Testing expert: ‘Be careful what you wish for’ in replacing ISTEP

It’s one thing for Indiana officials to say they’re getting rid of the hated ISTEP exam. It’s quite another to figure out what to do next. That’s the dilemma that’s playing out as a 23-member state panel tries to craft recommendations on the future of standardized testing.

“The task is a significant one,” said Ed Roeber, a Michigan testing expert and a member of the technical advisory committee that the State Board of Education appointed to advise the ISTEP replacement panel.

Ed Roeber

Ed Roeber

But the plain truth is, Indiana is likely to have an end-of-year state test for accountability well beyond July 2017, when the law says ISTEP is supposed to expire. The test may have a new name and it may be created by a new vendor. But annual testing isn’t going away.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, Roeber said in a telephone interview – as long as the test is properly designed and implemented, and it is part of a balanced system of assessment.

“I personally didn’t think ISTEP needed to be dropped,” he said. “I thought it could be done a whole lot better.”

The task before the ISTEP replacement panel, meanwhile, is complicated by politics. Lawmakers took credit this year for repealing ISTEP, and Republican Gov. Mike Pence signed the measure to great fanfare. Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz has long called for moving away from high-stakes standardized tests.

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Book examines ‘why busing failed’

Suggest desegregation as a strategy for making K-12 education more equitable and you’re sure to encounter this response: “Busing? We tried that and it didn’t work.”

As Arizona State University historian Matt Delmont explains in his recent book “Why Busing Failed,” the truth is a good deal more complicated. But white anti-busing activists managed to hijack the media narrative about desegregation and make it about their demands for neighborhood schools.

'Why Busing Failed' book coverIn the process, African-American students, parents and communities were rendered largely invisible.

“Framing school desegregation as being about ‘busing’ rather than unconstitutional racial discrimination privileged white parents’ fears over legal evidence,” Delmont writes. “Ultimately, ‘busing’ failed to more fully desegregate public schools because school officials, politicians, courts and the news media valued the desires of white parents more than the rights of black students.”

The book’s subtitle is “Race, Media and the National Resistance to School Segregation.” And a lot of Delmont’s research delves into how the news media, especially television, shaped the debate over desegregation around the visual and emotional story of white parents’ opposition.

Anti-busing activists like Louise Day Hicks in Boston, Rosemary Gunning in New York and Irene McCabe in Pontiac, Mich., learned well the lessons of the civil rights movements. They used marches, boycotts and the rhetoric of rights and freedom to dominate news coverage of the issue.

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Voucher price tag keeps rising

Hoosier taxpayers paid $131.9 million in the 2015-16 academic year to send students to private schools, nearly all of them religious schools. That’s a key figure in an updated school voucher report released this week by the Indiana Department of Education.

What the voucher program actually cost the state is an open question, because we don’t know how many of the 32,686 voucher students would have attended public schools if not for the vouchers. If they had, the state would have been paying the full cost of their schooling, not just the voucher amount.

But, using a formula created by the pro-voucher state legislature, the state education department calculates the net cost to the state at $53.2 million, up from $40 million in 2014-15. That’s a good chunk of change that could otherwise be used to support public schools.

What is clear is that state officials pulled something of a bait-and-switch with vouchers. When the program was created in 2011, advocates insisted it was a way for poor children to escape “failing” public schools. Gov. Mitch Daniels even said it was appropriate that students should attend a public school for a year to qualify for a voucher, so they could see first-hand if the school was any good.

But lawmakers quickly expanded the program, making it more generous and easier to qualify. According to the state report, 52 percent of voucher students now have no record of attending a public school.

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1961 decisions shaped Indy school districts

Nearly a decade before Indianapolis adopted Unigov, local officials put forward a proposal for a single school district incorporating all of Marion County. It didn’t go very far.

Public opposition from “suburban” residents strangled the plan in its cradle. Instead of a single school district, Indianapolis got what it has today: 11 separate districts that arguably compete for reputation and students – and often lose on both counts to exurban districts beyond the county line.

Indianapolis World War Memorial, where 3,000 people showed up to oppose a school merger plan in 1961.

Indianapolis World War Memorial, where 3,000 people showed up to oppose a school merger plan in 1961.

According to news accounts from 1961, the year of the countywide school district proposal, thousands of opponents packed two raucous public hearings and made their displeasure known.

“Two women spoke in favor of the one-unit plan,” the Indianapolis Star reported, “but were repeatedly interrupted by hecklers among the suburban opponents as the reorganization committee wound up six hours of public hearings.”

I had assumed that excluding the schools from Unigov, the 1970 merger of Indianapolis and Marion County civil governments, was the decision that fractured the county and fed the overwhelmingly negative perception of Indianapolis Public Schools, opening the door to charter schools and vouchers.

