Are Children Learning

Overtesting concerns could derail bill's proposal for civics exam (updated)

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
The charter school study was released earlier this week at the American Educational Research Association's national conference.

The question of whether Indiana high school graduates should pass a civics test is running up against an emerging concern that Hoosier children are simply taking too many state tests.

A worry that Indiana’s high school graduates don’t have enough civics knowledge has led to an unexpectedly lively debate already in the Indiana statehouse this year. Senate Education Committee Chairman Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, last month promised a Senate bill to require Indiana high school students pass the same citizenship test that immigrants must pass for naturalization.

This morning the House Education Committee heard House Bill 1296, a similar bill with the same goal put forward by Rep. Timothy Wesco, R-Osceola.

“This bill is a signal of what’s important to us,” Wesco said.

While schools focus on giving students the skills they need to succeed in life, he said, they should also ensure graduates an understanding of government and civic responsibilities.

“What about the success of our nation?” Wesco said. “Shouldn’t that be important to us?”

Wesco said there was ample evidence that recent high school graduates were woefully uninformed about civic affairs. He pointed to disinterest in voting — Indiana just saw the lowest voter turnout of any state in last November’s election — and surveys that have shown young adults had trouble answering basic questions about government, such as naming the vice president of the United States.

The problem is so grave, Wesco said, television programs have made a regular comedic feature of asking people on the street to answer simple civics questions because their wrong answers are so laughable. The Tonight Show is one example.

But is a new test requirement the answer?

Political leaders, especially Republicans, have pushed hard over the last two decades in Indiana to create a test-based accountability system designed to ensure students learn the skills and information the state requires at each grade. While the state only requires high school students pass two tests — in Algebra and 10th grade English — to graduate, students are also tested on science and social studies at lower grades.

As the current system of tests was put in place in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Democrats most often raised the loudest concerns. They criticized a system as tilted so heavily toward tests that it diminished broader learning in favor of rote test preparation.

Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, made that case during today’s discussion. Smith, who trains teachers as a professor at Indiana University Northwest, said requiring a 100-question exam is not the best way to encourage young people to care about civic issues and government. That comes from richer class discussions about the meaning of citizenship, he said.

“A rote memorization test is not the answer,” Smith said. “It’s questions like why is it important to be active in your government?”

But over the past two years, Republicans who control the Indiana legislature with strong majorities also have begun asking if Indiana has too much testing.

“I don’t want to add another test,” said the committee’s chairman, Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis.

Instead, Behning suggested the state might find a way to add citizenship questions to tests students already take, such as the social studies exam given at seventh grade or even to ISTEP, the state’s primary English and math test given in grades 3 to 8.

To administer the same test given nationally to those seeking U.S. citizenship would cost an estimated $2.3 million the first year and about $464,000 annually after that, according to a fiscal note that accompanies the bill. But Sally Sloan, a lobbyist for the Indiana Federation of Teachers, said she worried the bill could create more costs.

Sloan said the bill allows students to take the test as many times as they need until they pass it, but could result in charging fees after the first try. Schools could also face expenses for materials and teaching time to help those students who struggle to pass, she said.

John Barnes, who lobbies for state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, said he favored an emphasis on civics as a retired social studies teacher, but opposed the bill.

He said the Indiana State Board of Education just passed new social studies standards last March emphasizing citizenship in fifth grade, eighth grade and high school. Those standards require most of the content that would be covered on the civics test, Barnes said.

“We already have too many tests in place,” he said.

The committee held off on a vote on House Bill 1296 to allow further discussion. A vote could come Thursday or next week.

Other bills considered by the House Education Committee today were:

Student disabilities and teacher licensing, House Bill 1437. The bill,  which would require teachers demonstrate knowledge of teaching strategies for helping disabled children, was similar to House Bill 1108, requiring teachers to know how to teach children with dyslexia, which the committee discussed last week.

Behning said the House Bill 1437 was probably too broad and needed work, holding off on a vote for now. Among the questions from the committee were specifically what training would be required for teachers and if they would have to demonstrate that knowledge on a test.

Adult charter high schools, House Bill 1438. Representatives from the Excel Center adult charter schools pushed for this bill, which they said would clear up confusion created last year when the legislature made changes to charter school funding.

The Excel centers serve high school dropouts ranging from teenagers to adults. The legislature last year created a separate fund to pay for dropout high schools, which previously had been part of the same funding formula as other types of schools.

Excel, along with representatives from Gov. Mike Pence’s office and Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office, asked for clarity on two issues.

Last year’s changes, they said, allowed only the State Charter Board to sponsor new dropout charter schools in the future. Ballard, who sponsors several such schools, asked to be permitted to continue to do so for new schools. Also charter school networks last year were permitted to manage their funds collectively, rather than keep separate funds in different accounts for each school, but that flexibility did not extend to adult high schools. House Bill 1438 would allow that.

The bill passed the committee 12-0 and will move next to the full House for a vote.

(NOTE: This story has been updated to correct estimated cost figures for the proposed civics test.)

Tennessee Votes 2018

Early voting begins Friday in Tennessee. Here’s where your candidates stand on education.

PHOTO: Creative Commons

Tennesseans begin voting on Friday in dozens of crucial elections that will culminate on Aug. 2.

Democrats and Republicans will decide who will be their party’s gubernatorial nominee. Those two individuals will face off in November to replace outgoing Republican Gov. Bill Haslam. Tennessee’s next governor will significantly shape public education, and voters have told pollsters that they are looking for an education-minded leader to follow Haslam.

In Memphis, voters will have a chance to influence schools in two elections, one for school board and the other for county commission, the top local funder for schools, which holds the purse strings for schools.

To help you make more informed decisions, Chalkbeat asked candidates in these four races critical questions about public education.

Here’s where Tennessee’s Democratic candidates for governor stand on education

Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and state Rep. Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley hope to become the state’s first Democratic governor in eight years.

Tennessee’s Republican candidates for governor answer the big questions on education

U.S. Rep. Diane Black, businessman Randy Boyd, Speaker of the House Beth Harwell, and businessman Bill Lee are campaigning to succeed fellow Republican Haslam as governor, but first they must defeat each other in the 2018 primary election.

Memphis school board candidates speak out on what they want to change

Fifteen people are vying for four seats on the Shelby County Schools board this year. That’s much higher stakes compared to two years ago when five seats were up for election with only one contested race.

Aspiring county leaders in charge of money for Memphis schools share their views

The Shelby County Board of Commissioners and county mayor are responsible for most school funding in Memphis. Chalkbeat sent a survey to candidates asking their thoughts on what that should look like.

Early voting runs Mondays through Saturdays until Saturday, July 28. Election Day is Thursday, Aug. 2.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.