Future of Schools

A-to-F changes pass after more state board drama

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
State Superintendent Glenda Ritz and board members David Freitas and B.J. Watts at a 2015 meeting.

If schools don’t make sure all students are getting higher scores on state tests starting in 2016, they might find they can’t earn an “A” accountability grade — ever.

Following a painstaking, and at times acrimonious, debate about final revisions to Indiana’s A-to-F school grading rules, The Indiana State Board of Education voted on a change that will equally balance each school’s passing rate with student gains over the prior year to determine the grade.

That is expected to make it harder for schools to earn an A grade, but so will another change. Schools will be required to show any group of vulnerable children that score below the rest of the school — such as ethnic minorities, children in special education and English language learners — is catching up, or the highest grade they can earn is a B.

The changes passed 8-1, with board member and teacher Andrea Neal voting no.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz said she was pleased to see the new accountability system move forward.

“We are going to have a fair, transparent accountaiblity system,” Ritz said. “The great thing about the system is that it’s going to separate, totally, performance and growth.”

The decision didn’t come, however, without a lengthy, contentious debate about board procedures.

Board member Brad Oliver stopped Ritz’s presentation on the A-to-F rules to complain that the board had not had time to review late changes to some of the rule language made by the Indiana Department of Education this week. Since the public did not have the opportunity to comment on those changes, Oliver said he feared they could violate the intricate process for creating rules spelled out in state law.

“It does not feel transparent at this late hour,” Oliver said. “Whether they are right or wrong is irrelevant. The point is that there is a process for going before the board.”

But Ritz said the changes didn’t affect the overall policy — they mostly fixed typos and clarified language and terminology.

“My department needs clarification on the rules before we adopt the rules,” Ritz said. “I think you will see the are very simple word changes that give clarity to what we need to do.”

For more than an hour, Ritz and other board members debated back and forth about whether the revised rules should be given a vote or a prior version considered instead. Brian Murphy, an attorney for the state board, ultimately suggested a solution: once the rules finalized on April 29 were passed and signed by the governor, the state board could submit the education department’s latest proposed changes to the Legislative Services Agency. The agency, he said, can approve small changes as long as they don’t change the meaning of the rules.

This seemed to satisfy Ritz and most of the rest of the board, leading to the successful vote.

“I’m feeling pretty confident right now with the changes that I know that we wanted to see from the department,” Ritz said afterward. “I’m excited that we came to a conclusion about how we were going to do that.”

An A could be harder to get come 2016

A’s will be harder for schools to earn because of a new emphasis on vulnerable student groups by the U.S. Department of Education. Ritz said last year’s revised “waiver” agreement between Indiana and federal officials, which released the state from some sanctions of the No Child Left Behind Act, included a new requirement that could block some otherwise high-scoring schools from receiving A grades.

Federal officials wanted assurance that Indiana would require schools to show test score gains, even by a small margin over the prior year, for those students who have traditionally scored lower than the schoolwide average. If they can’t, the best score they can get is a B.

But Cynthia Roach, the state board’s testing and accountability director, said there is a lot of flexibility around what improvement means.

“So long as (schools) are showing any improvement in growth or performance in any category, we will consider that as moving toward closing the gaps,” she said.

The new model, which will be used for the first time after spring 2016 state tests, will also change to count test passing rates as half of a school’s grade and student test score improvement as the other half. Previously, the board considered weighting passing rates more — at 60 percent. The state’s current model doesn’t significantly factor in growth to determine a school’s grade.

Public comment drove that change, Roach said.

“The public comments that we received were sort of overwhelmingly pushing for more weight to be given to growth,” she said.

For high schools, a “college- and career-readiness” score and five-year graduation rate would account for 60 percent of the score. Another 20 percent of the A-to-F calculation would be based on test score gains over the prior year and 20 percent on the number of students who pass. Elementary and middle school measures will be based solely on ISTEP test scores.

Measuring student improvement

The new A-to-F rules were developed by a 17-member panel of state officials and educators appointed by State Superintendent Glenda Ritz and Gov. Mike Pence that began working in 2013.

The panel was originally charged with overhauling the A-to-F system — moving away from comparing students to their peers and toward looking at student test growth compared to a specific standard.

