Making the grade

In Chicago, the surprising reasons so many students fail P.E.

PHOTO: Getty Images

Back in eighth grade, Jennifer Nava used to love physical education.

“It is super fun and you feel safe and comfortable participating,” said Nava, now a junior at Thomas Kelly High School in Chicago’s Brighton Park.

But when she started ninth grade, that changed dramatically. “In high school, you don’t want to put effort into it and embarrass yourself,” she said.

Even so, Nava figured out how to pass P.E. But not all her classmates managed to do the same.

Surprising new research shows around one in 10 Chicago students fail P.E. — a higher rate than math, English, or any other class. Yet nearly everyone passes gym in eighth grade.

The failures matter because experts say they could portend eventual failure in high school and beyond.

So why does P.E. suddenly become so challenging in ninth grade?

For one thing, the course changes significantly. In middle school, students may have gym class once a week and don’t have to change clothes. In high school, freshman have gym every day, must bring and change into exercise clothing, and also have to take a health and reproduction class.

Students like Nava say those changes, compounded by adolescent self-consciousness heightened by having to take their clothes off in a crowded locker room and to shed sweaty clothing and rush to the next class, felt like too much.

The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research’s Hidden Risk report analyzes Chicago Public Schools student grades across a range of subjects from eighth to ninth grade. It found that some of the sharpest drops in GPA came in non-core subjects such as P.E. and art.

One Chicago P.E. teacher, Carly Zwiazek, said that, on any given day, she may see up to 200 students, or 40 to 45 students in each of her classes at Curie Metro High School in Archer Heights. Teaching such large classes makes following up on no-show or lagging students is challenging, she said.

She said she fails students who skip class, but not necessarily those who refuse to change into gym clothes. “That is only part of your grade for the day,” she said. “The lesson is to engage based on your skill level.”

She sees P.E. as a lab to learn to manage mundane but important demands of life as adults. “I simply connect it with the real world,” Zwiazek said. “You’ll have to wear the appropriate stuff to work, work with people you normally don’t like to work with.”

But she struggles to convince students, as she battles social attitudes that devalue exercise and gym. “The classes aren’t taken seriously. They are looked at as electives,” she said. “But if they are a high school graduation requirement they should be held to the same level of importance.”

The freshman year conundrum

The transition from eighth to ninth grade is tough, and that isn’t a new phenomenon. No matter how well they did in middle school, nearly all Chicago students see their grades fall when they start high school.

That difficulty surfaces at a critical time: Some education researchers have called ninth grade the most important year in high school.

The Chicago district uses a metric called “freshman on-track” to judge whether students are making enough progress to position them to graduate on time. This year, the district hit its highest measure for freshmen on track yet, at 89.4 percent.

But that figure doesn’t take into account non-core classes like P.E.

What struck researchers was the sharp rise in failure rates in subjects such as P.E. that, only the year before, most students were passing.

In Chicago, hardly any eighth-graders fail P.E., said Jenny Nagaoka, the Consortium on School Research’s deputy director. But in ninth grade, almost 10 percent fail, the research found.

That was the biggest drop in grades for any subject, with an average drop of 0.81 point from middle to high school. The drop was particularly sharp for black boys, whose grades in P.E. dropped one full point, and for students who were already at high risk of dropping out of high school.

The figures are important not only as indicators, but because non-core subjects make up one-third of many students’ grade-point averages.

“If you fail P.E., your probability of graduating is a little bit lower than if you failed just algebra, or just English, or just biology,” said Nagaoka. “We tend to discount less academic classes, but they are as predictive of graduation as core subjects.”

A sharp learning curve

Why are so many students failing or struggling in P.E.? Former and current Chicago students say it’s because P.E. in high school runs into a perfect storm of students’ body insecurities, the logistical difficulties of changing clothing during the school day, and the struggle of juggling classes in a demanding new environment.

P.E. and health class are mandatory in ninth and 10th grades.

Veronica Rodriguez, who graduated from Back of the Yards High School last spring, said many girls in her classes would go into bathroom stalls to change instead of in the locker room. It took them more time, she said, but made them feel more comfortable.

Rodriguez said changing and participating are particularly difficult for girls.  Students who wouldn’t swim during their menstrual periods would earn penalties from teachers.

