Are Children Learning

Here's why Indianapolis isn't one of the U.S. cities that will get comparison national test data

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

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
Charlotte-Mecklenburg 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

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.