One option the state has considered for calculating student growth would be based on an “observed growth table” that would be revised each year based on that year’s test scores. The table uses percentiles to judge how much a student’s score has improved and awards growth “points” based on that improvement.

A draft version of how the table might work was shared with the board, although with the caution from staff that the final numbers on the table were likely to change:

So how would it work?

There are three possible outcomes — a student could do worse from one year to the next, the same or better. Each outcome brings with it a certain number of growth points.

During public forums, educators and community members were unhappy with how growth points were originally presented. The example said a student jumping from “do not pass” to a score in the highest percentile couldn’t earn the maximum number of growth points. A student making that much improvement should get the highest reward, they argued.

Similarly, there was concern with the example chart that a student who was “pass plus” one year but passed with a lower score than the year before could still earn growth points for a worse overall score.

State board testing director Cynthia Roach said the growth points were not at all final, and the chart as a whole could change extensively as the state works through concerns. Lotter said it would be finalized along with cut scores in the fall of 2016.

another path

‘They’re my second family.’ Largest Pathways to Graduation class earn their diplomas

Jasmine Byrd receives an award for excellence after giving a speech to her fellow graduates.

Before last fall, Jasmine Byrd never envisioned herself striding across the stage to receive a diploma at a graduation ceremony.

But then Byrd moved to the Bronx from Utah and entered New York City’s Pathways to Graduation program, which helps 17- to 21-year-olds who didn’t graduate from a traditional high school earn a High School Equivalency Diploma by giving them free resources and support.

Just walking into this space and being like, this is what you’ve accomplished and this is what you’ve worked hard for is a great feeling,” said Byrd, who also credits the program with helping her snag a web development internship. “I’ve built my New York experience with this program. They’re my second family, sometimes my first when I needed anything.”

Byrd is one of about 1,700 students to graduate during the 2017-2018 school year from Pathways, the program’s largest graduating class to date, according to officials.  

This year, students from 102 countries and 41 states graduated from Pathways, which is part of District 79, the education department district overseeing programs for older students who have had interrupted schooling.

The program also saw the most students ever participate in its graduation ceremony, a joyful celebration held this year at the Bronx United Palace Theater. According to Robert Evans, a math teacher at one of the program’s five boroughwide sites and emcee of the graduation, about 600 students typically show up to walk the stage. But students can be a part of the ceremony even if they received their passing test results that morning, and this year more than 800 graduates attended.

There were still students coming in last night to take photos and to pick up their sashes and gowns,” said Evans.

The graduation ceremony is unique in part because the program is. Students who have not completed high school attend classes to prepare to take the high school equivalency exam. But the program also prepares students to apply for college, attend vocational school, or enter the workforce by providing help applying for colleges, creating resumes and other coaching.

To make sure that the program is accessible to all students, there’s a main site in every borough and 92 satellite sites, located in community centers and youth homeless shelters like Covenant House. Students who want to work in the medical field, like Genesis Rocio Rodriguez, can take their courses in hospitals. Rodriguez, who graduated in December, is now enrolled in the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and passing the exam meant being one step closer to her dream of becoming a nurse.

When I got my results I was with my classmate, and to be honest I thought I failed because I was so nervous during it. But then I went online, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh I did it!’ My mom started crying and everything.”

Byrd said the program worked for her because of the supportive teachers and extra resources.

“The teachers are relatable,” said Byrd. “They don’t put on an act, they don’t try to separate the person from the teacher. They really reach out, even call you to get you out of bed in the morning.”

Carmine Guirland said the supportive environment of social workers, guidance counselors, and teachers is what attracts him to the work at Bronx NeOn, a site where students who are on probation or who are involved with the court system can prepare for the exam, college, and careers.

When students are on parole they will have really involved [parole officers] who would text me at the beginning of class to check in so that we could work together,” said Guirland. “It’s really about that village thing. The more support systems that are available the more success the students will have.”

Reflecting on his experiences with the graduating class, Guirland’s most treasured memory was when one of his students proposed to his girlfriend in a guidance counseling session. Even though they aren’t together anymore, the moment was a reflection of the relationships that many of the students build during their time at Pathways to Graduation.

“It’s this amazing high moment where this student felt like the most comfortable place for him to propose to his girlfriend and the mother of his child was in our advisory circle,” said Guirland.

