Are Children Learning

Lawmakers look to cut teachers a break, but not schools

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
State lawmakers promised some relief for teachers who worry a tougher ISTEP will affect their pay raises or bonuses.

Indiana lawmakers plan to move quickly to pass a new law designed to shield teachers from some of the sting of lower test scores, House Speaker Brian Bosma said today.

Pausing the A to F school letter grade system, however, is not something the state’s Republican leadership is considering, he said

Schools across the state this year have been bracing for lower ISTEP scores due to tougher standards that have made the test harder to pass.

But Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said teachers shouldn’t have to personally pay the price for those higher standards by seeing their evaluations suffer and their bonus pay compromised.

“At the very start of the session, we will expedite a decoupling of the teacher evaluation system from the accountability grades,” Bosma said at an Indiana Chamber of Commerce event today.

His remarks came ahead of Tuesday’s Organization Day at the Statehouse, which is a one-day ceremonial start to the 2016 legislative session. Work on bills begins in January and wraps up in March.

Senate President David Long, R-Fort Wayne, and Bosma both said A-F grades for schools will continue.

“I believe the teachers should not be penalized for the drop in scores,” Long said. “I don’t think that means we completely abandon accountability and outcomes for these scores.”

The Republican plan to change the law comes as Democrats, including State Superintendent Glenda Ritz, have called for a “pause” in school grades. Ritz has lobbied hard for 2015 grades to be changed only if a school’s ratings go up or stay the same when compared to 2014.

Last week, Sen. Mark Stoops, D-Bloomington, proposed a bill that would pause school accountability grades and “hold harmless” teachers’ evaluations that might suffer because of steep drops in students scores. He suggested the legislature pass it immediately on Organization Day, but Republican leaders didn’t embrace his ideas or his urgency.

The cutoff scores to pass ISTEP that were approved by the state board last month are projected to result in big drops in the number of students passing the exam. Passing rates are expected to sink an estimated 16 percentage points in English and 24 percentage points in math.

“We are not looking to dismantle the A-F system,” Bosma said. “Clearly there is attention that needs to be paid to it. The drop in scores was not unanticipated. Every state that has gone through this higher standards (transition) has gone through something similar. So we’ll survive.”

Other education bills that might be coming up this session include a measure to help school districts hire and keep teachers in the classroom.

Bosma said House Bill 1002 would focus on recruiting the “best and brightest young people to the education profession.”

“There is shortage of teachers in the classroom, like there are in 40 other states,” Bosma said, noting he plans to release details of the recruitment bill tomorrow.

School districts across the state have said they’re having difficulty recruiting teachers qualified to lead special education, math and science classes, according to previous Chalkbeat reports. There are enough licenced teachers in Indiana to fill open positions, but districts say the teachers looking for work don’t necessarily have the skills to fill available jobs.

“There’s no shortage of licensed teachers,” Bosma said. “There is a shortage of teachers in the classroom. We need to attract those best, brightest, and retain them in the classroom.”

more digging

Kingsbury High added to list of Memphis schools under investigation for grade changing

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Kingsbury High School was added to a list of schools being investigated by an outside firm for improper grade changes. Here, Principal Terry Ross was featured in a Shelby County Schools video about a new school budget tool.

Another Memphis high school has been added to the list of schools being investigated to determine if they made improper changes to student grades.

Adding Kingsbury High School to seven others in Shelby County Schools will further delay the report initially expected to be released in mid-June.

But from what school board Chairwoman Shante Avant has heard so far, “there haven’t been any huge irregularities.”

“Nothing has surfaced that gives me pause at this point,” Avant told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

The accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman is conducting the investigation.

This comes about three weeks after a former Kingsbury teacher, Alesia Harris, told school board members that Principal Terry Ross instructed someone to change 17 student exam grades to 100 percent — against her wishes.

Shelby County Schools said the allegations were “inaccurate” and that the grade changes were a mistake that was self-reported by an employee.

“The school administration immediately reported, and the central office team took the necessary actions and promptly corrected the errors,” the district said in a statement.

