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.

More autonomy

These Denver schools want to join the district’s ‘innovation zone’ or form new zones

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
McAuliffe Manual Middle School students at a press conference about test scores in August 2017. The school has signaled its intent to be part of a new innovation zone.

Thirteen Denver schools have signaled their desire to become more autonomous by joining the district’s first “innovation zone” or by banding together to form their own zones. The schools span all grade levels, and most of the thirteen are high-performing.

Innovation zones are often described as a “third way” to govern public schools. The four schools in Denver’s first zone, created in 2016, have more autonomy than traditional district-run schools but less than charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Denver Public Schools recently released applications for schools to join the first zone, called the Luminary Learning Network, or to form new zones. The school district, which at 92,600 students is Colorado’s largest, is nationally known for nurturing a “portfolio” of different school types and for encouraging entrepreneurship among its school principals.

The district is offering two options to schools that want to form new zones. One option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen not by the district but by a nonprofit organization. That’s how the Luminary Learning Network is set up.

Another, slightly less autonomous option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen by the district. “Some additional autonomies would be available to these schools, but many decisions would still be made by the district,” the district’s website says.

One tangible difference between the two: The principals of schools in zones overseen by the district would answer to district administrators, while the principals of schools in zones overseen by nonprofit organizations would be hired and fired by the nonprofits’ boards of directors.

Schools in both types of zones would have more control over their budgets. A key flexibility enjoyed by the four schools in the Luminary Learning Network has been the ability to opt out of certain district services and use that money to buy things that meet their students’ specific needs, such as a full-time psychologist or another special education teacher. The zone schools would like even more financial freedom, though, and are re-negotiating with the district.

The district has extended the same budgetary flexibility to the schools in Denver’s three “innovation management organizations,” or IMOs, which are networks of schools with “innovation status.”

Innovation status was created by a 2008 state law. It allows district-run schools to do things like set their own calendars and choose their own curriculum by waiving certain state and district rules. The same law allows innovation schools to join together to form innovation zones.

The difference between an innovation zone and an innovation management organization is that schools in innovation zones have the opportunity for even greater autonomy, with zones governed by nonprofit organizations poised to have the most flexibility.

The deadline for schools to file “letters of intent” to apply to join an innovation zone or form a new one was Feb. 15. Leaders of the three innovation management organizations applied to form zones of their own.

One of them – a network comprised of McAuliffe International and McAuliffe Manual middle schools – has signaled its intent to join forces with an elementary school and a high school in northeast Denver to form a new, four-school zone.

Three elementary schools – Valdez, High Tech, and Swigert – submitted multiple intent letters.

Amy Gile, principal of High Tech, said in an email that her school submitted a letter of intent to join the Luminary Learning Network and a separate letter to be part of a new zone “so that we are able to explore all options available in the initial application process. We plan to make a decision about what best meets the needs of our community prior to the application deadline.”

The application deadline is in April. There are actually two: Innovation management organizations that want to become innovation zones must file applications by April 4, and schools that want to form new zones have until April 20 to turn in their applications.

Here’s a list of the schools that filed letters of intent.

Schools that want to join the Luminary Learning Network:

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College High School
Valdez Elementary School
High Tech Elementary School

Schools that want to form new innovation zones overseen by nonprofits:

McAuliffe International School
McAuliffe Manual Middle School
Northfield High School
Swigert International School
These four schools want to form a zone called the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone.

McGlone Academy
John Amesse Elementary School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Montbello Children’s Network.

Grant Beacon Middle School
Kepner Beacon Middle School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Beacon Network Schools IMO I-Zone.

Schools that want to form a new innovation zone overseen by the district:

High Tech Elementary School
Isabella Bird Community School
Valdez Elementary School
Swigert International School
DCIS at Ford
These five schools want to form a zone called the Empower Zone.

First Responder

Jeffco’s superintendent has some ideas about preventing school shootings — and none of them involve gun control or armed teachers

Jeffco superintendent Jason Glass at the Boys & Girls in Lakewood (Marissa Page, Chalkbeat).

Superintendent Jason Glass of the Jefferson County school district isn’t interested in talking about gun control in the wake of yet another deadly school shooting.

Home of Columbine High School, Jefferson County is no stranger to these tragedies or their aftermath, and Glass doesn’t think calls for restricting firearms will get any more traction this time than they have before. Nor is he interested in talking about arming teachers, a proposal he considers just as much of a political dead end.

“A solution is only a solution if we can actually enact it,” Glass wrote in a blog post published Monday. “We are not able to get either of these solutions passed into law so they have no impact.”

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to talk about, he wrote. Glass lays out four ideas that he sees as more politically feasible and that might make a difference:

  • Put trained, armed law enforcement officials in every school
  • Increase funding and support for school mental health services
  • Create a federally funded center to study school safety and security
  • Change the layout of and access to school buildings to make them safer, much the way we’ve renovated airports, stadiums, and other public facilities

Glass describes these measures as “proactive, preventative, and reactive steps that would make a big impact in making our schools much safer than they are today.”

Some schools and districts already have an armed police presence on campus or offer mental health services, but Glass argues these efforts need more money, more support, and more cohesion.

“These solutions need to come from the federal level to create the scale and impact we really need,” he wrote. “Congress and the President need to act and now. … Flexibility and deference can be built into these solutions to accommodate differences across states and communities – but we have a national crisis on our hands and we have to start acting like it.”

Of course, even studying something, as Glass envisions this new center on school safety doing, can be political. Since 1996, the federal government, at the urging of the National Rifle Association, has placed tight restrictions on the ability of the Centers for Disease Control to study gun violence as a public health issue.

The blog post provoked a vigorous debate in the comments. Some called on Glass to join the national movement demanding more restrictions on firearms. This is not a time for “half measures,” one woman wrote.

Others said that turning schools into “fortresses” would work against their educational mission and questioned how well school resource officers could be trained to respond appropriately to students with special needs – or how fair the district-level threat assessment process is.

In the wake of another school shooting at Arapahoe High School in 2013, one largely forgotten outside the state, Colorado legislators passed a law that holds schools liable for missing warning signs in troubled students.

In an interview with Colorado Public Radio, Bill Woodward, a former police officer who trains schools in how to prevent violence, said more schools are doing threat assessments. But their success may require schools to take even more seriously the idea that their own students might be dangerous.

“I think the biggest barrier is the climate of the school, because I think sometimes schools are just thinking in terms of working with students, helping students out,” Woodward told CPR. “And sometimes when you’re looking at someone who’s made a threat, you have to change to the Secret Service model.”

Woodward said a more comprehensive solution may involve gun control. Schools can’t afford to wait, though.

“There is no silver bullet, speaking metaphorically, but I think gun law changes may well be needed,” he said. “I just think we have to do what we can do now, and we can do things now.”