Are Children Learning

Senators back a bill that could end Indiana's testing woes — by dumping ISTEP

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Frustrations with repeated problems with ISTEP have lawmakers looking for solutions.

If Republicans in the Indiana Senate get their way, Hoosiers will never have to fight about ISTEP again.

That’s because Senate Bill 566, which passed the Senate Education Committee today 7-3, would end the state’s tradition of hiring an outside company to create a test just for Indiana, instead requiring the state to use an “off-the-shelf” exam used by several states, such as Iowa Test of Basics Skills or the ACT.

Senate Bill 566, authored by Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, and Sen. Ryan Mishler, R-Bremen, would stop the process of creating a new ISTEP for 2016, instead letting the state use a national test that year. It also would eliminate high school end-of-course exams, starting in 2015-16, and the state’s third-grade reading test, IREAD.

The committee vote, which sends the bill to the Senate Appropriations Committee, came as Gov. Mike Pence and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz clashed this week over how much time students would spend taking ISTEP this year.

“I think this big blowup about the length of the ISTEP test helps show why we need to have 566,” Kenley said.

The committee also passed a second bill about testing, Senate Bill 470, which proposes that schools receiving vouchers be allowed to opt-out of ISTEP to instead use any national test. That bill, authored by Sen. Scott Schneider, R-Indianapolis, also passed 7-3.

Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, voted no on both bills. She said she was confused about why Indiana would change to a national test after so much fuss was made over writing a “Hoosier-specific” test. The inconsistency, not the test itself, is what bothered her, she said.

“We lose our focus here in terms of where we need to go and some paths we need to follow in order to make certain our young people achieve and our teachers are satisfied,” she said.

Schneider said his bill frees up private schools that accept publicly-funded tuition vouchers for poor children from having to adjust curriculum or programming because of demands from ISTEP.

“I really think it’s an effort to save school choice,” Schneider said. “Because what we’re getting when you dictate a homogenized test, you remove any differentiation from a private school and a charter or public school, and the whole point of choice is to give people choices.”

But Sen. Mark Stoops, D-Bloomington, and other Democratic lawmakers, voted against the bill, saying it should apply to all the state’s schools.

“I just don’t understand why this can’t apply to all public schools in the state of Indiana,” Stoops said. “I don’t understand why we’re focused on voucher schools.”

Kenley said he was unhappy with the Indiana Department of Education’s presentation to the State Budget Committee in December, which showed writing new state tests to match the state’s new more rigorous academic standards could cost about twice as much as what it has cost to give state tests in the past — estimates range between $65 million and $72 million. Given the high cost of a test tailored for Indiana, he said, the state needed a new option to consider.

Kenley said using a national test would not only be cheaper, but it would let Indiana compare its students to those across the nation, which could be helpful to students who want to apply to private or elite colleges.

Although no specific test has been chosen yet, Kenley said, there are a number of options, including one from the Northwest Evaluation Association, which many Indiana schools already give.

At last week’s Senate Education Committee hearing on the bill, John Barnes, spokesman for Glenda Ritz and the Indiana Department of Education, said Ritz supported Senate Bill 566.

“I think 566 becomes the vehicle whereby we kind of solve this problem and reach an agreeable compromise on this,” Kenley said. “The reason why this test is so long is because standards would change and everything becomes more complicated, and this is what it takes to satisfy what we have here.”

Senate Bill 470 for private schools receiving vouchers did not have Ritz’s support, Barnes said. He said Ritz worries that loosening requirements on schools receiving tax dollars is risky and having those schools taking different tests than everyone else would be confusing.

“There can be no equivalent assessment that can be used for school accountability,” Barnes said. “When you are evaluating two entities, you have to use the same exact measurement.”

Both bills will next be heard by the Senate Appropriations Committee, which will consider the cost of the bills to the state budget.

The committee voted on five other bills, all of which also will be sent to the Appropriations Committee.

  • Deregulation, Senate Bill 500. The committee passed 7-4 a 300-page bill aimed at reducing regulations on schools. The bill’s author, Sen. Pete Miller, R-Avon, said he removed nearly all of the sections of the bill that were connected to issues that were raised when the bill was discussed two weeks ago. That included 27 sections addressing student health care, school safety and worker safety reporting, tax issues and more.
  • Civics test, Senate Bill 269The bill passed committee 7-3, and would require students take a civics test starting in 2016-17 to graduate from high school. Students must score at least 60 percent to pass, and they may take the test any time between grades 8 and 12.
  • School counseling grant, Senate Bill 271. This bill, which passed committee 10-0, would establish a grant to help school counselors obtain certificates to better help them prepare students for college and jobs after high school. The grant would be funded by money set aside by the General Assembly.
  • Alternative education, Senate Bill 310. This bill, authored by Sen. Jim Merritt, R-Indianapolis, passed 10-0 and would require that schools separate discipline data by race, gender, free and reduced-price lunch percentage, disability percentage and grade level, which would help the state have a better understanding of what students are being suspended or expelled. It would also redirect state aid from a school to an alternative education fund for students who are expelled.
  • Scholarships and grants, Senate Bill 509The bill, which passed 10-0, would allow the Commission on Higher Education to ask the state to transfer money among scholarship and grant funds to meet the needs of students.