“They would add a lot of pressure and shame students who wouldn’t want to participate in activities,” said Rodriguez, now a freshman at the University of Illinois at Chicago, about her teachers.

P.E.’s focus on following rules might explain the high number of black and Latino male students struggling in gym. The Hidden Risks report notes that grades in gym are often based on judging compliance and discipline, areas in which research shows that educators more harshly judge male students of color.  

Nava said she would like to see gym teachers be more understanding of teenagers, especially those dealing with their first years of menstruation.

“When a period hits, it’s really embarrassing to have to wear shorts,” she said. “If they don’t feel comfortable playing basketball on their period you shouldn’t threaten them.”

She also said some of the reasons given for changing clothing in P.E. — so that students don’t get sweaty — are less important in schools where temperatures fluctuate. Many neighborhood Chicago schools fail to control building temperatures. At Kelly, Nava said, students roast in classrooms in both summer and winter. Changing for gym, she said, “is not making a difference.”

Instead, Nava said she would tell her gym teacher that she forget her gym clothes and join students standing along the wall instead of running laps or playing basketball. Then, one week a month, she would be sure to bring her gym clothes every day so her grade didn’t drop.

And when it was time to go to another class from gym and she was running late, Nava would prioritize arriving on time. “If I have to pick between my AP psychology class and P.E., I’m taking my AP psychology.”

Focus on the transition

Over the past decade, the district has tried to smooth the transition for entering ninth-graders, in part by focusing on young people who were at risk of dropping out and by zeroing in on students struggling in their core subjects.

The Hidden Risks report, school officials acknowledge, shows a lingering, clear gap.

The district must pay more attention to student performance in non-core classes, Janice Jackson, CEO of Chicago Public Schools, told Chalkbeat. “I can see this influencing practice at the school level,” Jackson said. “There is the next edge of growth, and this data has really pointed that out.”

One model might come from North-Grand High School, which emphasizes the importance of P.E. from freshman orientation, when new students learn they need P.E. and health credits to graduate. P.E. teachers spell out expectations in detail, Principal Emily Feltes said.

“We talk about what to do if you miss a day,” she said. “Even things like, ‘You will have a locker in the locker room, let’s practice putting our stuff in there.’”

The school also includes P.E. teachers in conversations with English and math teachers about student development and how to help a student’s performance.

“I think it has been helpful for us to have them involved in professional learning communities,” Feltes said.

At Sullivan High School, Principal Chad Adams regards the nearly 10 percent P.E. failure rate as “kind of alarming.”

Sullivan folds electives into the literacy department, in an effort to integrate them with the academic instruction all students receive. “We look at standards being taught in English and social science, and try to find standards we can also teach in elective classes,” Adams said.

To fully track how non-core classes like art and P.E. affect student achievement, the Hidden Risk report suggests expanding the definition of the “freshman on-track” metric to consider failure in non-core classes as a warning sign.  

The report also suggests that, in light of the large number of black and Latino male students struggling in P.E., educators review how they’re grading, to correct for teacher bias about compliance and discipline.

Jennifer Nava has another suggestion. She said she’d like to see schools find a more thoughtful way to balance P.E. requirements with the comfort of teenagers in the difficult first year of high school.

“Students have to pick between their own comfort and grades,” she said.

Are Children Learning

Second study shows Indianapolis charter students fare better on tests

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

The second study in a week shows strong test scores for students at Indianapolis charter schools, bolstering the claims of advocates in a city where school choice continues to expand.

Indianapolis elementary students who attend mayor-sponsored charter schools beginning in kindergarten — and remain in the same schools — make bigger improvements on state tests than their peers in traditional schools across the city, according to the latest study.

The study contributes to emerging research that suggest that charter schools that are well managed and have good instruction can be successful, said co-author Hardy Murphy, a clinical professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the IUPUI School of Education.

The results of the study indicate Indianapolis charter school students are doing better than they would’ve done if they hadn’t enrolled in charter schools, Murphy said.

“This does not appear to have happened by chance,” he said. “I believe that the school experiences and the instructional teachers of those schools they are enrolled in are actually a big part of the results that we are seeing,”

The educational landscape in Indianapolis is defined by school choice. About 18,000 students who live in Marion County attend charter schools, and thousands more transfer to nearby districts or attend private schools with vouchers, according to state data. In recent years, the state’s largest district, Indianapolis Public Schools, has also become a national model for partnerships with charter schools. That makes understanding school performance essential for parents — but unpacking whether schools actually help boost student achievement can be particularly thorny for researchers.

