In the Classroom

Reversing trend, fewer students who failed state tests graduated in 2013

Change is on the horizon for John Marshall High School.

For the first time in at least four years, Indiana saw a decline in the percentage of high school graduates who were given a pass after failing state-required tests.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz said the fact that the graduation rate held mostly steady as the waiver rate declined was good news for students in the state.

“While the overall graduation rate is largely the same as it was in 2012, when you dig into the data it becomes clear that more of our students are graduating without a waiver and passing their end of course assessments,” Ritz said in a statement. “This is a crucial step in ensuring that our students graduate from high school both college and career ready.”

About 6.8 percent of graduating Indiana seniors received waivers, according to 2013 data released today by the Indiana Department of Education. That figure exceeded 9 percent in 2012, when lawmakers and critics of the practice first raised alarms.

Waivers allow students who have not passed one of Indiana’s two required graduation tests — end-of-course exams in 10th grade English and Algebra 1 — to receive a diploma if they meet other criteria. It’s generally up to schools to decide who receives a waiver.

Statewide, Indiana’s graduation rate was 88.6 percent, a slight tick down from 88.7 percent in 2012. (Find your school’s graduation rate here.)

In Marion County, Franklin Township had the highest graduation rate at 95 percent and the biggest gain over last year, up 3.5 percentage points. Five Marion County districts saw their graduation rates go down, with Washington Township, down 4.7 points to 81.5 percent, showing the biggest drop. Warren Township was also down considerably, falling 3.8 points to 83.4 percent.

Indianapolis Public Schools saw a boost of 2.5 points to 68.3 percent.

“As a district, we are excited to see overall gains in our graduation rate and have several secondary schools show individual growth,” Deputy Superintendent Wanda Legrand said. “IPS students and families need to be able to depend on us to achieve our district graduation rate goal of 90 percent or higher. This is also our expectation of schools.”

IPS came under intense scrutiny for its heavy use of waivers in 2012, after it was revealed that more that a quarter of its 2011 graduates used waivers. With about 13 percent of graduates using waivers last year, IPS has now cut its rate nearly in half from 2011. This year, the district was not even the biggest waiver user in Marion County. Perry (16 percent) and Wayne (15 percent) townships were more generous than IPS at handing out waivers.

“I’d like to see us cut that number in half again,” IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said. “There are some students who may not test well who might need this avenue. But it appeared in our data it was more of an expectation than a unique opportunity.”

IPS’ graduation rate has improved considerably since 2007, when just 46 percent of students graduated, but much of that increase was fueled by wider use of waivers. In 2012, an Indianapolis Star investigation found Indiana schools made widespread use of waivers to boost graduation rates, prompting a summer study of the issue by the Indiana legislature and changes to state law in 2013.

“We never expected schools would waiver anywhere near this much,” Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, said. “Our goal is to get that number as low as possible.”

The legislature last year made those who use waivers to graduate ineligible to receive any state financial aid for college. That rule goes into effect starting next school year.

“In the real world, the problem is the kid walks into the next step in life and does not have the skills to be successful,” Behning said. “We’re not trying to be punitive.”

IPS has been making a concerted effort to change its practice with waivers, Ferebee said, and the danger that students could be blocked from financial aid was one of its motivations.

“That’s a huge blow for a student who leaves us and wants to go to an Ivy Tech or another institution to further their education,” he said. “It doesn’t serve students well when they leave us with waivers in terms of opportunities for careers and college.”

About half of U.S. states require students to pass a state exam to graduate, including nearby Ohio. But Indiana’s waiver rate is much higher than Ohio’s and has been growing annually. With waiver rules that largely match Indiana’s, the Buckeye state has typically seen less than 1 percent of its graduates go that route.

Critics of the practice say it was not intended for such widespread use but rather was designed to help students in very rare and specific circumstances, such as for a student who had an unusually severe case of test anxiety but otherwise demonstrated a mastery of the skills required for a diploma.

Even with the decline in waiver use, many schools continue to rely heavily on them. Roughly a third of about 390 high schools that reported graduation rates in Indiana in 2013 used waivers to give a pass to at least 10 percent of their graduates who failed state tests.

In Marion County, IPS’s John Marshall High School led the way by awarding waivers to a third of its graduating class, while Key Learning Community High School (30 percent) and Shortridge High School (27 percent) were also ranked among the state’s top 20 schools for using waivers.

Also relying heavily on waivers were three former IPS high schools, plus one in Gary, that were taken over by the state in 2012 and handed off to be run independently by private companies or non-profit groups.

Indianapolis’ Arlington, (23 percent), Howe (22 percent) and Manual high schools (21 percent) along with Gary’s Roosevelt High School (28 percent) all ranked among the state’s top 30 biggest waiver users.

High percentages of graduates with waivers by those schools was one of the practices state officials cited as examples of their dysfunction in the past.