New Standards

Tennessee updates science standards for first time in 10 years. New guidelines stress class discussion, inquiry

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Fourth grade science teachers Lamarcus Marks, of Rivercrest Elementary, and Angie Clement, of Bartlett Elementary, test out a lesson on kinetic and potential energy at Arlington High School, one of 11 statewide sites where Tennessee teachers are training for next year's new science standards.

How can a wolf change the river? Why doesn’t a cactus have leaves? Why can’t you exterminate bats in Tennessee?

With new state science standards coming to classrooms next fall, these are the kinds of questions students will explore in their science classes. They’ll be tasked not only with memorizing the answers, but also with asking questions of their own, engaging on the topic with their teacher and classmates, and applying what they learn across disciplines. That’s because the changes set forth are as much about teaching process, as they are about teaching content.

“At the lowest level, I could just teach you facts,” said Detra Clark, who is one of about 300 Tennessee educators leading teacher trainings on the new standards to her peers from across the state. “Now it’s like, ‘I want you to figure out why or how you can use the facts to figure out a problem.’”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Detra Clark, a science coach in Shelby County’s iZone, demonstrates a sample lesson for sixth grade science teachers.

On Wednesday, Clark — a science coach for the iZone, a group of underperforming schools that Shelby County Schools is looking to turn around — unpacked for her peers, who gathered at Arlington High School, a key component of the new material: three-dimensional modeling. Under three-dimensional modeling, students should be able to do something with the content they learn, not just memorize it.

In recent years, Tennessee students have performed better on state science tests than on their math and English exams. But state science standards for grades K–12 haven’t been updated since 2008. By contrast, math and English benchmarks have undergone more recent changes. To give the stakeholders time to adjust, results from next year’s science test, the first to incorporate the new standards, won’t count for students, teachers, or schools.

At the training session, Clark, standing before a room of sixth-grade science teachers, held up a chart with the names of woodland animals, such as elk and deer. Under each name, she tracked the population over time.

“At our starting population, what do we see?” she asked.

“The deer, it decreases again because it’s introduced to a predator,” a teacher responded.

“More resources, more surviving animals” another teacher chimed in.

“How can we explain what happened in year two, when we’re dealing with students?” Clark asked the group.

“The population went up,” a teacher said.

“They start to reproduce!” another teacher interjected.

Clark nodded.

In another classroom, this one composed of kindergarten teachers, Bridget Davis — a K-2 instructional advisor for Shelby County Schools — clicked through a video of fuzzy critters, each paired with a close relative, such as two different breeds of dogs.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
In a teacher training session on Wednesday, kindergarten teachers highlight the three dimensions of three-dimensional modeling, a key part of new state science standards.

She encouraged the teachers to ask their students what traits the animals shared.

“The first thing they’re going to say is, ‘Well, one’s big and one’s small,” she said. “What we really want them to say is, ‘Well, their fur is the same color,’ or, ‘Mom has a patch of black hair here and the baby doesn’t.’ We want them to look at detail.”

She added, “We want them to get used to being a detective.”

The science standards that have been in place for the past decade fulfills the first dimension of three-dimensional modeling.

Doing something with that knowledge satisfies the second dimension, and the third dimension requires teachers to apply to their lessons a “cross-cutting concept” — strategies that students can apply to any subject, like identifying patterns or sequences.

Under the existing standards, a student may not have been introduced to physical science until the third grade. But starting next year, Tennessee schoolchildren will learn about life science, physical science, earth and space science, and engineering applications, beginning in kindergarten and continuing through high school.

“I do believe that this is the best our standards have ever been, because of the fact that they are so much more detailed than they have been in the past,” Davis said.

About a thousand Shelby County teachers made their way to trainings this week, which were free and open to all educators. Several administrators also met to discuss ways they can ensure the new standards are implemented in their schools.

As with anything new, Jay Jennings — an assistant principal at a Tipton county middle school and an instructor at Wednesday’s training — expects some pushback. But he’s optimistic that his district will have every teacher at benchmark by the end of the 2018–2019 school year.

“We talked before about teachers knowing content, and that’s important,” he said. “But what we want to see is kids knowing content and questioning content. We want to see them involved.”

He reminded other school leaders about last year’s changes to English and math standards, a transition that he said was challenging but smoother than expected.  

“Teachers are going to go out of their comfort zone,” he explained. “But it’s not changing what a lot of them are already doing.”