Test score success: Lessons from Lafayette?

Forget charter schools and voucher schools and waiting for Superman. The heroes of K-12 education in Indiana are the teachers – and the students! – of two public elementary schools in Lafayette.

Murdock Elementary and Thomas Miller Elementary both achieved eye-popping improvement in their students’ ISTEP-Plus scores, which were announced this week by the Department of Education.

At Murdock, 84.7 percent of students passed both the English and math sections of the test in spring 2011, up from 53.8 percent the previous year. At Thomas Miller, the pass rate increased to 85.9 percent from 61.5 percent.

And these are low-income schools, with 85-90 percent of their students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches – the kind of student profile that often produces ISTEP passing rates of under 50 percent.

How did they do it? According to the Journal and Courier newspaper, Lafayette School Corp. officials decided two years ago to devote all their federal Title I funding to the schools with the neediest students and worst performance record, Murdock and Thomas Miller — and to supplement it with federal stimulus money.

They hired more staff and reduced class size, putting two teachers in every classroom. At Thomas Miller, the school day was lengthened by an hour. Parents had to sign school-support contracts; if they didn’t, their children were sent elsewhere. Murdock implemented a “countdown” curriculum that emphasized testing and focused attention on ISTEP. The principal and a counselor met individually with every student to update them on their progress and encourage them to do well on the state tests.

The improvement was dramatic, but it didn’t happen overnight. Murdock, for example, had excellent passing rates for math in 2010 but lagged in English until this year.

And by concentrating on two schools, LSC took resources away from other schools that may have needed them almost as much. This is, overall, a poor school district: 63 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, according to state data. (West Lafayette, where Purdue University is located, has its own separate public school district).

A big question is whether the schools can maintain the progress as the additional funding goes away with the end of the federal stimulus and “edujobs” programs. “It will be a challenge,” Miller principal Brandon Hawkins told the Journal and Courier.

There is, of course, room for debate on whether a relentless focus on test-score improvement is good for students – whether it narrows the curriculum, demeans the arts, elevates a “drill and kill” approach to instruction and even tempts some schools to cheat. But for those students who learned enough math and English to go from failing ISTEP to passing it, it’s hard to believe they aren’t better off.

Another Indiana school that recorded big improvements on ISTEP was H.L. Harshman Middle School in the Indianapolis Public Schools district. Its passing rate went to 60.2 percent from 32 percent.

Harshman converted in 2010-11 to a science and math magnet school, and that may explain some of the test-score gains. It remains a low-income school, with three quarters of its students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunches. But students had to apply to attend the school, and teachers had to apply to teach there. “The improved ISTEP+ scores, I believe, can be attributed to the fact that both students and faculty are motivated and want to be in the program,” IPS spokeswoman Kim Hooper said.

Superintendent Tony Bennett singled out Murdock, Harshman and a couple of small Southern Indiana elementary schools with perfect passing rates when he announced ISTEP results Tuesday.

“High expectations for all students and educators have yielded improved results,” Bennett said, “and now Indiana’s educators have the tools they need to build on this success in the years to come.”

But at least with Murdock and Thomas Miller, there’s irony here. Their success flies in the face of the dogma espoused by Bennett and other education reformers, which holds that money doesn’t matter, class size doesn’t matter, and you improve schools with more choice for parents and merit pay for teachers. And it runs counter to the school funding cuts imposed by Gov. Mitch Daniels.

It may be true that old-style top-down accountability – Indiana’s Public Law 221 and the federal No Child Left Behind Act – prompted Lafayette School Corp. to get serious about improving test scores. But strategic use of federal money made success possible.

Maybe that’s why the superintendent, an elementary school principal and a teacher in Lafayette School Corp. are among the 12 Hoosiers who are suing Bennett and Daniels over the recently enacted private-school voucher laws, which will suck tens of millions of dollars from public schools.

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7 thoughts on “Test score success: Lessons from Lafayette?

  1. I like this piece, Steve, but you pull your punches a little. As a blogger, I expect you to hammer your perspective home with every piece. You have enough information (real fact) to hand to know that the “Maybes” in the last two paragraphs is unnecessary.

    And your third paragraph is the real truth…hammer, my man. We do not have time for anything else–do not go gently…

      • that’s funny as it’s actually exactly what I was thinking when reading it. I know we try hard to “play fair” but it’s become clearer and clearer that “fair” should not be “allow” another side to tell a story that is patently false and intentionally misleading in order to mask a motivation that makes very clear sense when articulated.

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