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.

Momentum

Memphis moves from problem child to poster child on Tennessee’s new school improvement list

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Memphis has been a hub of local, state, federal, and philanthropic school improvement work since Tennessee issued its first list of "priority schools" in 2012.

The city that has been the epicenter of Tennessee’s school improvement work since 2012 got encouraging news on Friday as fewer Memphis schools landed on the state’s newest list of troubled schools.

Only 45 public schools in Memphis were designated “priority schools,” compared to 57 in 2014 and 69 in 2012.

Meanwhile, more schools in Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jackson were among the 82 placed on priority status, either for being ranked academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent or having a graduation rate of less than 67 percent. They are now eligible for a share of $10 million in state grants to pay for extra resources this year — but also interventions as harsh as state takeover or closure.

Half of the schools are new to the list but won’t face takeover or closure. Those school communities will begin working with the state education department to develop district-led improvement plans, a change from previous years.

Charter schools face the most dire consequences for landing on the list if they’re authorized by local districts. In Memphis, seven will close at the end of the school year, impacting more than 1,700 students:

  • City University School Girls Preparatory
  • Du Bois Elementary of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Leadership Public Policy
  • Granville T. Woods Academy of Innovation
  • Memphis Delta Preparatory
  • The Excel Center (adult education)

Two other priority-status high schools already closed their doors in May. They were operated by former city schools superintendent Willie Herenton’s W.E.B. DuBois charter network.

This was the first priority list issued under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable and is based mostly on student test scores from 2015-16 and 2016-17. No negative results from last school year were factored in because of emergency state legislation passed to address widespread technical problems that disrupted Tennessee’s return to online testing in the spring.

The distribution of more priority schools beyond Memphis was notable.

“Shelby County in particular has had some momentum … (but) we have other districts that have not had that same momentum,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen during a morning call with reporters.

She praised Shelby County Schools for “changing the landscape” in Memphis by closing at least 15 priority schools since 2012 and for creating its own Innovation Zone to improve other schools. Another catalyst, she said, was the 2012 arrival of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which has taken over dozens of low-performing Memphis schools and assigned them to charter networks, spurring a sense of urgency.

But student gains have been better under the iZone than within the state-run district. Of the 25 priority schools absorbed by the iZone, 16 have moved off of priority status, compared to eight that have been taken over by the state. 

“When you really try and find great school leaders and great teachers, when you extend time, when you focus on professional development, and when you also focus on accountability, good things are going to happen in schools,” said Brad Leon, a Shelby County Schools strategist who supervised the iZone in its early years.

Of the 45 Memphis schools on the newest list, less than two-thirds are within Shelby County Schools, and five of those could be eligible for state takeover, according to Antonio Burt, who oversees priority school work for Tennessee’s largest district. He declined to name them.

The state Board of Education signed off on the priority list on Friday during a special meeting. The board also approved its 2018 list of “reward schools” to acknowledge a fifth of the state’s public schools for student achievement and academic growth in the last year.

Tennessee’s priority list is issued every three years, and this was the third one since 2012. But unlike with the two earlier rosters, 2018 priority status does not necessarily put a school on track for state takeover. That’s now an option of last resort as the state seeks to be more collaborative with local school leaders.

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits classrooms and students in 2015. He’s led Tennessee’s largest district since 2013.

“Our new school improvement model takes a student-focused, evidence-based approach to tailor interventions for our priority schools,” said McQueen, who promised to work closely with school communities to provide new resources. 

Those new resources will be welcomed in Memphis, where Shelby County Schools has absorbed the cost of continuing interventions even as federal and state grants expire.

“At the end of the day, we’re very proud of the work, but we’re not satisfied,” said Superintendent Dorsey Hopson. “We’re going to keep on working.”

In Nashville, Mayor David Briley called the increase from 15 to 21 priority schools “unacceptable” and promised to make swift improvements in the state’s second largest school system.

Below is a sortable 2018 list, and you can learn more about the state’s 2018 accountability work here.

Priority schools

Struggling Tennessee schools find out Friday if they could face state intervention

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Tennessee's 2018 list of priority schools will chart the state's school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year. The state issued earlier priority lists in 2012 and 2014.

School communities hovering at the bottom on student achievement have been watching anxiously to see how they could fare under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable.

They’ll begin to find out on Friday when the Education Department releases its 2018 list of “priority schools” in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent, the threshold for determining state investments such as extra money — and interventions as harsh as takeover and even closure.

The unveiling will come as the state Board of Education signs off on the list during a specially called meeting.

The 2018 priority list will be the state’s first in four years, as well as the first under a new accountability system developed in response to a 2015 federal education law. The roster will chart the state’s school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year.

Underperforming charter schools could face the toughest consequences. Those making the list will be shuttered next spring if they were authorized by local school districts. (Tennessee has state-authorized charters too, but those schools face closure only if they rank at the bottom in both 2018 and 2021.)

Calculating this year’s priority list — which initially was supposed to factor in the last three years of student test scores — has not been simple.

Because technical problems marred Tennessee’s return to online testing this spring, state lawmakers passed legislation ordering that the most recent scores can’t be used to place new schools on the priority list or move them into the state’s Achievement School District for assignment to charter networks. Instead, the newest priority schools are based mostly on student achievement from the two prior school years. However, a school on the 2014 list could potentially come off the new roster if its scores were good this year.

The legislation doesn’t mean that some repeat priority schools can’t be taken over by the state based on previous years’ test results. However, most of those are expected to continue under their current state-monitored school improvement plans. Schools that are new to the list will have to develop similar plans in collaboration with the Education Department.


READ: One state, three lists of troubled schools — another consequence of Tennessee’s testing mess


The newest priority lineup will be among a flurry of school accountability lists being released on Friday. The State Board also will sign off on “reward schools” that have achieved the highest performance or made extraordinary progress since last year, as well as a district roster that rates 145 Tennessee school systems based on a multitude of new measures under the state’s education plan as part of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

You can find the list of schools at risk of making the newest priority list here.