office who provide technical assistance to schools and create charter school recommendations for the board.

“On our quest to better serve scholars with learning differences, we have found no better ally,” said Eric Tucker, who is a co-founder of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School. “Through technical assistance and oversight, the Regents push public schools like ours to continually improve to better serve the needs of all students, all days.”

Still, said Bob Bellafiore, an education consultant who works with charter schools, several Regents come from district school backgrounds, and so their default attitude is to question charter schools and support the traditional school model.

“They’re much more district school system people,” Bellafiore said.

What's Your Education Story?

Tips for teaching poetry in a women’s prison. ‘Remember, you are not allowed to hug anyone.’

PHOTO: Lwp Kommunikáció, Flickr CC
Inmates at the Indiana Women's Prison.

Adam Henze was one of seven educators who participated in a story slam sponsored by Chalkbeat, Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media and the Indianapolis Public Library on Sept. 5. Every teacher shared stories about their challenges and triumphs in Circle City classrooms.

A poet and educator, Henze read a poem about a day in his life as a poetry instructor at the Indiana Women’s Prison. Henze recounts the painful struggle to reconcile his experiences with the crimes for which his students were serving time — some life sentences for murder

It’s a story full of darkness, but it also offers hope that, as Henze said, “we are the sum of the things that we have done, but we’re also the sum of the things that we have yet to do.”

Check out the video below to hear Henze’s story.

You can find more stories from educators, students and parents here.