Building Better Schools

It looks like far fewer Indiana schools could earn an A after ISTEP changes

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Gov. Mike Pence and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz reached an agreement on how to handle a predicted drop in ISTEP passing rates for 2015.

It looks like ISTEP scores will dip considerably when they are released, probably later this year, and one result could be a sharp drop in the number of A-grades schools earn, paired with a big spike in the number of schools that earn D- or F-grades.

That’s what estimates from the Indiana Department of Education show now that the Indiana State Board of Education has set the passing cut-off scores for the ISTEP exams, which are the backbone of the school grading system.

The passing scores are expected to result in big drops for number of students passing ISTEP — down 16 percentage points in English and 24 percentage points in math. Using the passing rates on the 2014 ISTEP test, and the corresponding letter grades for schools, as a guide, drops that big could have a dramatic effect on school grades in 2015, education department spokesman Daniel Altman said.

On average, a 20 percentage point drop in ISTEP scores could move the state from almost 54 percent of schools earning A’s last year to as few as 7 percent earning an A for 2015. Consequently, D’s and F’s could rise from about 8 percent and 5 percent last year to just over 27 percent for both in 2015. School grades aren’t expected to be released until early 2016.

Today, the state board quickly approved the cut-off scores for the 2015 exam, which students took last March and May. The approval vote had been expected at a meeting earlier this month but was postponed at the last minute.

At the board’s Oct. 16 meeting, questions were raised about whether there was a difference between the difficulty of the paper version of  ISTEP, which fewer students took, and the online version that most students took. Board members were concerned that the paper version was easier and that the scores needed to be adjusted to equate to the online test. So the board called for an expert evaluation.

The expert report said there was a difference that will require an adjustment. But the work to make that adjustment can go on as the state prepares the scores for release. The board will discuss the adjustment at its Nov. 4 meeting.

Superintendent Glenda Ritz said the big drops in the number of students passing ISTEP were expected. She said she is planning to work with Gov. Mike Pence and legislators to soften the blow that otherwise could fall on teachers and schools, which must raise ISTEP scores or face sanctions such as pay freezes or state takeover.

Pence on Tuesday reversed his past opposition to softening accountability for a “transition year” as the state adjusts to a new, tougher ISTEP. He now says he favors an adjustment to the state’s accountability system so teachers aren’t unfairly penalized if their students’ test scores fall by big margins that are in line with a statewide decline.

“For quite some time I have been talking about Indiana will probably experience a drop in performance as a result of a more rigorous assessment,” Ritz said. “So I’m actually looking forward to the conversations with members of the General Assembly about what kind of flexibility Indiana might want to partake in to actually give relief for assigning of the grades this year.”

Pence said he hoped to help craft new state laws to ease testing sanctions on teachers, but it’s not clear exactly how that would work or whether schools would also get relief if their A-to-F grades drop.

Two key legislative leaders, House education committee chairman Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, and Senate education committee chairman Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, said earlier this week that they didn’t support a “pause” in the state’s accountability system. The state board has been similarly opposed to such a move.

Ritz has long championed pausing accountability. She has argued the state could skip accountability for a year by not assigning grades or enforcing sanctions, or it could hold schools “harmless” by only releasing school grades for 2015 if they are the same or better than in 2014.

If any part of the state’s accountability system changed, it would have to be approved by the U.S. Department of Education, Altman said, because Indiana has agreed to maintain accountability as part of an agreement that provides a waiver for the state from penalties from the federal No Child Left Behind law. Federal education officials have signaled a willingness to allow such flexibility in recent months.

But board member Gordon Hendry said Indiana students are still showing progress based on newly released scores on the National Assessment for Educational Progress at the same time ISTEP scores are expected to come in much lower. Indiana did as well or better than 2013 on NAEP when it came to math and reading scores. It also outranked most other states, most notably in fourth grade math where Indiana ranked fourth.

“Despite some of the bumps and starts and stops of what’s happened in Indiana education over the last few years, we are seeing significant progress,” Hendry said.”We’re seeing continued success and even improvement in our classrooms.”

Building Better Schools

How a new principal led her neighborhood school to the biggest ISTEP gains in Indianapolis Public Schools

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 39 had the largest jump in passing rates on the state math and English tests in the district.