New research

From an ‘F’ to an ‘A’, Tennessee now sets high expectations for students, says Harvard study

PHOTO: Lisegagne/Getty Images

Criticized for setting low expectations for students just a decade ago, Tennessee has dramatically raised the bar for standards that now rank among the top in the nation, according to a new analysis from Harvard University.

The state earned an “A” for its 2017 proficiency standards in a study released Tuesday by the same researchers who gave Tennessee an “F” in that category in 2009.

The researchers have been tracking state proficiency standards since 2006. Their latest analysis focused on changes since 2009 when, like Tennessee, most states began adopting Common Core academic standards, then began retreating one by one from the nationally endorsed benchmarks.

Did the exodus from a consistent set of standards cause states to lower expectations for students? The researchers say no.

“Our research shows that most all the states have actually improved their standards, and Tennessee has probably improved the most because its standards were so low in the past,” said Paul Peterson, who co-authored the analysis with Daniel Hamlin.

The grades are based on the difference between the percentages of students deemed proficient on state tests and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, the exam administered by the U.S. Department of Education to measure what students know in math and English language arts. The narrower the proficiency gap between those tests, the higher the grade a state received.

Tennessee’s 2009 proficiency gap was 63 percent, an amount that Peterson called “ridiculous” and “the worst in the country” compared to 37 percent nationally.

In 2017, Tennessee’s gap narrowed to less than 3 percent, compared to 9 percent nationally, under revised standards that reached classrooms last fall after the state exited the Common Core brand.

“It’s a dramatic improvement,” Peterson said of Tennessee’s work to align its standards with national expectations.

Interestingly, in other states, the study found virtually no relationship between rising proficiency standards and test score growth — a finding that the researchers called “disheartening.”

“The one exception was Tennessee,” Peterson said of the state’s academic gains on NAEP since 2011. “It has not only raised its standards dramatically, it saw some student gains over the same period.”

Since 2010, higher academic standards has been an integral part of Tennessee’s long-term plan for improving public education. The other two components are an aligned state assessment and across-the-board accountability systems for students, teachers and schools, including a controversial policy to include student growth from standardized test scores in teacher evaluations.

Tennessee poured millions of federal dollars from its 2010 Race to the Top award into training teachers on its new standards. The process began in 2012 with large-scale Common Core trainings and shifted last year to regional trainings aimed at equipping local educators to prepare their peers back home for Tennessee’s revised standards.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Karyn Bailey (left), a facilitator from Williamson County Schools, coaches elementary school teachers during a 2017 exercise on Tennessee’s revised standards for English language arts as part of a two-day training at La Vergne High School, one of 11 training sites across the state.

Implementation really matters. You can’t just make the shift on paper,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, who will take part in a panel discussion on the study’s findings Tuesday in Washington, D.C. “You have to do the hard work to implement it on the ground. And that is a long game.”

The Harvard study comes on the heels of a separate but related report by pro-Common Core group Achieve that says Tennessee is essentially being more honest in how its students are doing academically. The state was called out in 2007 by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce because Tennessee tests showed students doing well, while national tests reported otherwise.

Both analyses come as Tennessee tries to regroup after a problem-plagued return to statewide online testing this spring.

While supporters of Tennessee’s current policy agenda fear that headaches with the state’s standardized test could undo the policies it may be getting right, Peterson said a study like Harvard’s can provide a birds-eye view.

“What happens over a period of years is a better way to look at how a state is doing,” he said, “because things can fluctuate from one year to the next.”

The Harvard research is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. (Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news organization and also receives funding from both foundations. You can find the list of our supporters here and learn more about Chalkbeat here.)

'indigenized' curriculum

Denver doesn’t graduate half of its Native American students. This charter school wants to change that

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Tanski Chrisjohn gets help adjusting the microphone at a school board meeting from Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

The Denver school district is not serving Native American students well. Fewer than one in four Native American sixth-graders were reading and writing on grade-level last year, according to state tests, and the high school graduation rate was just 48 percent.

Even though that percentage is lower than for black or Latino students, educator Terri Bissonette said it often feels as if no one is paying attention.

