Are Children Learning

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

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

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.)

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on, where this post first appeared.

newark notes

In Newark, a study about school changes rings true — and raises questions — for people who lived them

PHOTO: Naomi Nix
Park Elementary principal Sylvia Esteves.

A few years ago, Park Elementary School Principal Sylvia Esteves found herself fielding questions from angst-ridden parents and teachers.

Park was expecting an influx of new students because Newark’s new enrollment system allowed parents to choose a K-8 school for their child outside of their neighborhood. That enrollment overhaul was one of many reforms education leaders have made to Newark Public Schools since 2011 in an effort to expand school choice and raise student achievement.

“What’s it going to mean for overcrowding? Will our classes get so large that we won’t have the kind of success for our students that we want to have?” Esteves recalls educators and families asking.

Park’s enrollment did grow, by about 200 students, and class sizes swelled along with it, Esteves said. But for the last two years, the share of students passing state math and English tests has risen, too.

Esteves was one of several Newark principals, teachers, and parents who told Chalkbeat they are not surprised about the results of a recent study that found test scores dropped sharply in the years immediately following the changes but then bounced back. By 2016, it found Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011.

Funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and conducted by Harvard researchers, the study also found the reforms had no impact on student math scores.

And while many Newark families and school leaders agree with the study’s conclusion — that students are making more progress now — they had very different ideas about what may have caused the initial declines, and why English growth was more obvious than math.

Supported by $200 million in private philanthropy, former superintendent Cami Anderson and other New Jersey officials in 2011 sought to make significant changes to the education landscape in Newark, where one third of more than 50,000 students attend privately managed charter schools. Their headline-grabbing reforms included a new teachers union contract with merit-based bonuses; the universal enrollment system; closing some schools; expanding charter schools; hiring new principals; requiring some teachers to reapply for their jobs; and lengthening the day at some struggling schools.

Brad Haggerty, the district’s chief academic officer, said the initial drop in student performance coincided with the district’s introduction of a host of changes: new training materials, evaluations, and curricula aligned to the Common Core standards but not yet assessed by the state’s annual test. That was initially a lot for educators to handle at once, he said, but teacher have adjusted to the changes and new standards.

“Over time our teaching cadre, our faculty across the entire district got stronger,” said Haggerty, who arrived as a special assistant to the superintendent in 2011.

But some in Newark think the district’s changes have had longer-lasting negative consequences.

“We’ve had a lot of casualties. We lost great administrators, teachers,” said Bashir Akinyele, a Weequahic High School history teacher. “There have been some improvements but there were so many costs.”

Those costs included the loss of veteran teachers who were driven out by officials’ attempts to change teacher evaluations and make changes to schools’ personnel at the same time, according to Sheila Montague, a former school board candidate who spent two decades teaching in Newark Public Schools before losing her position during the changes.

“You started to see experienced, veteran teachers disappearing,” said Montague, who left the school system after being placed in the district’s pool of educators without a job in a school. “In many instances, there were substitute teachers in the room. Of course, the delivery of instruction wasn’t going to even be comparable.”

The district said it retains about 95 percent of its highly-rated teachers.

As for why the study found that Newark’s schools were seeing more success improving English skills than math, it’s a pattern that Esteves, the Park Elementary principal, says she saw firsthand.

While the share of students who passed the state English exam at Park rose 13 percentage points between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, the share of students who were proficient in math only rose 3 percentage points in that time frame.

“[Math is] where we felt we were creeping up every year, but not having a really strong year,” she said. “I felt like there was something missing in what we were doing that could really propel the children forward.”

To improve Park students’ math skills, Esteves asked teachers to assign “math exemplars,” twice-a-month assignments that probed students’ understanding of concepts. Last year, Park’s passing rate on the state math test jumped 12 percentage points, to 48 percent.

While Newark students have made progress, families and school leaders said they want to the district to make even more gains.

Test scores in Newark “have improved, but they are still not where they are supposed to be,” said Demetrisha Barnes, whose niece attends KIPP Seek Academy. “Are they on grade level? No.”

Chalkbeat is expanding to Newark, and we’re looking for a reporter to lead our efforts there. Think it should be you? Apply here.