But it turns out a key decision came a bit earlier. By the time Unigov rolled around, it was no wonder local movers and shakers didn’t try to merge school systems. They’d been there, tried to do that.

Harmon Baldwin, a retired Indiana school administrator who was superintendent of schools in Bloomington in the 1980s, called my attention to this history. In 1962, Baldwin became the first superintendent of the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township on Indianapolis’ west side after it shifted from a township trustee-run district to one governed by a school board.

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Busing in Indy: A brief history from an outsider

You have to wonder what the late federal judge S. Hugh Dillin would have thought about last week’s Indianapolis Star/Chalkbeat Indiana story that concluded Indianapolis Public Schools elementary schools are more racially segregated now than 35 years ago.

Chances are he wouldn’t have been surprised. Dillin lived until 2006, long enough to watch white, middle-class families fly the coop after he issued a series of school busing orders. In fact, he noted that white flight was already happening in the early 1970s, apparently spurred by the mere threat of desegregation.

S. Hugh Dillin (Maurer School of Law)

S. Hugh Dillin (Maurer School of Law)

But busing took some unusual twists in Indianapolis – or so it appears to an outsider like me. For one thing, it was one of just three U.S. cities where a busing order encompassed suburban as well as city schools. Also, busing was one-way: black students were bused from IPS to surrounding schools, but white students weren’t bused to IPS.

The Indiana legislature outlawed racial segregation of public schools in 1949, but Indianapolis Public Schools apparently didn’t get the memo. IPS’ Crispus Attucks High School remained all black until 1967. Elementary schools remained racially divided by neighborhood.

The feds sued in 1968 as a result; and three years later, Dillin ruled that IPS had practiced racial discrimination in assigning students and teachers to schools. Busing began, within the district.

All this was happening while Indianapolis was implementing Unigov, the merger of city and county governments. But schools were left out of the merger; Marion County kept its 11 school districts. One could argue this was the city’s original sin, from which its educational climate never recovered.

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The Coleman report: 50 years of influence on education policy

The most influential academic study in the history of education policy was published 50 years ago this Saturday. “Equality of Educational Opportunity,” more commonly known as the Coleman Report, shook up conventional wisdom about schools and continues to exert an outsized influence.

The report’s blockbuster finding was that differences in school resources – including funding, facilities and curriculum — had relatively little impact on how much students learned. Instead, the big factors were the influence of family and fellow students.

James Coleman

James Coleman

But findings aside, the study’s most significant impact may have been that it flipped the focus of policy from inputs to outcomes. It moved attention from the resources that went into education to the results, primarily measurable student learning, that schools produced.

“Instead of just measuring per-pupil spending, teacher-student ratios and so on, the question to ask now was, ‘What’s really happening that’s effective?’” said Indiana University professor emeritus and policy expert Leslie Lenkowsky. “I think that’s the most important thing the report accomplished.”

The report resulted from a paragraph in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which called for the federal Office of Education to produce a study of educational opportunity in the United States. The job went to Coleman, a sociologist then at Johns Hopkins University, who led a team that conducted research, administered surveys and analyzed data to produce a comprehensive 700-page study.

The document, titled “Equality of Educational Opportunity” but more commonly known as the Coleman Report, drew on information from more than 600,000 students and 60,000 teachers in 4,000 schools located in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Coming a decade after Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that ruled “separate but equal” schools were unconstitutional, the study was expected to shine a light on racial inequality. But Coleman suggested that, while schools were heavily segregated and unequally resourced, it would take more than improved funding to boost the prospects of black students.

“Per pupil expenditure, books in the library, and a host of other facilities and curricular measures show virtually no relation to achievement if the ‘social’ environment of the school – the educational backgrounds of other students and teachers – is held constant,” he wrote in a follow-up article for the journal The Public Interest.

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Why public records should be made public

School grades are bogus, so why ask for more of them? That’s a reasonable question.

Why would a critic of the state’s system of grading schools on an A-to-F scale ask the Indiana Department of Education to provide data showing what grades the schools would have received for 2014-15 it if weren’t for “hold harmless” legislation approved by the General Assembly?

Why would I file a complaint with the Office of the Public Access Counselor when the department refused? And would I share the data with readers if I got my hands on it? Yes, absolutely. Here’s why:

Transparency matters

Public records belong to the public and, on principle, should be disclosed unless there’s a compelling reason to keep them secret. And in this case, there really isn’t. The preamble to the state Access to Public Records Act gets it just right:

“A fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government is that government is the servant of the people and not their master. Accordingly, it is the public policy of the state that all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and employees.” Continue reading