Are Children Learning

House Speaker Brian Bosma: Dump ISTEP for a new exam

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Frustrations with repeated problems with ISTEP have lawmakers looking for solutions.

An idea to scrap Indiana’s state standardized test in favor of an “off-the-shelf” test could make a comeback during this year’s legislative session.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, resurrected a call for a cheaper, more widely used test that turns over results to educators faster.

“It’s time for a new brand,” Bosma said. “The Senate was on that wagon last year, we didn’t really have the flexibility to do that last year, but with the change to the (No Child Left Behind Law), we have time to explore those.”

Citing recurring problems, several lawmakers today said action on ISTEP was needed. Last year’s ISTEP scores, normally released in the summer, are still delayed after repeated problems with scoring by the company Indiana hired to create and administer the exam.

Last week the Indianapolis Star reported supervisors who work at the company blew the whistle that it failed to fix another technical glitch that could mark some right answers as wrong for some students.

Legislative leaders spoke today on a panel at a legislative conference hosted by a law firm Bingham Greenebaum Doll.

“I think we’ve discussed enough,” said Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek. “I think it’s time to make a fundamental change, and on a lot of this I think we’re in broad agreement.”

Last year’s overhauled ISTEP, tied for the first time to Indiana’s tougher new standards, caused student test scores to drop sharply. That could mean schools earn far fewer A-grades and more F’s. It also could hurt pay raises for teachers, many of which are based in part on ISTEP scores.

The call to dump ISTEP is surprising for several reasons.

First, it was the legislature that derailed Indiana’s plan to adopt shared standards with other states and use an off-the-shelf test, known as PARCC, to measure student learning. That move gave ISTEP new life in 2014.

But then last year, key Senate Republicans raised concerns that the overhauled ISTEP was too costly. Led by Sen. Luke Kenley, a Noblesville Republican and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, the Senate made a push for Indiana to dump ISTEP and replace it with a different “off-the-shelf” exam. Kenley frequently suggested that an exam created by the Northwest Evaluation Association, now used to prepare students for ISTEP, could serve the state’s needs instead of ISTEP.

But that idea did not catch on, especially in the Indiana House.

After months of back-and-forth between House and Senate Republicans over how to curtail testing costs, the two-year state budget included money to pay for two more years of ISTEP, this time switching to British-based testing company Pearson to create the exam.

But in 2016, it sounds like the House leadership could jump on board with the plan to ditch ISTEP in the future. However, it’s not yet clear what kind of test flexibility will be allowed under the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which transitions over from No Child Left Behind in August 2016. The ESSA’s language says once-per-year statewide tests must be “summative,” which are tests that capture student scores at one moment in time. Formative tests, like NWEA, measure student growth over time.

Bosma said last year he didn’t want to move too quickly to make testing changes, but he was open to ideas for other tests. He echoed those same sentiments today in light of the problems with the 2015 test, which include not one, but two, scoring problems and disparities between difficulty in online and paper versions.

The issues have led to delays in the public release of ISTEP scores, now expected in January, which also holds up teacher pay decisions and school A-F grades. New more challenging academic standards rolled out last year also mean passing rates are expected to drop about 16 percentage points in English and 24 percentage points in math.

Under current law, schools that receive F-grades can face serious consequences, including being taken over by the state if they can’t raise grades after four years. Teachers who repeatedly see low ratings can face dismissal and might not be eligible for pay raises.

Although Bosma said he didn’t think an ISTEP solution could be finalized this year, he thought legislators could “set the stage” for a change in 2017.

“There is a solution that still measures Indiana’s rigorous standards appropriately, whether it’s a supplement to an off-the-shelf test … but we’ve got to put a framework together,” he said.

Democrats on the panel pointed out that they already proposed a solution to relieve schools from the effects of ISTEP score drops last month on Organization Day, the symbolic start of the session. But the plan received no support from Republican leaders, who hold super-majority control in the legislature and can pass bills without any Democratic support.

“The ISTEP situation has to be resolved,” Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said. “We think that it would do well to either do a hold harmless type of approach in terms of the using those tests for the things that we use them for or to simply do a pause because we think that this year’s test wasn’t valid.”

