Pence’s 180-degree turn

Today is the day when dramatically lower ISTEP+ test scores could become a reality. Maybe that helps explain Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s surprising about-face on whether to pause accountability for schools and teachers based on spring 2015 test results.

As Shaina Cavazos with Chalkbeat Indiana documents, Pence had refused to consider a pause for over a year, even though Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz suggested the idea several times. In February, the Pence-appointed State Board of Education wouldn’t even discuss the topic.

U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan invited states to request a break from test-based school grades and teacher ratings when they shifted to new standards with tougher assessments. Many states jumped at the idea, but Pence and Indiana Republican legislative leaders insisted it wasn’t on the table. Continue reading


New authorizer, same concerns about charter school plan

Rejected twice, organizers of the proposed Seven Oaks Classical School in Ellettsville are back again with their application to open an Indiana charter school. This proposal doesn’t look much different. What’s new is the authorizer: Seven Oaks is asking for a charter from Grace College & Theological Seminary, a small Christian college in Winona Lake, Ind.

A state-mandated public hearing on the proposal will take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 4, at Holiday Inn Express on the west side of Bloomington.

Seven Oaks applied twice previously to the Indiana Charter School Board. The board voted unanimously in the fall of 2014 to reject its request. This spring, the school pulled its application after the charter school board staff again recommended denial.

The school’s organizers then went authorizer-shopping, thanks to a 2011 state law that expanded the ability to sponsor charter schools to 30 Indiana private colleges and universities. Grace College authorizes two charter schools: Smith Academy for Excellence in Fort Wayne School, which earned Fs from the state in 2013 and 2014; and Dugger Union Community School, which opened this fall.

There’s no real oversight of private colleges that authorize charter schools. And the law provides an incentive for colleges to say yes – they get to keep 3 percent of the schools’ state funding.

But Grace College says it’s committed to authorizing high-quality charter schools. So given that the new application appears similar to the previous ones, it will want to consider concerns raised by the charter school board’s spring 2015 Seven Oaks staff recommendation. Continue reading

‘The Prize’ is a compelling book that won’t settle debates

Dale Russakoff set out to write the story of just what happened when politicians bolstered with $100 million from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg set out to transform a city’s troubled schools.

“My goal was to write a book that was indisputably true,” she said this week during a Skype chat with a dozen students, faculty and staff at Indiana University.

'The Prize,' book coverShe even hoped her book, “The Prize,” might transcend the nation’s polarized debate over schools. That hasn’t happened. Supporters and critics of the Newark initiative take issue with what she wrote. What’s hard to deny is that it is a compelling read with important lessons for urban education.

“The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools” tells what happened after Zuckerberg, former Newark Mayor Cory Booker and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie launched an ambitious plan to fundamentally remake the public schools in Newark.

The plan, announced in 2010 on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” was to transform a struggling district by tying Zuckerberg’s cash to the precepts of the education reform movement: merit pay to reward talented teachers and school leaders, data-driven instruction and no-excuses accountability.

But Newark residents pushed back hard against efforts to close neighborhood schools and open new charter schools. Critics said reform was being done to them, not with them, and they objected to a process that seemed to be driven by outsiders and $1,000-per-day consultants.

By the time Russakoff’s reporting wrapped up, Booker had moved on to the U.S. Senate, Christie was busy running for president and Zuckerberg was talking about mistakes made and lessons learned. Cami Anderson, the sharp-elbowed superintendent brought in to engineer the Newark Public Schools turnaround, stepped down in June. Ras Baraka, a high school principal and a leading critic of the reformers (and the son of poet Amiri Baraka), was elected mayor in 2014.

Russakoff, who covered New Jersey politics for the Washington Post, told the IU listeners that the effort could have capitalized on community support for improving schools, but didn’t.

“There was a lot of consensus on the ground that the schools were in trouble and needed to change,” she said.

But the initiative got off on the wrong foot by launching on “Oprah” before anyone in Newark knew about it. The community split apart, with much of the city clearly hoping the outsiders would fail.

Zuckerberg staked his bet on a conviction that teachers should earn more money with bonuses tied to improving test scores.

“But there’s no data that shows that because teachers get bonuses for success in the classroom, student achievement goes up,” Russakoff said. “I didn’t find anyone (among Newark teachers) who said they had done anything different to get the bonuses.”

Russakoff had extraordinary access to Booker, Christie, Zuckerberg and Anderson, and “The Prize” is packed with candid behind-the-scenes accounts of the politics of reform. The story line shifts between the power players and Newark teachers and students who struggle against long odds.

“The Prize” focuses on two schools, a KIPP charter school and a Newark Public Schools “renewal” school called BRICK Avon. That’s its great strength, a clear demonstration that what happens in schools matters to real children. It’s also the source of what critics like New Jersey teacher Mark Weber see as its flaw: A willingness to accept claims about charter school success without hard evidence.

Russakoff told Tom Moran of the Newark Star-Ledger that the main lesson of “The Prize” is that school improvement efforts won’t succeed if they don’t address the challenges children face out of school.

