Effective schools aren’t the ones you expect

The most effective school districts in Indiana aren’t the affluent suburban districts that produce the highest test scores year after year. Instead many are smallish, rural districts that don’t get much attention outside of their own communities.

That’s according to data from Stanford professor Sean Reardon, whose research shows how well the nation’s school districts did at improving test scores over a five-year period.

The results “defy how we typically think about wealth and education in America,” the New York Times said in a report on Reardon’s work. Students in affluent districts do tend to score higher on standardized tests; but when it comes to year-to-year growth, schools doing a good job are nearly as likely to serve many poor students.

“Many districts with high average test scores have low growth rates, and vice versa,” Reardon writes in a working paper. “And many low-income districts have above average growth rates.”

In Indiana, the standouts include Elkhart, Brownsburg, Middlebury, South Vermillion, Blackford County, Southwest (Sullivan County), Speedway, South Adams and Eastern Greene. Other than exemplary student growth, there’s nothing obvious that those districts have in common.

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Positive review for Indiana’s ESSA plan

Indiana gets high marks for its plan for complying with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, according to an evaluation by Bellwether Education Partners and the Collaborative for Student Success. Not that the plan is perfect, but it measures up well against other state plans, the evaluation found.

That’s a credit to Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick and her staff at the Indiana Department of Education, who put the plan together under a tight deadline and against ground rules that keep changing thanks to the Indiana legislature and the State Board of Education.

“Indiana’s plan was a strong one in many respects, particularly its plan for improving low-performing schools and determining when they can exit improvement status and for valuing students’ academic growth as well as well as academic proficiency,” Anne Hyslop, one of the authors of the evaluation, said in an email interview. Unlike some states, she said, “Indiana didn’t have any significant red flags.”

Indiana published its plan in August for meeting the requirements of ESSA, the December 2015 law that replaced the No Child Left Behind Act. The law gives more flexibility to the states but requires regular testing of students in math and English and measures to hold schools accountable for performance.

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Complying with ESSA ‘should be the floor — not the ceiling’

Anne Hyslop, an independent education consultant and former senior policy adviser with the U.S. Department of Education, answered questions by email about state plans for complying with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. Hyslop was part of a team that reviewed state plans for Bellwether Education Partners and the Collaborative on Student Success.

 SCHOOL MATTERS: Based on the review, how does Indiana’s ESSA plan match up with other states? What do you see there that looks good or bad?

ANNE HYSLOP: Indiana’s plan was a strong one in many respects, particularly its plan for improving low-performing schools and determining when they can exit school improvement status and for valuing students’ academic growth as well as academic proficiency. And unlike some of the other plans reviewed by the peers in the second round, Indiana didn’t have any significant red flags.

There are some discrete issues, however, that could be addressed to strengthen the plan. For example, Indiana does not specifically incorporate subgroup data when it calculates school grades. As a result, the peers were concerned that schools that did well overall and earned As or Bs in the school rating system could be masking very low-performing individual groups of students, like English learners, low-income students, or students with disabilities. Similarly, there are some concerns with specific indicators that Indiana would like to use to hold schools accountable, such as its measure of student attendance and its graduation rate calculation.

SM: The reviewers seem to give Indiana high marks for a) its plan to provide support for low-performing schools and b) its plan for how schools will exit improvement status. How does that compare with what you’ve seen from other states? Continue reading

Why the rush on graduation pathways?

Indiana appears to be in the vanguard when it comes to adopting “graduation pathways” that students can follow to earn a high-school diploma. But two states, Colorado and Ohio, have gone farther down this path. What could we learn from their experience?

In Colorado, lawmakers approved legislation in 2007 calling for a redesign of graduation requirements. Ten years later, it’s starting to implement a system in which schools can choose from a menu of options for earning a diploma. The new system takes effect with this year’s ninth-graders.

Colorado developed its graduation guidelines through a process that included nearly 50 stakeholder meetings across the state, in-depth conversations with most school superintendents, working groups with 300-plus representatives and two years of statewide discussion.

Ohio, by contrast, moved quickly to a system in which students could graduate by earning points on high-school end-of-course assessments, getting a “remediation-free” score on the SAT or ACT exam or acquiring industry or workforce credentials. It was supposed to take effect with this year’s seniors.

But the state changed course when officials realized many students weren’t going to meet the requirements, said Ken Baker, executive director of the Ohio Secondary School Administrators Association. For the class of 2018 only, it added pathways that students could use to graduate.

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School referendums point to equity issues

School funding referendums were approved Tuesday in six of the eight Indiana school districts that asked voters to increase their own property taxes to help pay teacher salaries and other expenses. That sounds like strong support for public education.

But several successful referendums were in affluent communities where voters can afford to pay a few more dollars for the high-achieving schools that are key contributors to their property values. Referendums failed in two high-poverty districts – East Chicago and Cannelton – where students may have the greatest need for extra money.

The bigger issue is that most of Indiana’s nearly 300 school districts have never voted to raise local taxes to increase local school funding, and most probably never will.

Only about 40 Indiana school districts have approved school tax levy referendums since the referendum system began eight years ago. Most have never tried, because officials know the effort would probably fail. It’s not that people don’t support their local schools; it’s that the tax base is often so weak that it would take a big rate increase to make a difference – which could hurt many property owners.

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School grades still reflect student demographics

It was true five years ago and it’s still true today. The grades that Indiana assigns to schools say more about the students the schools serve than how effective the schools are.

A change in the grading system this year was a step in the right direction, but not a big enough step to make the grades fair or credible. Schools that get high grades are still more likely than not to serve few students from poor families. Those that get low grades are almost certainly high-poverty schools.

The idea that a simple A-to-F grade would provide meaningful information about something as complex as a public school was always silly. But basing grades primarily on standardized test scores, as Indiana has done, means the grades will be not only misleading but harmful to schools that struggle to improve.

Indiana changed its formula this year so that grades would be based equally on test-score performance and test-score growth. The result seems to be that a few affluent schools got Bs rather than As, and some schools with low tests scores may have bumped their grades to a D or a C via growth. But the overall trend still holds.

One way to look at this is divide Indiana’s public and charter schools into quartiles by the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Matthew Di Carlo of the Shanker Institute did this in 2012 to show the tight fit between school grades and poverty. I did the same thing in 2013 and 2014. Continue reading

No comparing school grades to previous years

Indiana school grades for 2015-16 were released this week, marking the first time the state has used a new grading system designed to count test-score growth as much as performance.

First, let’s note that comparing the new grades to grades from the previous year is meaningless. For one thing, we’re using a new system: It’s supposed to produce different results. Comparing the newly released grades to the previous year’s grades is comparing apples to oranges.

But more to the point, the previous year’s grades were largely bogus. They would have been a lot worse, but lawmakers passed “hold-harmless” legislation that said no school could get a lower grade in 2014-15 than it did in 2013-14.

Remember that Indiana adopted new, more rigorous academic standards in 2014-15, so the ISTEP exams got a lot tougher. Before the hold-harmless legislation passed, state officials said more than half of all schools could receive D’s or F’s. The Indiana Department of Education refused to make public the grades that schools actually would have received last year, even though the state public access counselor said it should.

So if you see that a certain school’s grade dropped from an A to a B this year … well, technically that may be correct. But there’s a good chance the school earned a D or F in 2014-15 but had its grade boosted by the legislature. Continue reading