Are Children Learning

No changes expected to IREAD test in 2015

A proposal to shift the state’s IREAD exam — which third graders are required to pass — to be given in second grade was shelved today by a plan to study the idea over the summer instead.

The Senate Education Committee voted today, 9-0, to rewrite the bill so that, if passed, it would create a a study committee later this year to consider the switch. Committee Chairman Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, said the bill includes language that no changes would be made to IREAD before June 30, 2016. This would mean that this year’s and next year’s third-graders would take IREAD unchanged from years past.

“It turned out to be a bigger issue than I thought, and it’s more controversial than I thought,” Kruse said. “And I think both sides have good merit on their arguments. I just thought if we had a 45-minute hearing on it, I didn’t think that was sufficient, and I didn’t think we had enough information.”

Kruse said he spoke with specialists and educators and heard so much conflicting advice that he didn’t feel comfortable asking the committee to vote. Most notably, he said he was concerned that many educators thought second-graders might not be mature enough for standardized reading tests.

“The littler the kid, the tougher it is for him to even think about a test, or how do you do this, or to concentrate on a high stakes test,” Kruse said.

Sen. Erin Houchin, R-Salem, Senate Bill 169’s author, said the bill was meant to address teachers’ concerns about the number of tests given at third grade. Currently, third-graders have three periods of standardized tests in the spring, two sessions of ISTEP and one of IREAD.

Houchin said moving the reading test would give students more time for reading help and also would allow for teachers to know earlier whether students struggle.

“I continue to believe that our elementary school students would be better served by assessing reading proficiencies in second grade,” Houchin said in a statement.

Proponents of the bill say it could free teachers to give students longer to get reading help before they would be held back from moving onto fourth grade. The bill’s critics say the reading exam doesn’t give teachers much useful information and shouldn’t be given to younger children.

The idea of moving the reading test to second grade could be reconsidered later in the session, but Kruse said he expected it was more likely it would not get serious consideration before 2016.

The education committee considered seven other bills today:

STEM dual-credit associate degree pilot program, Senate Bill 259. Sen. Ronald Grooms, R-Jeffersonville, presented a plan for the creation of a pilot program of five high schools, to be chosen by the Indiana Department of Education, to allow students to take classes toward an associate’s degree in science, technology, engineering or math by the time they graduate high school. A vote is expected next week.

Bilingual recognition, Senate Bill 267. This bill would create a note on high school transcripts of students who are bilingual. Gary Spurgin, President of the Indiana Foreign Language Teachers Association, said such skills are in demand from employers, mentioning Indiana would be just the 10th state to pass such a law.

“We know it is very important to encourage and promote linguistic and cultural proficiency, not only in English, but for a second language,” Spurgin said. “Studying language increases more opportunities not only at higher education, but throughout (students’) lives.”

Schools could decide locally how to test for language proficiency, but Spurgin said plenty of tests exist to determine it, such as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and SAT subject tests. A vote is expected next week.

School counselors, Senate Bill 277. Authored by Sen. James Merritt, R-Indianapolis, this bill seeks to put at least one school counselor in every elementary school in the state, not including charter or private schools, at an estimated cost of $60 million. Merritt said he realized the move was costly but thought the idea should be discussed.

“We all talk about reading by second or third grade, but I also believe the social makeup of the student plays a role in there as well,” Merritt said. “(The bill) may or may not pass the committee, it may or may not pass Sen. Kenley’s (Senate Finance) committee … We need this sort of service in these schools, and I think the public needs to start talking about it.”

Several school counselors testified that they contribute to the overall health and stability of students in elementary schools. Cindy Cain, a counselor in Crawford County schools, said that money shouldn’t keep an important resource from students.

“The bottom line is that counselors are the first to go come crunch time,” Cain said.

A vote is expected next week.

School bus monitors, Senate Bill 339. The bill is a “cleanup of school bus law,” according to education department lobbyist John Barnes. It makes a fix so that bus monitors, who mind children but do not drive, are not required to meet the same requirements as the drivers for having strong eyesight. Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, said the change would allow more people to volunteer as monitors. The bill passed the committee 10-0.

Teaching ethnic history, Senate Bill 495. The bill is aimed at requiring schools to teach about minority ethnicities in their social studies curriculum, although schools will get to decide specifically which ethnicities to include based on their student populations.

Author Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, said it’s important to include a guidelines like this in statute, and not just leave it to the suggestion of social studies standards. Barnes, speaking on behalf of state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, supported the bill, as did Kruse. A vote is expected next week.

Names and locations of medical education centers, Senate Bill 123The committee passed this bill 10-0 onto the full Senate. It is a technical bill altering the formal names of some university medical schools.

