Nearly every big-city school district in the country is measured by an important national schools ranking — but Indianapolis is left out because of the odd way its schools are divided.
Six more cities were added to to the ranking this week, giving parents, teachers and school leaders in Denver, Milwaukee, Memphis and the other cities a chance to gain crucial information about how their students compare with their peers around the nation.
But the Indianapolis students are spread out over 11 districts, meaning the city is not being considered for the ranking.
There are now 27 U.S. cities participating for a special project of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as NAEP or “The Nation’s Report Card.”
NAEP is an exam used to gauge national academic progress. It is given every other year to a sample of fourth- and eighth-grade students across the country.
Since 2002, NAEP has also been given to a larger sample of students in a group of cities as part of what it calls the Trial Urban District Assessment. That allows for comparison data, which shows how the cities rank against each other.
NAEP is a rigorous exam that has been given for decades. Its passing rate is usually lower than most state exams like Indiana’s ISTEP. But its wide scope and long track record makes it ideal for comparing the test performance of American kids across the country and over time.
“Cities wanted to be able to compare themselves across state lines with other big-city school districts that shared many of the same issues and challenges,” said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, which first suggested the urban ranking.
“We wanted to be able to tell whether or not the reforms we were pursuing were producing results,” Casserly added. With different districts trying different reform strategies, comparing results was one way to tell which were working and which weren’t, he said.
“NAEP gave us data at a level of detail across state lines that we couldn’t get any place else.”
The new group of cities added Tuesday included several that could be seen as potential peers for Indianapolis based on size and demographics, such as Denver, Milwaukee, Memphis and Fort Worth, Texas. Also added to the study were Las Vegas and Greensboro, the school district where Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee spent most of his career.
The city of Indianapolis, 13th largest in the U.S. with a population of more than 850,000, is actually bigger than all the cities that were added to the study and Indianapolis otherwise would qualify for the NAEP study based on other demographic factors it requires. But a NAEP spokesman said the study simply isn’t set up to do the study in a city that doesn’t have a single large school district.
The city’s unwieldy system spreads more than 140,000 public school students across 11 school districts, meaning no single Indianapolis district is large enough to qualify for the ranking.
The state’s largest school district, Indianapolis Public Schools, has an enrollment of 29,581 — much smaller than the main school districts of most cities the size of Indianapolis.
Indianapolis was one of the first cities in the country to create a unified city-county government. Small cities and townships in Marion County were merged into the city and share most services. The big exception was schools, which remained divided.
That means Indianapolis has no good way to know how its students are measuring up.
Most standardized tests are state-created exams that are not comparable beyond state borders. And national exams like the SAT and ACT are not taken by all students, which make them difficult to use as the basis of comparing scores. Even other academic comparison factors, like graduation rate, are calculated differently in different places.
Those sorts of comparisons were a primary goal of the shared Common Core standards and linked tests like PARCC as both were being developed. Indiana was an early adopter of Common Core and a leader in the group that developed PARCC. But Gov. Mike Pence withdrew the state from PARCC during his first year in office and the Indiana legislature ordered the state to withdraw from Common Core and write its own standards in 2014.
Pence and Republican leaders argued that following Common Core would ultimately lead to a loss of state control over standards. The U.S. Department of Education and President Obama supported Common Core and asked states to adopt the standards in return for release from some of the consequences of the federal No Child Left Behind law, which was evidence enough to some of them that Common Core was too connected to federal priorities.
Indiana’s new academic standards are considered strongly aligned to Common Core. But the state’s ISTEP test is not comparable to PARCC or other exams.
More states have followed Indiana’s lead by pulling out of Common Core and PARCC. In fact, that was one factor in Denver’s decision to volunteer for the NAEP study.
“Given the decrease in the number of PARCC states, and the lack of comparable districts in Colorado, DPS was interested in seeing how we compare to other large urban districts throughout the country,” Denver officials said in a statement.
Students in urban school districts tend to score lower than the national average on NAEP reading and math tests. But data from the past 12 years shows that big-city school districts are narrowing that gap. In addition, results show that the reading scores of some black and Latino boys in urban districts have improved more than the scores of black and Latino boys nationwide.
The urban district comparisons have revealed two ingredients necessary to improve student achievement, Casserly said: Programs that improve the quality and rigor of classroom instruction, and a district leadership team united around a common agenda.
The Indiana legislature is debating whether to replace ISTEP after 2017. One option is to use some sort of shared exam that other states use but given the politics surrounding the Common Core and PARCC, lawmakers don’t appear poised to return PARCC.
Here’s the list of urban school districts (including new additions marked *) participating in NAEP’s Trial Urban District Assessment:
*Shelby County Schools (Memphis)
*Clark County School District (including Las Vegas)
*Denver Public Schools
*Fort Worth Independent School District (Texas)
*Guilford County Schools (including Greensboro, N.C.)
*Milwaukee Public Schools
Albuquerque Public Schools (New Mexico)
Atlanta Public Schools
Austin Independent School District (Texas)
Baltimore City Public Schools
Boston Public Schools
Chicago Public Schools
Cleveland Metropolitan School District
Dallas Independent School District
Detroit Public Schools
District of Columbia Public Schools
Duval County Public Schools (Jacksonville, Fla.)
Fresno Unified School District (California)
Hillsborough County Public Schools (Tampa, Fla.)
Houston Independent School District
Jefferson County Public Schools (Louisville, Ky.)
Los Angeles Unified School District
Miami-Dade County Public Schools
New York City Public Schools
School District of Philadelphia
San Diego Unified School District