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

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,’” said district spokeswoman Janelle Asmus. “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, said Asmus. 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.

moving forward

State board OKs new A-F grade plan that ‘will affect every school in Indiana’

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
The state board met for its January meeting on Wednesday.

Student test scores would play a bigger role in determining school A-F grades under new draft rules approved by the Indiana State Board of Education, despite concerns from some board members and educators from across the state.

The rules, approved 7-4, are only proposals at this point. Next they go into a formal rulemaking process that begins with opportunities for public comment. After revisions, the state board will vote on final A-F grading rules so it can go into effect for 2018-19. The vote would probably be this summer.

Steve Baker, principal at Bluffton High School, said he was frustrated and disappointed that the board didn’t vet some of the changes with educators or have a public discussion before working them into the draft that would begin rulemaking.

“Not one educator I talked with knew about this,” Baker said. “Yet this plan will affect every school in Indiana.”

State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, who is a member of the board, voted in favor of the changes. But the rules are far from final, she said, and she doesn’t necessarily agree with them in their current form.

“Do I think it’s going to change? Yes,” McCormick said “I think it’s a good thing for people to know what the board’s thinking.”

The changes come as Indiana works to create a plan comply with new federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The vote followed a contentious conversation that took hours. Initially, board member Gordon Hendry suggested the board table their vote until they could discuss the grading changes further. Last week, educators and some board members were caught unaware by some of the grade formula changes, which hadn’t received a discussion in public.

“Some of the language didn’t receive the proper discussion before being crafted,” Hendry said. “The cart was a little bit before the horse, and there should have been, in my opinion, a full board discussion before pen was put to paper.”

Chad Ranney, an attorney for the board, said some board members asked him about making some changes in the A-F model. When he saw the number of changes coming through, Ranney said he decided to solicit feedback from the entire board.

It’s not clear which board member saw what email when, particularly over the winter holidays, but some did not offer input and were surprised when they learned the new rules would be up for a vote in January without additional discussion.

Ultimately, a majority of board members wanted to stick with the new proposed rules, arguing that they had plenty of time to weigh in.

The proposed formula would give more weight to the number of students who pass tests and stop measuring how much high school students improve their test scores. Also, two new measures would be added: “Well-rounded” for elementary and middle schools and “on-track” for high schools.

The “well-rounded” piece is calculated based on state science and social studies tests given once in elementary and middle school. The “on-track” measure would be calculated based on whether high school students, by the end of their freshman year, have received at least 10 course credits and have received no more than one F in either English, math, science or social studies. For high schools, improvement in test scores would be removed entirely in 2023, as would the “college and career-readiness” measure.