Breakfast at School 39 was a little bit hectic on a recent Wednesday, as staff urged kids to eat their bananas, yogurts and cereal.

But principal Stacy Coleman was calm as she stood among the tables of kindergartners and first graders. “Big bites now,” she said, as the bell approached.

Coleman is in her second year as principal of School 39, also known as William McKinley, a traditional neighborhood school on the edge of Fountain Square. In Coleman’s first year of leadership, the school achieved an unusual feat: Passing rate on both the math and English ISTEP climbed to 28 percent in 2017, up 9.7 percentage points over the prior year — the biggest jump of any school in Indianapolis Public Schools.

That progress caught the eye of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, who highlighted McKinley as a school the district could learn from.

“We hired a great new leader,” said Ferebee. “She’s really focused on the culture of the school and using data to inform instruction.”

A Michigan native, Coleman has been an educator for seven years. She joined IPS three years ago as assistant principal at School 31, also known as James A. Garfield, a neighborhood school two miles from the campus she now leads.

Chalkbeat sat down with Coleman to talk about School 39 and the school’s remarkable jump in passing rates. Below is an excerpt from our conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

What’s your school community like here?

We are a working-class neighborhood. Our families are working class — very supportive parents. Teachers call, they answer. They are up here. They care about their child’s well-being.

The neighborhood around us is changing. Gentrification is occurring, and it’s moving fast. However, we have not seen a change in our population of students yet.

We canvas the neighborhood quite often, me and my parent involvement educator. A lot of people we’ve talked to don’t have kids, and if they do have kids, they are not school-age yet.

You guys had this big bump in your test scores — the biggest in the district. What did you think when you saw that?

I felt so filled with emotion because I saw all the hard work that my teachers were doing, and I saw what we were doing with the kids. It just was nice to see the gains from the hard work.

You’re seeing the flowers that you’ve planted.

What do you think led to this big jump in test scores?

We really focused on making this a positive and safe environment for our students — and our staff. Changing staff morale, changing student morale and motivation.

We focused on empowering our teachers and putting that ownership on them.

What did you do to empower your teachers?

Allowing for professional learning community meetings to be teacher directed. It’s not like a staff meeting. It’s teachers talking and collaborating with each other, being transparent in our teaching practices, opening the doors of our classroom for other teachers to come in.

We did instructional rounds. Teachers went into other classrooms and observed a problem of practice and debriefed about those and put specific strategies into their classrooms.

As a teacher, I found a lot of power in those professional learning community meetings because that was when you got to delve into the numbers. You delve into the data and really understand how your students are doing.

Was there anything you feel like you stole from the last school you were at where you were assistant principal?

We do a lot of positive behavior interventions and supports here at William McKinley. We did a lot of them at James A. Garfield. We amped them up, last year and again this year.

Like, this year, we have Coleman cash. Every day a student is nominated by their teacher, and they get to go to the front of the lunch line. They get to sit at a special table in the cafeteria with a tablecloth and a centerpiece. They also get to invite a friend. They get to talk when everybody else is silent. All those good things.

On Friday, for staff, we are going to be superheroes. Then we take a picture, and classes are going to vote on them.

The students get to see us enjoying ourselves, and it’s a little bit of a fun Friday.

We’re just making it a great place to work and a great place to learn for our students.

Educator diversity

Aurora Public Schools’ principals more racially diverse this year, but district still lagging behind

File photo of kindergarten students at Laredo Elementary in Aurora.

In the most diverse city in Colorado, school district officials have struggled to hire and retain principals of color.

The issue isn’t unique to Aurora Public Schools. But one change made three years ago to how Aurora hires principals is now slowly increasing diversity among school leaders, officials say.

The revamped hiring process wasn’t aimed at increasing diversity, but rather at increasing quality and minimizing biased or preferential hiring decisions, officials say.

“Systems that are more likely to have bias are less likely to have diversity,” said John Youngquist, Aurora’s chief academic officer. “Systems that are engaging these kinds of processes that allow people to demonstrate behaviors they’ve practiced over time, are ones that allow those high quality candidates to get to the top. I know is this is a practice that increases the level of diversity.”

This fall, 10 percent of Aurora principals are black, and 14 percent are Hispanic, up from 9 percent that were black and 7 percent that were Hispanic last year.

