Are Children Learning

Indiana's big test score gains prompt debate over cause

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Indiana fourth graders made big gains on a national test, which released scores today.

Indiana fourth graders made big gains on a national test of reading and math known as the “nation’s report card,” according to data released today.

Indiana’s 2013 gains were top five among the 50 states on both fourth grade reading and math. Eighth graders posted smaller gains in both reading and math. Hoosier test takers scored above the national average on all four exams administered.

““I am encouraged by the gains that Hoosier students showed on these tests, particularly their gains in the fourth grade,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz said in a statement. “This is yet another sign of the hard work and dedication exhibited by our educators, administrators, parents, and most importantly, students every day in our schools.”

The state’s success instantly renewed debate about reforms pushed by former Gov. Mitch Daniels and ex-state Superintendent Tony Bennett over four years beginning in 2008.

Bennett was defeated in the 2012 election in a stunning upset by current state Superintendent Glenda Ritz. Eric A. Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, said Bennett’s fight for reform may have cost him his job but it appears to have yielded improvements.

“I think we’re starting to see results,” said Eric A. Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. “These battles are hard-fought, and if we didn’t see any results, then we might wonder if it’s worth it.”

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, attributed the gains to standards reform in the early 2000s, specifically rejecting Bennett and Daniels’ policies as a reason for the improvement.

“The work started long before,” Meredith said. “It was prior to Tony Bennett. In my mind this does not attribute anything positive necessarily to his tenure. It doesn’t negate him it. It just doesn’t support him.”

In an interview, Bennett rejected Meredith’s analysis. The children who took the fourth grade tests weren’t born when the standards were reworked a decade ago, he said, and during that period, the state saw mostly small gains.

“My answer is, what changed?” he said. “Mitch Daniels had a vision to make Indiana’s education system a pillar of his administration, and we passed some pretty bold reforms. I think the policy framework we put in place afforded schools the opportunity to expect more of children, and I applaud the fact our children have answered that call.”

Daniel Altman, a spokesman for Ritz, said nobody should try to claim credit for the good results.

“It is disappointing but not surprising that people are trying to politicize these results,” Altman said. “Today’s news should be about celebrating the hard work put in by our teachers and students every day, not politics.”

The tests, known formally as the National Assessment of Education Progress, or NAEP, are given every two years in math and reading to a sample of fourth and eighth graders in every state. Indiana’s scores have made strong gains in math over the last decade, but mostly smaller gains in reading.

Across the country, Tennessee, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia saw the biggest across-the-board gains this year, though scores for Washington, D.C., especially still rank among the nation’s lowest. Tennessee and Washington, D.C., saw unusually dramatic gains across both grades and subjects. (See Chalkbeat Tennessee’s story on that stat’s best-in-the-nation gains here.)

U.S. Secretary of State Arne Duncan attributed the variations among states to what he called “extraordinary leadership” at the state level from officials who have “done some very difficult and courageous work” raising standards.

That praise, Hanushek said, should extend to Indiana.

“This certainly suggests strongly that some of the things they were trying to do have in fact taken hold and have in fact led to some improvement,” he said.

Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis and chair of the House Education Committee, said credit for better fourth-grade reading scores lies with the IREAD third grade reading test and a rule that prevented some kids from being promoted if they failed it.

“I think it validates that we have a lot of great teachers and hopefully the reforms can take some credit for the successes that we’ve had,” he said. “You’d have to tie IREAD to that. It’s been in place for a couple of years.”

But Meredith said when she was teaching kindergarten, it was Indiana’s new standards that made the biggest change in her classroom.

“This wasn’t just in the last two or three years,” she said. “This was long term. It made me, as a kindergarten teacher, really think about every thing I did.”

Standards are back at the center of education debates in Indiana, as legislators have asked the Indiana State Board of Education to reexamine its commitment to national Common Core standards that the state adopted in 2010.

Duncan, speaking about the national results, emphasized that none of the eight states that adopted Common Core standards earliest saw statistically significant score decreases between 2009 and 2013 — though many of those states didn’t see big increases, either.

