Are Children Learning

ISTEP pass rates are below 10 percent at six IPS schools

Like nearly all schools across the state, Indianapolis Public Schools saw ISTEP scores take a steep drop in 2015, but at the schools at the lowest rung of the district’s results the scores were especially bleak.

Among the state’s lowest scoring schools are six from IPS that saw the percentage of students who passed both the math and English sections of ISTEP drop to the single digits.

Last year just three schools in the state scored that poorly.

Indiana knew there would be a dramatic dip in ISTEP scores in 2015, following the introduction of new standards in 2014 and a more difficult test to match. For IPS, the district-wide passing rate fell 22 percentage points, which mirrored exactly the decline across the state. But many IPS schools already were among the worst performing in Indiana — in both 2014 and 2015 only four other Indiana school districts had lower passing rates on ISTEP.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said he didn’t put much stock in looking solely at ISTEP scores as a measure of success. He said the district’s staff will look closely at the schools that saw the greatest drops in scores and at those with long records of poor performance but wouldn’t dwell on the state test’s grim verdict.

“We don’t really think these results are reflective of the work of our students and staff,” he said.

Within IPS, there was wide variation in ISTEP scores among schools.

Four of the state’s 20 lowest scoring schools were in the district, but it also has the top performing public school. At Merle Sidener Gifted Academy, a selective magnet school, 95.5 percent of students passed the test.

That’s more than 30 times the passing rate for middle school students at John Marshall High School, where just 3 percent passed. In other words, about 10 students out of the 340 middle school students at Marshall passed ISTEP.

Marshall has the lowest pass rate in IPS, but it still faired better than seven other schools in the state. The middle school scores at Marshall have been the worst in the district for three years running. In 2014, 15 percent of Marshall students passed ISTEP. That number fell by 12 percentage points in 2015.

There were surprises at a few schools in the district, where scores dropped dramatically. For example, at School 56, a magnet Montessori school, the passing percentage sank by 55 percentage points — the worst drop in the state. In 2014, School 56 was one of the top 10 schools in IPS, winning accolades for a big turnaround from low scores in the past.

The second biggest drop in IPS was at Cold Spring School, another magnet school and one with a record of strong performance on tests. Passing rates at the school declined by 48 percentage points, and just 28 percent of students passed in 2015. Cold Spring is looking to convert to an innovation school, which would have significantly more independence from the district.

Even so, IPS had some success stories. School 107, for example, was in very exclusive company. It was one of just four schools in the state that actually saw its ISTEP passing percentage improve. The school saw a big dip in scores in 2014, so the improvement was something of a rebound.

IPS declined repeated requests to interview school principals or district administrators about the results. Ferebee answered questions after attending a summit meeting with Mayor Joe Hogsett this morning after IPS said nobody was available to discuss ISTEP.

Schools that have repeatedly struggled with low scores have already been targeted for changes, Ferebee said. For example, four of the schools where fewer than 10 percent of students passed the test are combined middle and high schools like Marshall.

Middle school students also had some of the lowest test scores in IPS in 2014, and the IPS board has pledged to remove middle school students from high schools as a way of improving test scores.

The other two schools with the lowest passing rates in IPS also have long records of poor test scores. School 103, which received failing grades from the state for four years running, was converted into the district’s first innovation school this year. The school is now run by the Phalen Leadership Academy charter school network under a contract with IPS.

The other elementary school with a single-digit pass rate is School 44, a long-struggling school. District leaders will decide whether to make changes at School 44 and other persistently low-scoring schools in the coming weeks, Ferebee said.

“We wouldn’t use this one snapshot in time to determine whether or not we’re making progress or which schools are struggling,” he said. “(But) we continue to be worried about particularly our schools that have been historically low performing.”

The 2015 ISTEP has been plagued by problems and controversy, most recently the revelation from the Indianapolis Star that thousands of tests may have been misscored due to a computer malfunction.

Test scores are typically tied to several accountability measures, from teacher pay to school letter grades. But a senate bill that would suspend those repercussions for the most recent test is winning bipartisan support.

Detroit Story Booth

Why one woman thinks special education reform can’t happen in isolation

PHOTO: Colin Maloney
Sharon Kelso, student advocate from Detroit

When Sharon Kelso’s kids and grandkids were still in school, they’d come home and hear the same question from her almost every day: “How was your day in school?” One day, a little over a decade ago, Kelso’s grandson gave a troubling answer. He felt violated when security guards at his school conducted a mass search of students’ personal belongings.

Kelso, a Cass Tech grad, felt compelled to act. Eventually, she became the plaintiff in two cases which outlawed unreasonable mass searches of students in Detroit’s main district.

Fast forward to August, when her three great-nephews lost both their mother and father in the space of a week and Kelso became their guardian. Today, she asks them the same question she has asked two generations of Detroit students: “How was your day in school?”

The answers she receives still deeply inform her advocacy work.

Watch the full video here:

– Colin Maloney

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on, where this post first appeared.