Future of Schools

Senate defeats civics test bill, grapples with future of ISTEP

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Both of these bills are coming from lawmakers who are part of the Senate Education Committee.

Indiana students might be off the hook from a proposal asking they pass a civics test to graduate from high school after a bill to require it was defeated in the state Senate.

Senate Bill 269, authored by Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, would have required all Indiana graduates to pass the same civics test that new U.S. citizens are required to pass. The bill was originally intended only for public schools, but was amended Monday to include students at private schools accepting vouchers as well.

But it couldn’t muster enough votes in the heavily Republican Senate to pass. It was defeated 33-17.

Lawmakers opposed to the bill said it would have increased testing time in a session where a major goal has been to reduce it.

But Kruse argued it was reasonable to ask students to have knowledge of the U.S. and its history that immigrants are asked to know upon becoming citizens. A one-hour test that students have five years to pass, he said, wouldn’t add a burden to schools and existing testing demands.

“I think this one hour will be appropriate for us to at least have our kids know something about civics,” Kruse said.

Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, and others who objected said a civics test that can block graduation was going too far.

“I would agree with you that we absolutely need people to know what the laws are … and I wouldn’t mind a test,” she said at the appropriations committee meeting last week. “But for that test to be one that would determine whether or not a student would graduate, for me that is, the stakes are too high.”

The Senate also took up the wider question of what exams should serve as the state test, with somewhat confusing results.

As costs for ISTEP have grown — the Indiana Department of Education estimates a new, more sophisticated exam matched to new standards with higher expectations could cost up to 45 percent more per year — some lawmakers have looked for an alternative plan.

One idea is to replace ISTEP with a basic, national test like the Iowa Test of Basic Skills or a test created by the Northwest Education Association that some schools use to prepare for ISTEP. Two bills that passed have contradictory approaches to that idea.

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, in favor of using a national test in its place. The bill would eliminate high school end-of-course exams, starting in 2015-16, and the state’s third-grade reading test, IREAD. It passed the Senate 46-3.

Meanwhile, Senate Bill 470, authored by Sen. Scott Schneider, R-Indianapolis, would hold off on that plan in favor of a studying the future possibility of using such a test in place of ISTEP over the summer. It passed 45-5. The House will have to sort out the two approaches.

The Senate must finish its work this week on bills that will be considered in the House starting next month. Bills that passed today included:

  • Cursive writing, Senate Bill 130. The bill, authored by Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg, would require that all public and private elementary schools teach cursive writing, which was dropped as a requirement by the Indiana Department of Education in 2011. The Senate passed the bill 39-11.
  • Deregulation, Senate Bill 500. The 300-page bill was designed to reduce regulations on schools. The bill’s author, Sen. Pete Miller, R-Avon, said he removed nearly all of the sections of the bill that had raised concerns. That included 27 sections addressing student health care, school safety and worker safety reporting, tax issues and more. The bill passed 31-18.
  • Scholarships and grants, Senate Bill 509The bill 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. It passed the Senate 49-0.
  • Teacher collective bargaining, Senate Bill 538The bill, authored by Sen. Carlin Yoder, R-Middlebury, contains new rules that allow non-union organizations to represent teachers in contract negotiations as long as they are not primarily commercial companies. The Senate passed the bill 30-19.

'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.

COUNTING TNREADY

School boards across Tennessee scrap TNReady scores from students’ grades

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki

As the school year comes to a close following the standardized testing debacle that concluded in Tennessee this month, many school districts have decided the scores won’t count toward students’ final grades.

Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest district, will take up the issue Tuesday when the school board meets in a work session.

Earlier this year, the district was one of about half of the state’s school systems that reported to the state it likely would not use the scores because the results were not expected to be received at least five school days before the end of the year. But that early tally was unofficial.

“The survey was just to let us know what they were planning for so we could have a sense of what districts were planning on doing, but it was not binding in any way,” said Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.

Now, one by one, a growing number of districts are opting not to count the scores against students whenever the results are released.

This year’s online testing was plagued with a series of testing snafus, including login troubles, an apparent cyberattack, a dump truck cutting a fiber optic line and the wrong test being issued to some students. It’s the third year in a row that TNReady testing has gone wrong.

Bartlett City Schools decided during a special school board session last week not to use the scores on high school report cards after previously saying it would. So did the Franklin Special School District. The week before, Williamson County, Blount County, and Collierville school board members voted the same.

Millington Municipal Schools also will not be using the scores in that district’s final grades. But the district decided in December not to include the scores, said Stacy Ross, a spokesperson for the district.

“The decision was made because the scores from testing would not be back in time for final report cards,” Ross said in a statement to Chalkbeat.

It’s unclear of the 71 school districts that had initially said they planned to count the scores, how many have changed their minds.

Greene County is one of a few districts that has decided to count the scores as 15 percent of students’ final grades.

Before this year’s testing challenges, state law had required that the high school end-of-course exams count for 15 percent of a high school student’s final grade unless the scores came in too late for report cards.

But after the testing snafus, legislators left it in the hands of school boards to decide how much to count TNReady scores — if at all — toward students’ grades.

High school raw scores are expected to be delivered electronically to districts by May 22 and grades 3-8 scores are expected to be available by June 15, according to the state.