Chalkbeat requested a copy of the district’s own initial investigation the day after Harris spoke at the board’s June meeting, but district officials said they likely would not have a response for Chalkbeat until July 27.

Harris said that no one from Dixon Hughes Goodman has contacted her regarding the investigation as of Thursday.

The firm’s investigation initially included seven schools. Kingsbury was not among them. Those seven schools are:

  • Kirby High
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Bolton High
  • Westwood High
  • White Station High
  • Trezevant High
  • Memphis Virtual School

The firm’s first report found as many as 2,900 failing grades changed during four years at nine Memphis-area schools. At the request of the board, two schools were eliminated: one a charter managed by a nonprofit, and a school outside the district. The firm said at the time that further investigation was warranted to determine if the grade changes were legitimate.

The $145,000 investigation includes interviews with teachers and administrators, comparing teachers’ paper grade books to electronic versions, accompanying grade change forms, and inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades.

Since the controversy started last year, the district has restricted the number of employees authorized to make changes to a student’s report card or transcript, and also requires a monthly report from principals detailing any grade changes.

Silver Lining Playbook

Memphis’ youngest students show reading gains on 2018 state tests — and that’s a big deal

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A student works on reading comprehension skills at Lucie E Campbell Elementary School in Memphis and Shelby County Schools.

Those working to improve early literacy rates in Shelby County Schools got a small morale boost Thursday as newly released scores show the district’s elementary school students improved their reading on 2018 state tests.

The percentage of Memphis elementary-age students considered proficient in reading rose by 3 points to almost one-fourth of the district’s children in grades 3 through 5. That’s still well below the state average, and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said “we obviously have a long way to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has overseen Tennessee’s largest public school district since 2013.

Strengthening early literacy has been a priority for the Memphis district, which views better reading skills as crucial to predicting high school graduation and career success. To that end, Shelby County Schools has expanded access to pre-K programs, adjusted reading curriculum, and made investments in literacy training for teachers.

Hopson said the payoff on this year’s TNReady scores was a jump of almost 5 percentage points in third-grade reading proficiency.

“It was about five years ago when we really, really, really started pushing pre-K, and those pre-K kids are now in the third grade. I think that’s something that’s really positive,” Hopson said of the gains, adding that third-grade reading levels are an important indicator of future school performance.

TNReady scores for Shelby County Schools, which has a high concentration of low-performing schools and students living in poverty, were a mixed bag, as they were statewide.

Math scores went up in elementary, middle, and high schools in Tennessee’s largest district. But science scores went down across the board, and the percentage of high school students who scored proficient in reading dropped by 4 percentage points.

The three charts below illustrate, by subject, the percentages of students who performed on track or better in elementary, middle, and high schools within Shelby County Schools. The blue bars reflect the district’s most recent scores, the black bars show last year’s scores, and the yellow bars depict this year’s statewide averages.

Hopson said he was unsure how much the scores of older students — all of whom tested online — were affected by technical problems that hampered Tennessee’s return this year to computerized testing.

“From what people tell me, kids either didn’t try as hard in some instances or didn’t take it seriously,” Hopson told reporters. “We’ll never know what the real impact is, but we have to accept the data that came from these tests.”

But students in two of the district’s school improvement initiatives — the Innovation Zone and the Empowerment Zone — showed progress. “We’re going to double down on these strategies,” Hopson said of the extra investments and classroom supports.

In the state-run Achievement School District, or ASD, which oversees 30 low-performing schools in Memphis, grades 3 through 8 saw an uptick in scores in both reading and math. But high schoolers scored more than 3 percentage points lower in reading and also took a step back in science.

The ASD takes over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent and assigns them to charter operators to improve. But in the five years that the ASD has been in Memphis, its scores have been mostly stagnant.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said she and new ASD Superintendent Sharon Griffin are reviewing the new data to determine next steps.

“We are seeing some encouraging momentum shifts,” McQueen said.

Chalkbeat illustrator Sam Park contributed to this story.