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

explainer

Five things to know about the latest brouhaha over Tennessee’s TNReady test

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

Last week’s revelation that nearly 10,000 Tennessee high school tests were scored incorrectly has unleashed a new round of criticism of the standardized test known as TNReady.

Testing company Questar says it muffed some tests this spring after failing to update its scanning software. A year earlier, a series of mistakes got its predecessor, Measurement Inc., fired when Tennessee had to cancel most of TNReady in its first year after a failed transition to online testing.

While the two companies’ glitches are hardly comparable in scope, Questar’s flub has uncorked a tempest of frustration and anger over the standardized assessment and how it’s used to hold teachers accountable.

Here are five things to know about the latest TNReady flap:

1. A relatively small number of students, teachers, and schools are affected.

State officials report that the scoring problem was traced to only high school tests, not for its grade-schoolers. Of the 600,000 high school end-of-course tests, about 9,400 were scored incorrectly. Most of the fixes were so small that fewer than 1,700 tests — or less than one-tenth of 1 percent — saw any change in their overall performance level. A state spokeswoman says the corrected scores have been shared with the 33 impacted districts.

2. But the TNReady brand has taken another huge hit.

Tennessee has sought to rebuild public trust in TNReady under Questar and celebrated a relatively uneventful testing season last spring. But the parade of problems that surfaced during TNReady’s rollout, combined with this year’s drops in student performance under the new test, have made subsequent bumps feel more like sinkholes to educators who already are frustrated with the state’s emphasis on testing. Questar’s scanning problems were also tied to delays in delivering preliminary scores to school systems this spring — another bump that exasperated educators and parents at the end of the school year and led many districts to exclude the data from student report cards.

3. State lawmakers will revisit TNReady — and soon.

House Speaker Beth Harwell asked Monday for a hearing into the latest testing problems, and discussion could happen as early as next week when a legislative study committee is scheduled to meet in Nashville. Meanwhile, one Republican gubernatorial candidate says the state should eliminate student growth scores from teacher evaluations, and a teachers union in Memphis called on Tennessee to invalidate this year’s TNReady results.

4. Still, those talks are unlikely to derail TNReady.

Tennessee is heavily invested in its new assessment as part of its five-year strategic plan for raising student achievement. Changing course now would be a surprise. Last school year was the first time that all students in grades 3-11 took TNReady, a standardized test aligned to the Common Core standards, even though those expectations for what students should learn in math and English language arts have been in Tennessee classrooms since 2012. State officials view TNReady results as key to helping Tennessee reach its goal of ranking in the top half of states on the Nation’s Report Card by 2019.

5. Tennessee isn’t alone in traveling a bumpy testing road.

Questar was criticized this summer for its design of two tests in Missouri. Meanwhile, testing giant Pearson has logged errors and missteps in New York, Virginia, and Mississippi. And in Tennessee and Ohio this spring, the ACT testing company administered the wrong college entrance exam to almost 3,000 juniors from 31 schools. Officials with the Tennessee Department of Education emphasized this week that they expect 100 percent accuracy on scoring TNReady. “We hold our vendor and ourselves to the highest standard of delivery because that is what students, teachers, and families in Tennessee deserve,” said spokeswoman Sara Gast.

Q&A

This Wayne Township school made big gains on ISTEP, and its principal said teachers sticking around was key.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students at Robey Elementary School in Wayne Township participate in an English lesson.

As the kindergartners at Robey Elementary School shuffled down the hallway in a single-file line, the wings on their festive construction paper bat headbands flapped softly.

When Principal Ben Markley walked by, the kindergartners jostled to greet him, one after another giving a tiny wave by bending their index fingers up and down. Bat wings flapped furiously.

“Are we working hard today?” Markley asked as he approached, returning what he dubbed the “kindergarten wave” by waggling his own index finger.

“Yes!” the kids chorused back excitedly.

Markley continued down the hallway, explaining that he created the wave to give some of the school’s youngest students a special way to connect with him — a better option than running up and gluing themselves to his legs, he said.

He is now in his fifth year at Robey, a school with more than 750 students located in the northwest corner of Wayne Township. In fact, Markley has spent his entire career as an educator in Wayne Township. And he’s not alone: Of the 20 Robey teachers who taught grades that took ISTEP last year, 19 stayed on from the year before.

Markley says that retaining teachers and staff has afforded students immense benefits — not the least of which that the school made some of the largest gains of any township school on last year’s ISTEP test.

Chalkbeat sat down with Markley recently to talk about the school’s progress. Below are excerpts from the conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

Your passing rate for English and math went up about 8 percentage points from last year, and your letter grade went up from a B to an A. What was your reaction when you learned that?

Two years ago we were pretty disappointed with some of our scores. We saw some areas in math that we thought we should be addressing a little differently — the way our teachers were thinking about curriculum and really the depth and the rigor that we were presenting to our students.

There was this pretty big gap between what we were asking our kids to do and what was on the state assessment. We talked a lot about that last year. We spent a lot of our professional development time thinking about what are the deeper thinking skills that students need, especially in math. We sometimes called it how do we get kids to grapple with problems. How do we get them to show perseverance and dedication and be able to learn from mistakes — to make a mistake and accept that mistake and say, how do we grow from this?

We haven’t had the teacher turnover that some schools have had. And so (teachers within every grade) are becoming content and curricular experts. When you put smart people in the room together talking about how they teach something, they are able to share lots of great ideas.

To see that pan out in improved performance — that’s what you’re so excited about. That’s why you put all that effort and time and energy and debating and conversation in, because then our hard work paid off, and that’s rewarding for teachers.

What is your school community like?

We are about 52 to 53 percent free and reduced lunch this year. We’re about 50 percent white, about 35 to 40 percent African American and about 10 percent Hispanic.

It feels almost neighborhood- or community-like being back here. I think families know that they can come here and they can partner with staff members to try to find the best ways to help their children. We serve rural families and out-of-district families who choose to come to Robey, and we take pride in that fact.

What is your approach to leadership?

I think we have very talented, dedicated, smart people, and so I feel like my job is to get them the resources that they need. I trust the decisions that teachers make. So I want them to feel empowered to make those decisions and suggest those changes and improvements that help us move forward as a school.

I talked about staff continuity already. I think that is something I maybe even initially underestimated how important it was. It fosters a sense of collegiality. They know they’ve got each others’ backs.

It also just gives them time to wrap their minds around our curriculum. The first time you teach it, that’s a big undertaking. It’s overwhelming. And so to have consistency (with our teaching staff) from year to year … was critical to our success.