Bosma and other Republican leaders haven’t supported such a pause, but he mentioned the state might consider using a two- or three-year average of past grades for 2015 instead. He said he isn’t sure such a measure would be allowed under Indiana’s waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Law, but his team is actively talking with federal education officials.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, has long supported the “hold harmless” approach, which would only require schools to publicize 2015 A-F grades if they are better or the same as 2014 grades. Samantha Hart, Ritz’s spokeswoman, has said such one-year pauses are “consistent with the spirit of the flexibility (the U.S. Department of Education) has offered.”

Hart said ISTEP score or other letter grade adjustments may or may not fall into that category.

“(Federal officials) have told us that anything outside of hold harmless will have to go through the peer review process,” Hart said in an email. “And we do not know if that would be approved or not, or how long that process could take.”

Gov. Mike Pence announced last month that he backed a proposal to “decouple” student scores from teacher evaluations and bonus pay. Bosma said a bill with such language protecting teachers from the sting of lower test scores would be fast-tracked when the session begins in January.

But so far, Pence has not said what approach he would support to adjust A-F grades.

“Governor Pence has committed to and continues to work with legislative leadership to ensure that test results will not negatively impact teacher bonuses,” Pence’s spokeswoman, Kara Brooks, said in a statement. “And that the A-F system fairly reflects the efforts of our students and teachers this year.”

History alive

Inspired by Hamilton, Colorado students perform their own raps and poems on the big stage

PHOTO: Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
From left, West Leadership Academy's Alexandra Andazola Chavez, Jose Torres Andazola, Rossy Martinez Sanchez, and Zehydi Chaparro Rojas perform "The Story of Peggy."

The plush red seats at the Wednesday matinee of Hamilton in Denver were filled with 2,700 teenagers who’d spent weeks studying a special curriculum about the hip-hop musical’s namesake, Alexander Hamilton, and the other Founding Fathers. Even though the show’s four-week Denver run had been sold out for months, the teenagers were seeing it for free.

Some of them had dressed for the occasion in high-heeled boots and three-piece suits. Others wore jeans and Converse. They represented 38 Colorado high schools that serve high proportions of students from low-income families, and many of them were students of color.

That’s notable because most of the cast of Hamilton are actors of color. Hamilton, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson are played by black and Latino actors, a decision creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has said reflects America’s racial makeup and is meant to pull the audience into the story of an immigrant, Hamilton, who played an important role in the nation’s founding.

Before the show, 23 students took the stage to perform their own spoken word poems, raps, monologues, and scenes inspired by what they’d learned from the Hamilton Education Program curriculum, which was devised in part by Miranda and has its own hashtag: #EduHam.

“My body felt electrified,” said Josiah Blackbear, a 15-year-old sophomore at West Early College in Denver, who performed a rap he’d written about Alexander Hamilton. “The words I was speaking brought power and truth to the rest of the venue.”

Here is video of six of the student performances, including one entirely in Spanish.


During Memphis visit, former Newark schools chief touts ways to change student discipline

PHOTO: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Cami Anderson when she was superintendent of schools in Newark, New Jersey.

As the top schools chief in Newark, Cami Anderson was horrified at the strict discipline policy she saw in one of her high schools. Since then, she has left the New Jersey district and taken her ideas on the road about reducing suspensions and moving away from exclusionary discipline practices.

This week, Anderson came to Memphis as part of her Discipline Revolution Project at the invitation of Stand for Children Tennessee, The Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, School Seed, and Shelby County Schools. The New Teacher Project is partnering with her on the national tour.

Anderson has been meeting with Shelby County Schools administrators and board members as well as charter school leaders, philanthropists, education advocates, and students. Her time will culminate in a public event hosted by Stand for Children on Thursday at the National Civil Rights Museum.

Chalkbeat sat down with Anderson after she explained to a group of about 40 charter leaders her six focus areas to reduce classroom disruptions while also preventing sending students home when they’re in trouble. (This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.)

Related story: Tennessee students more likely to be suspended if they’re black boys — or live in Memphis

Question: How did you land on student discipline as an area you wanted to focus on?

Answer: If there’s actually a thread in my career, it’s this. I essentially ran the system of supports for the kids in New York City who are on their last stop on the train, so to speak. I’ve always worked with kids who are marginalized, the ones who really struggled in school. So, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what we need to get better at collectively to serve all kids, to really embrace the “all means all.” That’s been my lifelong question.