Changes in physical exam requirements to participate in sports, Senate Bill 119Kruse withdrew this bill, which proposed to change when students had to get physical exams from doctors to within two weeks of the students’ birthdays, rather than at other times during the year. State school and medical officials said the change would create hardships for students and families.

double take

Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Students work on assignments at Indianapolis Public Schools Center For Inquiry at School 27.

Imagine a scenario where Indiana schools get not just one A-F grade each year, but two.

One grade would determine whether a school can be taken over by the state. The other would comply with federal law asking states to track student test progress and how federal aid is spent. Both would count, but each would reflect different measures of achievement and bring different consequences.

This could be Indiana’s future if a state board-approved plan moves ahead at the same time the state is working on a conflicting plan to comply with a new federal law.

If it sounds complicated, that’s because it probably would be, said state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. Originally, A-F grades were intended to be an easy way for parents and community members to understand how their school is doing.

“It’s extremely confusing to have multiple accountability systems with multiple consequences,” McCormick told board members last week. “All along our message has been to get as much alignment as we can.”

Indiana would not be the first state to consider dual accountability systems — Colorado operated separate systems for years under No Child Left Behind and is now doing so again. Virginia, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have also had two models in years past. But this move would be a big departure from Indiana’s efforts over the past several years to simplify accountability, and education officials warn it could create more problems than it would solve.

Dale Chu, an education consultant who previously worked in Indiana under state Superintendent Tony Bennett, said it’s actually not common for states to have multiple systems, and doing so for political reasons, rather than what helps students and families, is concerning.

“We all know how confusing accountability systems can be when you just have one,” Chu said. “To create a bifurcated system, I don’t see how you gain additional clarity … I would certainly hope that if that’s the direction the state is going to move in, they are very thoughtful and intentional about it.”

The changes come as Indiana works to create a plan to comply with a new federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. McCormick’s education department has been working to align the federal system with Indiana’s grading system, and is struggling to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, most notably in the area of graduation requirements and diplomas.

At the same time the Indiana State Board of Education is negotiating this alignment, it is also revamping the A-F grade system.

A new grading proposal approved by the state board last week would put more emphasis on student test scores than the A-F system that now unifies state and federal requirements. Those new rules would include extra categories for grading schools, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan.

While that proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

Officials were already expecting to issue two sets of A-F grades to schools in 2018 — one state grade, and one federal — as the state continued to work all of Indiana’s unresolved education issues into the new federal plan. Figuring out how to ensure state graduation rates don’t plummet because of other federal rule changes dictating  which diplomas count and incorporating the new high school graduation requirements, for example, will take time — and legislation — to fix.

Read: Indiana has a curious plan to sidestep federal rules — give schools two A-F grades next year.

But ultimately, officials said, if some of the state board-approved changes make it into final policy, and Indiana’s federal plan doesn’t change to accommodate it, the state and federal accountability systems could remain at odds with each other — meaning schools would continue to get two grades after 2018.

The original intent was to have all Indiana’s state grading system line up with federal requirements before the plan was sent to federal officials in September. Then, once the federal government gave feedback, the state A-F revamp could continue.

But just this past fall, after the federal plan had been submitted, some members of the state board began adding in additional measures, some of which reflect their personal interests in how schools should be rated.

Those measures were added after board members had multiple chances to discuss the federal plan with the education department, conversations that were held in an attempt to ward off such changes this late in the game. Yet even last week at the state board’s monthly meeting, where the new grading changes were approved, some board members didn’t seem to realize until after the vote that the A-F systems would not match up.

David Freitas, a state board member, said he didn’t see the conflicting A-F grade rules as a problem. The board can make Indiana’s state A-F system whatever it wants, he said, and there will be plenty of time to iron out specifics as the rulemaking process unfolds over the next several months.

“We’re not banned from having two different systems,” Freitas said. “But we need to consider the implications and consequences of that.”

Read more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.

No time to play

Will recess cuts boost learning? One struggling Colorado district wants to find out.

A suburban Denver school district on a state-mandated improvement plan has cut recess time for elementary students in a bid to devote more time to instruction.

On a good day, elementary children in the Adams 14 district get about 15 minutes of recess at lunch time, but sometimes it’s as little as seven, according to teachers who’ve spoken out about the issue.

The change, instituted at the beginning of the school year, has angered both parents and teachers who say the lack of outside playtime is stressful and unhealthy for students and has led to more behavior problems in the classroom.

The reduction in recess is one of a series of controversial decisions this year in the 7,400-student district, where almost half the students are English language learners and 86 percent qualify for subsidized meals. Also contentious this year were decisions to end parent-teacher conferences and scale back a biliteracy program once envisioned as a model for other districts.