“The reform movement is focused on changing the management of schools, instilling more accountability,” she said. “Those things are necessary. But they didn’t attend to the effects of poverty on children, and that’s a huge issue in Newark’s schools and neighborhoods.”

Use cut-score delay to explain test changes

Here’s a suggestion for Indiana education officials now that the State Board of Education has delayed setting ISTEP+ cut scores that will dramatically lower grades for many schools.

Let people know what you’re doing. Explain why a more rigorous grading system is in the best interest of Hoosier children. Spread the word now so parents, teachers and others won’t be caught off guard when test scores and school grades are announced.

Because we’re talking about some significant changes. Barely half of Indiana’s seventh- and eighth-graders will pass the ISTEP+ math exam. Over 50 percent of schools may get Ds or Fs. About 100,000 more students will fall short of passing the tests.

The board was scheduled to approve the cut scores Wednesday, but it postponed making a decision. The reason: Indiana Department of Education staff allegedly didn’t forward an Oct. 2 report to board members, staff and experts until Tuesday night. Continue reading

Big changes likely in Indiana school grades

Over half of all Indiana schools could get Ds or Fs from the state next year if the State Board of Education approves recommended cut scores for the 2015 ISTEP+ exams.

That’s according to data provided by the Indiana State Department of Education, which charted the likely distribution of school grades if fewer students pass the exams.

Daniel Altman, spokesman for the department, cautioned that the figures aren’t exact but represent best estimates compiled by staff from the data that were available. But even if they are close, the grading changes are bound to get attention.

Under cut scores that go to the State Board of Education for approval Wednesday, it’s expected that the overall passing rate on ISTEP+ exams will drop by 16 percent in English/language arts and by 24 percent in mathematics. That’s mostly the result of more rigorous expectations for passing.

In 2014, over half of Indiana schools were awarded As in the state’s accountability system and only 12.8 percent got Ds and Fs. Those figures will flip this year if the DOE estimates are accurate.

  • With a 15 percent drop in performance, one-third of schools would get As or Bs and 40 percent would get Ds or Fs.
  • With a 20 percent drop in performance, 19.5 percent of schools would get As or Bs and 55 percent would get Ds or Fs.
  • With a 25 percent drop in performance, barely 10 percent of schools would get As or Bs and two-thirds would get Ds or Fs.

The chart below details how many and what percentage of schools could expect each letter grade with hypothetical drops in ISTEP+ passing rates of 15 percent, 20 percent and 25 percent, the approximate range we’re expecting. Again, these are estimates.


Source: Indiana Department of Education

Over time, we can expect scores to improve as schools and teachers adapt to the standards and the new tests. Also, a new grade calculation formula will take effect in 2016; it’s supposed to put more weight on student academic growth and not as much on test scores.

But for this year, don’t be surprised to hear about an alarming number of “failing” schools.

Decision on test results state board’s hands

Indiana State Board of Education members were skeptical when Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz warned in July that schools could expect a big drop in ISTEP+ passing rates as a result of the new standards and new tests that took effect last year. At the time, Ritz was trying to persuade board members to “pause” the state’s A-F accountability system because the tougher test was likely to result in lower grades.

“I guess I’m trying to figure out why there will be such a different result when we did not make the dramatic change in our standards that other states did,” board member Gordon Hendry said.

“I just think we’d be saying we don’t have enough faith in our teachers that they can get students where they need to be,” added board member Lee Ann Kwiatkowski.

Now the results are in and they are worse than expected. The new ISTEP+ cut scores that the state board will be asked to approve Wednesday will result in huge drops in overall passing rates – by 16 percentage points in English/language arts and 24 points in math.

We don’t yet know exactly what that means for school grades, but it’s a safe bet there will be a lot fewer A schools and lot more schools getting Fs. Continue reading

Why Title I funds were cut for Indiana charter schools

Indiana charter school operators were alarmed to learn that many of the schools were slated for unexpected cuts in their 2015-16 allocations under the federal Title I program. What happened?

Michelle McKeown of the Indiana Charter School Board says the glitch appears to result from the way the Indiana Department of Education determined school free and reduced-price lunch counts for purposes of allocating the funds. And it is tied to the participation by some high-poverty school districts in the new Community Eligibility program, in which all students get free school lunches.

McKeown makes a persuasive case that the education department calculated Title I funding using Community Eligibility data for school districts but used different data for charter schools.

“This is the only explanation that makes sense to me,” McKeown, the interim executive director of the charter school board, told me. “I think it’s very clear they used different sets of data.”

It’s worth noting that, even with the cuts, some charter schools still get more Title I money per student than the local districts. And some charter schools got increases. But the situation has political resonance because Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, who heads the state education department, is lukewarm on charter schools. Some of her critics seemed to suspect treachery.

Daniel Altman, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education, declined to comment on McKeown’s conclusions but said the department used the same formula to allocate Title I funding that has been used for over a decade. He said some schools had errors in data they submitted, which can have an effect on the allocations.

Continue reading