“Nobody says anything out loud,” said Bissonette, a member of the Gnoozhekaaning Anishinaabe tribe who graduated from Denver Public Schools and has worked in education for 20 years as a teacher and consultant. “We’re always listed as ‘others.’”

Bissonette aims to change that by opening a charter school called the American Indian Academy of Denver. The plan is to start in fall 2019 with 120 students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades and then expand into high school one grade at a time. Any interested student will be able to enroll, no matter their racial or ethnic background.

The Denver school board unanimously and enthusiastically approved the charter last week – which is notable given enrollment growth is slowing districtwide and some board members have expressed concerns about approving too many new schools.

But the American Indian Academy of Denver would be unlike any other school in the city. The curriculum would focus on science, technology, engineering, art, and math – or STEAM, as it’s known – and lessons would be taught through an indigenous lens.

Bissonette gives a poignant example. In sixth grade, state academic standards dictate students learn how European explorers came to North America.

“When you’re learning that unit, you’re on the boat,” Bissonette said. “I’d take that unit and I’d flip it. You’d be on the beach, and those boats would be coming.”

Antonio Garcia loves that example. The 17-year-old cites it when talking about why the school would be transformational for Native American youth, a population that has historically been forced – sometimes violently – to assimilate into white culture. For decades, Native American children were sent to boarding schools where their hair was cut and their languages forbidden.

Garcia is a member of the Jicarilla Apache, Diné, Mexikah, and Maya people. A senior at Denver’s East High School, he recalls elementary school classmates asking if he lived in a teepee and teachers singling him out to share the indigenous perspective on that day’s lesson.

“Indigenous students don’t have a place in Denver Public Schools,” Garcia said. “We’re underrepresented. And when we are represented, it’s through tokenism.”

According to the official student count, 592 of Denver’s nearly 93,000 students this year are Native American. That’s less than 1 percent, although Bissonette suspects the number is actually higher because some families don’t tick the box for fear of being stigmatized or because they identify as both Native American and another race.

The district does provide extra support for Native American students. Four full-time and three part-time staff members coordinate mentorships, cultural events, college campus visits, and other services, according to district officials. In addition, five Denver schools are designated as Native American “focus schools.” The focus schools are meant to centralize the enrollment of Native American students, in part so they feel less isolated, officials said.

But it isn’t working that way. While the number of students at some of the schools is slightly higher than average, there isn’t a large concentration at any one of them. Supporters of the American Indian Academy of Denver hope the charter will serve that role.

“It’s very hard being the only Native person that my friends know,” second-grader Vivian Sheely told the school board last week. “It would be nice to see other families that look like my own.”

That sense of belonging is what Shannon Subryan wants for her children, too. Subryan and her daughters are members of the Navajo and Lakota tribes. Her 7-year-old, Cheyenne, has struggled to find a school that works for her. Because Cheyenne is quiet in class, Subryan said teachers have repeatedly suggested she be tested for learning disabilities.

“Our children are taught that listening before speaking is more valued than speaking right away,” Subryan said. “She understands everything. It’s just a cultural thing.”

After switching schools three times, Cheyenne ended up at a Denver elementary with a teacher who shares her Native American and Latina heritage. She’s thrived there, but Subryan worries what will happen when Cheyenne gets a new teacher next year. As soon as Cheyenne is old enough, Subryan plans to enroll her at the American Indian Academy of Denver.

In addition to the school’s “indigenized” curriculum, Bissonette envisions inviting elders into the classrooms to share stories and act as academic tutors, exposing students to traditional sports and games, and teaching them Native American languages. Above all, she said the school will work to hire high-quality teachers, whether they’re Native American or not.

The school is partly modeled on a successful charter school in New Mexico called the Native American Community Academy. Opened in 2006, it has a dual focus on academic rigor and student wellness. Last year, 71 percent of its graduates immediately enrolled in college, school officials said. In Denver, only 38 percent of Native American graduates immediately enrolled.

Several years ago, the New Mexico school launched a fellowship program for educators who want to open their own schools focused on better serving Native American students. Bissonette will be the first Colorado educator to be a fellow when she starts this year.

She and her founding board of directors are hoping to open the American Indian Academy of Denver in a private facility somewhere in southwest Denver. That region is home to the Denver Indian Center and has historically had a larger population of Native American families.

However, she said she and her board members realize the Native American population isn’t big enough to support a school alone. More than half of all Denver students are Latino, and they expect the school’s demographics to reflect that. Many Latino students also identify as indigenous, and Bissonette is confident they’ll be attracted to the model.

“This really is a school from us, about us,” she said.