It’s not uncommon for students in high-poverty schools like the ones in Adams 14 to get less recess compared to their more affluent peers.

A 2006 report from the National Center for Education Statistics found that the students in the highest poverty elementary schools got 17 to 21 minutes of recess a day while those at schools with relatively few students from poor families got 28 to 32 minutes a day.

District spokeswoman Janelle Asmus said the recess changes came out of feedback from state education officials and a contractor charged with helping the district improve. They urged district leaders to use school time more effectively.

“We’re a district that’s on turnaround … and the state has told us, ‘We expect dramatic improvements from you,’” Asmus said. “What we keep hearing (is), ‘You’re not using every single minute to the maximum amount.’”

Last year, district elementary schools generally had around 45 minutes of recess a day, Asmus said. While there was some variation between schools and some of that time was spent donning jackets, lining up, and filing out of the building, most had a 15-minute morning recess, 15-minute afternoon recess, and a 30-minute midday break split between lunch and recess, she said.

This year, students have only the 30-minute lunch/recess break. At a school board meeting held a week into the school year, a string of parents and teachers complained about the lack of both recess time and eating time, and a few were moved nearly to tears as they described the consequences.

Some children were throwing most of their meals away because they didn’t have enough time to eat. Others, particularly special education students who required extra help going through the cafeteria line and feeding themselves, were getting little to no recess with their peers.

While Colorado law requires elementary schools to provide students with an average of 30 minutes of physical activity a day, many observers consider it a weak law because it allows so much flexibility in what counts as physical activity and no minimum minutes for any particular type of physical activity.

Critics of the recess cut in Adams 14 say it flies in the face of research showing that physical activity improves focus and helps students better absorb information.

But Asmus said district officials agree with the research and are simply integrating physical activity into the elementary school day outside of recess. This approach entails lessons that incorporate movement or “brain breaks” — short periods of exercise in the classroom.

But teachers like Derene Armelin have their doubts.

A first grade teacher at Dupont Elementary, she said this week that some children sit out during movement breaks because they’re embarrassed to follow the choreographed moves that popular brain break videos rely on — dance moves or pretend wall-climbing, for example.

Plus, she said, there’s no replacement for getting fresh air outside.

Asmus said ensuring kids get time outdoors is up to teachers.

“This is where we rely on our teachers’ professional judgement,” she said. “How are they using their lessons to address all the needs of the student?”

Asmus said teachers can take kids outside as part of lessons, say for a butterfly hunt or to count flowers in a garden.

Armelin sees signs that the daily schedule is hard on youngsters. Some act tired. Others ask repeatedly for bathroom breaks just to get up and move.

“They’re walking down the hallway. They’re getting a drink of water,” she said. “They’re doing whatever form of exercise they can come up with.”

Parent Elizabeth Vitela said her first-grade son and fourth-grade daughter mention the lack of recess almost every day.
“They say it’s too little,” she said. “It’s not a good amount.”

Vitela, whose children attend Dupont Elementary, said she’s upset that no one ever explained the recess cuts or the discontinuation of parent-teacher conferences to parents.

Parent Carolina Rosales, who has a kindergartner and third-grader at Hanson Elementary, said her 5-year-old son sometimes misses recess altogether because he prefers to use the allotted 30 minutes to eat. Her 9-year-old daughter is the opposite, often gulping down just fruit and milk before dashing outside.

Recess practices vary in Colorado districts, including those that face the same kinds of academic hurdles as Adams 14. In nearby Westminster Public Schools, which is also on a state-required improvement plan, most elementary students get a 10-minute morning recess, a 10-minute afternoon recess and 10 to 20 minutes during the lunch/recess period, said district spokesman Stephen Saunders.

In Pueblo City Schools, which improved just enough in 2016 to avoid a state improvement plan, elementary students get a 35-minute lunch/recess break plus 10 to 15 minutes of additional recess during other times of the day, said district spokesman R. Dalton Sprouse.

While the recess cuts in Adams 14, like other recent changes there, are intended to boost learning and raise test scores, some district teachers believe the plan will backfire.

“I honestly think it’s going to bring scores down,” said Hanson Elementary teacher Jodi Connelly, who teaches fourth- and fifth-graders.

“To tell them you’re going to have to sit in a chair all day long … and have things put in your head,” she said. “That’s not how they’re wired.”

Connelly, who is currently on a health-related leave of absence, said before she went on leave in late fall she was seeing more student conflicts and disruptions. One boy, who had gradually shed his previously defiant behavior, was regressing. He’d become mouthy and rude again, habits that were landing him in detention.

“We spend more time dealing with behaviors as a result of not having the time for kids to get out there and be kids,” she said.