With this study, Murphy said he and co-author Sandi Cole, director of the Center on Education and Lifelong Learning at Indiana University Bloomington, hope to disentangle one factor that makes studying charter schools difficult: the dips in test scores that students often experience after transferring to new schools. Murphy’s research focuses on students who began in charter schools in kindergarten and compares them to similar students in traditional public schools in Indianapolis.

“It’s time to move beyond the debate about whether or not charter schools are effective and start talking about, when they are effective, why, and for whom?” Murphy said, adding that successful approaches can be used in other settings.

The study focuses solely on students who attend charter schools authorized by the mayor’s office. For the control group, the study included township districts as well as Indianapolis Public Schools. The researchers plan to present their results to the education committee of the Indianapolis City-County Council and the 2019 Conference on Academic Research in Education.

The findings add to a growing body of research on Indianapolis charter schools. Last week, the Stanford-based group CREDO released a report that found that students at charter schools had test score gains that mirrored the state average, while Indianapolis Public Schools students made smaller gains on math and reading tests than their peers across the state. Another recent study found that when students moved to charter schools their test scores held steady.

To Do

Tennessee’s new ed chief says troubleshooting testing is first priority

PHOTO: (Caiaimage/Robert Daly)

Penny Schwinn knows that ensuring a smooth testing experience for Tennessee students this spring will be her first order of business as the state’s new education chief.

Even before Gov.-elect Bill Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, she was poring over a recent report by the state’s chief investigator about what went wrong with TNReady testing last spring and figuring out her strategy for a different outcome.

“My first days will be spent talking with educators and superintendents in the field to really understand the scenario here in Tennessee,” said Schwinn, who’s been chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas since 2016.

“I’ll approach this problem with a healthy mixture of listening and learning,” she added.

Schwinn’s experience with state assessment programs in Texas and in Delaware — where she was assistant secretary of education — is one of the strengths cited by Lee in selecting her for one of his most critical cabinet posts.

The Republican governor-elect has said that getting TNReady right is a must after three straight years of missteps in administration and scoring in Tennessee’s transition to online testing. Last year, technical disruptions interrupted so many testing days that state lawmakers passed emergency legislation ordering that poor scores couldn’t be used to penalize students, teachers, schools, or districts.

Schwinn, 36, recalls dealing with testing headaches during her first days on the job in Texas.

“We had testing disruptions. We had test booklets mailed to the wrong schools. We had answer documents in testing booklets. We had online administration failures,” she told Chalkbeat. “From that, we brought together teachers, superintendents, and experts to figure out solutions, and we had a near-perfect administration of our assessment the next year.”

What she learned in the process: the importance of tight vendor management, including setting clear expectations of what’s expected.

She plans to use the same approach in Tennessee, working closely with people in her new department and Questar Assessment, the state’s current vendor.

“Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

The test itself has gotten good reviews in Tennessee; it’s the online miscues that have many teachers and parents questioning the switch from paper-and-pencil exams. Schwinn sees no choice but to forge ahead online and is quick to list the benefits.

“If you think about how children learn and access information today, many are getting that information from hand-held devices and computers,” she said, “so reflecting that natural experience in our classrooms is incredibly important.”

Schwinn said computerized testing also holds promise for accommodating students with disabilities and provides for a more engaging experience for all students.

“When you look at the multiple-choice tests that we took in school and compare that to an online platform where students can watch videos, perform science experiments, do drag-and-drop and other features, students are just more engaged in the content,” she said.

“It’s a more authentic experience,” she added, “and therefore a better measure of learning.”

Schwinn plans to examine Tennessee’s overall state testing program to look for ways to reduce the number of minutes dedicated to assessment and also to elevate transparency.

She also will oversee the transition when one or more companies take over the state’s testing program beginning next school year. Former Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered a new request for proposals from vendors to provide paper testing for younger students and online testing for older ones. State officials have said they hope to award the contract by spring.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee plan to provide another layer of oversight.

Spring testing in Tennessee is scheduled to begin on April 15. You can learn more about TNReady on the state education department’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about problems with the handling of two education contracts in Texas.