It’s an improvement, but the numbers still represent a gap with the diversity in the district and in the city. Eighteen percent of Aurora Public Schools students are black and more than 50 percent are Hispanic. The city of Aurora has similar demographics, according to the most recent U.S. Census estimates.

State data tracking both principals and assistant principals by race showed the Aurora district had lower percentages of school leaders who were black or Hispanic in 2016 than in 2013. Numbers for the current school year are not yet available.

This year, the numbers of teachers who are not white are smaller and farther from representing the student or community demographics than they are for principals.

Research has shown that students of color benefit from having teachers of color. Having diverse and highly qualified principals helps leaders in turn attract and hire high quality and diverse teachers, Youngquist said.

Aurora superintendent Rico Munn said that increasing diversity is a priority but said he isn’t sure how many educators of color Aurora schools should aspire to have.

“For our workforce to mirror the community, I don’t know that there’s enough educators in the state,” Munn said.

Elizabeth Meyer, associate professor of education and associate dean for undergraduate and teacher education at CU Boulder, said all districts should be striving to see an upward trend in the numbers, not necessarily trying to reach a certain percentage as a goal.

She said that issues in diversifying teachers and principal pools are similar, but that teachers of color who are supported can be the ones who can then go on and become principals.

“We’re already limited because teaching demographics are overwhelmingly white women,” Meyer said. “We do need to find ways to make teaching a more desirable profession, especially for people of color.”

Meyer said that while there are nationwide and statewide issues to be addressed, districts need to incentivize teachers by paying higher wages, create environments that are inclusive for teachers already in the district and have visible leaders of color.

“It’s not enough to just want to recruit people in,” Meyer said. “Retention is the other part of the problem.”

When Youngquist’s office led the change in how the Aurora district hires principals, the focus was to increase the quality of school leaders and remove bias that could allow a person to be invited into the process “just with a tap on the shoulder,” he said.

The new process requires a team of district leaders and other principals to observe candidates as they are asked to model practices through scenarios and demonstrations of situations they’re likely to confront as principals.

Yolanda Greer, principal of Aurora’s Vista Peak Exploratory was one of the first to go through that new hiring process three years ago.

Yolanda Greer, principal of Vista Peak Exploratory in Aurora.

“I will tell you at the end of it I certainly felt like I had been through a triathalon of some sorts,” Greer said. “But I do recall saying at every point, ‘I’m so impressed. I’m so appreciative that APS is taking the thoughtfulness that went behind creating this process to make sure we have leaders that are prepared.’ It made me want to be here even more.”

Speaking at a community meeting last month, Munn said the neighboring districts of Denver and Cherry Creek can offer more money, so Aurora must focus on other appeals to hire and retain diverse educators.

“We have to think about what’s the right atmosphere or what’s the right way that we can recruit or retain people in a way that makes them want to be part of what we’re doing here in APS,” Munn said. “Our ultimate winning advantage there is that we have a strong connection to the community. We also demonstrate to potential staff members that we are a district that has momentum. We are a district where there is opportunity. We are a district that can truly impact the community that we serve.”

Greer said she felt that draw to Aurora long before she applied for the principal position.

“I think because there was a public perception that Aurora was an underdog,” Greer said. “It’s a great opportunity to not only impact the school but the district and community.”

Though Aurora district officials are happy with how the principal process is playing out, they started working with a Virginia-based consultant last year to look at all hiring practices in the district. Munn said part of that work will include looking at whether the district is doing enough to increase diversity.

Like most school districts, Aurora has sent officials to recruit new educators from Historically Black Colleges and Hispanic Serving Institutions.

One thing that Greer said is in a district’s control is allowing a culture where issues of inequity can be discussed. In Aurora, she said she feels comfortable raising issues of student equity if she sees them.

For her, seeing other people of color in leadership positions in the district, including the superintendent, also made her feel welcome.

“In Aurora when I walk into leadership meetings, there’s a lot of people that look like me, so there’s that connectivity,” Greer said. “There’s open conversations and people listen.”

Earlier this year, Greer was reminded of the impact that leaders of color can have when her elementary students were asked to dress up for the job they hoped to have when they grew up.

Several of the students came to school dressed as their principal, Greer said.

“I want to make sure students of color can see someone that looks like them,” she said. “When they can see me in the specific role in education and they can say, ‘Wow, that can be something admirable and I want to aspire to that,’ it’s a big deal.”