The three areas to me where inequities are most obvious are: enrollment policies, how we handle discipline, and mobility and how a kid stays connected to school. Discipline is where it comes to a head. It’s both a place where our collective inability to reach all kids shows up and it’s also an opportunity if we actually figure out how to prevent young people from misstepping in the first place, but then respond in healthy ways when they do Then we’d actually start to solve the broader equity issues.

Q. School leaders say they don’t want to have a lot of suspensions because students miss out on class. But they’re also not sure what to replace suspensions with to manage student behavior well. What would you say to them?

"You can’t just be against something. You have to be for something."Cami Anderson

A. That’s one of the main reasons we started Discipline Revolution Project. We don’t want you to do X, whatever X is: suspend kids, use corporal punishment. But educators are saying, rightfully so, then what are we doing? Our whole framework is trying to answer that question and give them tools to get to the “why” behind finding alternative responses.

Most people who use punitive or exclusionary discipline don’t actually think it works that well. They just don’t have a lot of other tools. So, when you give folks a lot of other tools and they find that it works, it’s a very powerful thing. When people try out a restorative conference, they say “Oh, I feel better. The kid feels better. And we actually got back to the lesson faster.” You can’t just be against something. You have to be for something.

I’ve heard a lot of demand for basics of restorative practices (conflict resolution between students and students and teachers), though I don’t think they should stop there. They want training for student support teams. And overwhelmingly, the places I’ve been want to talk about how teacher bias plays into who gets disciplined, but they don’t know how to start the conversation and for it to be productive.

Q. Memphis’ two school districts have emphasized a bottom-up approach on discipline reform: adding behavior specialists, school counselors, soliciting support from principals and teachers. How have you seen other districts do it?

"Policy-level change is critical but insufficient if you only do that."Cami Anderson

A. I’ve seen districts lead with policy and only make statements declaring they will cut suspensions in half or put a moratorium on suspensions or rewrite their policy. Policy-level change is critical but insufficient if you only do that. What you see is folks who are actually on the ground working with students may not have the strategies to replace it with something productive. That causes people to be more entrenched in their views that discipline reform wouldn’t work, some schools subtly pushing kids out, underreporting discipline data, all that.

I’ve also seen the opposite where it’s all about professional development and capacity but at no point is there is any accountability for those same schools, for example, that suspend 90 percent of the kids. People watch what you do, not what you say. If you don’t align your policies and your actions with your values, then you also have limits to the impacts you have for kids.

Frustrated with high suspension rates, Memphis schools shift to restorative justice

I’ve come to believe you need all of it and you need everyone working together. Stop admiring the problem and get on to the solutions.

Q. What pushed student discipline practices more widely into the national conversation? What have you observed from the conversation here in Memphis?

A. People are looking at data, which is a good thing, and seeing patterns like everyone else. Another thing is I believe a lot of people who got into education reform are completely dedicated to equity. And now they’re seeing this side of it, and like someone said in the training today, they feel a sense of “healthy guilt.” I think it’s great they’re having the courage to be honest. And then a lot of folks had kids. You start thinking, “Do I want any of that happening to my own kid?” I’m personally heartened and encouraged and motivated to see a collective sense of responsibility and focus on this.

There’s a lot of energy and candor in Memphis about this issue. Some other cities I’ve been in think they have it figured out when they don’t. When there’s that much energy, I think anywhere — including in Memphis — people can be tempted to devolve into the blame game, no matter what district or charter hat you wear. That energy can be the greatest asset or greatest liability.

Study: When Chicago cut down on suspensions, students saw test scores and attendance rise

Q. The school shooting in Parkland has been a catalyst for more conversations about the trauma students bring into the classroom — conversations that were already happening about violence in low-income communities of color. What would you say to school leaders on how to address that?

A. I’m most interested to know what adults can do to mitigate those risk factors for young people who experience trauma. I feel like it could take us down a very bad path to just observe that there are things called “adverse childhood experiences.” To me, that’s not enough. The question then is what are the environments and strategies that we can put in place as educators and adults to mitigate the impact of those traumatic experiences. Things like relationships, trust, consistency, high expectations, high supports, and support healthy identity development especially in times of conflict. We know from research that young people who face long odds who ultimately prevail, they are exposed to environments that really embody those things.

You can both be aware of and acknowledge those experiences that make it harder for them to succeed in school. But if you stop there, I don’t think you’re doing justice to young people. There are things we can do in schools to help create the environment to help them succeed.