“We’re not seeing yet the transformational change nationwide, but we are seeing meaningful, but generally modest progress,” Duncan said.

Meredith said the NAEP scores show that Indiana’s prior standards were good and some of them probably should be maintained as the state adopts Common Core.

“I think it highlights that our standards have been rigorous,” she said. “It’s not a judgement positive or negative on Common Core. We should ask what was significant to teachers, and is it in Common Core? If not, it needs to be included.”

ASD scores

In Tennessee’s turnaround district, 9 in 10 young students fall short on their first TNReady exams

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Nine out of 10 of elementary- and middle-school students in Tennessee’s turnaround district aren’t scoring on grade level in English and math, according to test score data released Thursday.

The news is unsurprising: The Achievement School District oversees 32 of the state’s lowest-performing schools. But it offers yet another piece of evidence that the turnaround initiative has fallen far short of its ambitious original goal of vaulting struggling schools to success.

Around 5,300 students in grades 3-8 in ASD schools took the new, harder state exam, TNReady, last spring. Here’s how many scored “below” or “approaching,” meaning they did not meet the state’s standards:

  • 91.8 percent of students in English language arts;
  • 91.5 percent in math;
  • 77.9 percent in science.

View scores for all ASD schools in our spreadsheet

In all cases, ASD schools’ scores fell short of state averages, which were all lower than in the past because of the new exam’s higher standards. About 66 percent of students statewide weren’t on grade level in English language arts, 62 percent weren’t on grade level in math, and 41 percent fell short in science.

ASD schools also performed slightly worse, on average, than the 15 elementary and middle schools in Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, the district’s own initiative for low-performing schools. On average, about 89 percent of iZone students in 3-8 weren’t on grade level in English; 84 percent fell short of the state’s standards in math.

The last time that elementary and middle schools across the state received test scores, in 2015, ASD schools posted scores showing faster-than-average improvement. (Last year’s tests for grades 3-8 were canceled because of technical problems.)

The low scores released today suggest that the ASD’s successes with TCAP, the 2015 exam, did not carry over to the higher standards of TNReady.

But Verna Ruffin, the district’s new chief of academics, said the scores set a new bar for future growth and warned against comparing them to previous results.

“TNReady has more challenging questions and is based on a different, more rigorous set of expectations developed by Tennessee educators,” Ruffin said in a statement. “For the Achievement School District, this means that we will use this new baseline data to inform instructional practices and strategically meet the needs of our students and staff as we acknowledge the areas of strength and those areas for improvement.”

Some ASD schools broke the mold and posted some strong results. Humes Preparatory Middle School, for example, had nearly half of students meet or exceed the state’s standards in science, although only 7 percent of students in math and 12 percent in reading were on grade level.

Thursday’s score release also included individual high school level scores. View scores for individual schools throughout the state as part of our spreadsheet here.

Are Children Learning

School-by-school TNReady scores for 2017 are out now. See how your school performed

PHOTO: Zondra Williams/Shelby County Schools
Students at Wells Station Elementary School in Memphis hold a pep rally before the launch of state tests, which took place between April 17 and May 5 across Tennessee.

Nearly six months after Tennessee students sat down for their end-of-year exams, all of the scores are now out. State officials released the final installment Thursday, offering up detailed information about scores for each school in the state.

Only about a third of students met the state’s English standards, and performance in math was not much better, according to scores released in August.

The new data illuminates how each school fared in the ongoing shift to higher standards. Statewide, scores for students in grades 3-8, the first since last year’s TNReady exam was canceled amid technical difficulties, were lower than in the past. Scores also remained low in the second year of high school tests.

“These results show us both where we can learn from schools that are excelling and where we have specific schools or student groups that need better support to help them achieve success – so they graduate from high school with the ability to choose their path in life,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a statement.

Did some schools prepare teachers and students better for the new state standards, which are similar to the Common Core? Was Memphis’s score drop distributed evenly across the city’s schools? We’ll be looking at the data today to try to answer those questions.

Check out all of the scores in our spreadsheet or on the state website and add your questions and insights in the comments.