How I Teach

This Memphis teacher went viral for holding ‘class’ on Facebook Live during a snow day

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Candous Brown teaches one of her 12th-grade English classes at Raleigh-Egypt High School. Brown has been teaching in Memphis for 10 years.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

When a week of snow days brought Candous Brown’s 12th-grade English class to a wintry halt, her students convinced her to take her lesson live on Facebook.

So wearing pajamas and with occasional photobombs by her 10-year-old son, Brown sat down at her laptop and convened an impromptu class with about 40 students from Raleigh-Egypt High School in Memphis. Some participants were actually previous students who decided to drop in.

“I’m so proud of y’all for actually wanting to do this,” she said at the outset, complimenting her students for their resourcefulness, ingenuity, and good use of technology.

The 33-year-old teacher has a knack for engaging her students where they are. That means frequently tapping into their love of music to grow their passion for literature.

“Why wouldn’t we focus on that?” she asks rhetorically.

During Black History Month, for instance, Brown pairs excerpts of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1964 book “Why We Can’t Wait” with freedom songs from the documentary “Soundtrack for a Revolution.”

“I want them to know how music was utilized during the civil rights movement,” she said. “ In many instances, it was the thing that kept people motivated and unified.”

Chalkbeat spoke recently with Brown about teaching on Facebook Live and how she builds relationships with her students every day. (Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity.).

Why did you become a teacher?

I have always enjoyed literature and reading so it fit that I would be an English teacher.  As a student, my teachers would use me as a peer tutor.  I assisted classmates with their assignments and they would tell me I’d make a great teacher.  Of course, I would reject the idea; but looking back on it, they were leading me in the right direction.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?

I love teaching anything Shakespeare. But more recently, my favorite lesson has been to teach “The Hero’s Journey.” We were reading Beowulf and I wanted the students to trace Beowulf’s journey into the hero that we know him to be in today’s culture. When I first start the unit, I have them think of heros within their own lives. Or times when they felt like they were the hero in a situation. I want them to be able to connect this hero’s journey to themselves.  We read the text, participated in class discussion, did an analytical comparison of the movie and the text.  The students loved it.

Recently, you received national attention for holding class via Facebook Live during a snow day. Why was it important to make instructional time happen during that long break? How do you instill excitement for learning in your students?

That was actually my very first time going live. I was so nervous. I didn’t want to say something foolish and have the entire virtual world see my flub. I got up that morning, planned for some anticipated misconceptions, and went for it.

My students were the ones who set everything up. They asked if I’d be willing to do the lesson and, of course, I couldn’t say no when they were willing to do the work. I told them about my apprehensions and then one student used a phrase that I tell them when they are afraid to try something new: “First time for everything.” At that moment, I knew I had to do it. It was important to make it happen because they wanted it to happen. I always tell them that they cannot wait to be within the confines of a school to learn.

It pleased my soul that they were still attempting to do the work without me and that they trusted me enough to reach out. I think when they see me get excited or passionate about certain topics, it resonates with them.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?

Students tend to shut down when they don’t understand a lesson. Then, they state the infamous sentence: “I don’t get it.” I force them to think about the lesson and target the source of confusion. They have to be able to explain the problem to me before I help them. More often than not, their own explanation of the misconception helps them figure out the issue on their own. Also, they know that I am a last resort.  They will ask a peer or neighbor before they ask me because they know I will make them explain everything they know before I will help. It forces them to explore their own understanding of the concept.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?

I usually don’t have to say or do much. My facial expressions do the talking for me.  Once the kids see my face, they tell each other to get it together before I start fussing.  Apparently, the last thing they want to hear from me is fussing.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Brown says her facial expressions can do the talking for her when her students get off track.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?

At the beginning of the school term, my students complete an “Interest Survey.” I participate with them and allow them to ask me questions. I figure if I’m asking them questions about their lives outside of the classroom, they should be allowed to ask the same of me, within reason. When the surveys are done, I file them. No one will see their answers but me. When appropriate, I incorporate things I learn about them into the lessons to make them more relatable. In that way, they know that I am paying attention and it opens the floor to them so that they know I am trustworthy and truly have their best interest at heart. I never demean them for the things they reveal and I don’t shy away from tough conversations. My door stays open to them unless I’m grading or planning.

What’s the best advice you ever received as a teacher?

To remember why I’m in the classroom. Sometimes, the classroom can be daunting and overwhelming. I have my students, I’m the single mother of a 10-year-old son and, on top of that, I’m working toward a master’s degree. I could easily get discouraged. But if I remember why I’m there, it becomes manageable. I am there to serve my students. I am there to lead my students. Those two things are never lost upon me.

school rules

Arkansas passed a law banning suspensions for truancy. Then it was largely ignored.

PHOTO: Andrea Chu

What if an education law passed, but nobody followed it?

That appears to be the bizarre situation in Arkansas, which in 2013 enacted a straightforward law banning out-of-school suspensions for truancy.

But three years later, nearly 1,100 students were still suspended for not showing up to school. Many Arkansas schools were simply not complying with the law, according to a new study.

What happened? It’s not entirely clear, but a communication breakdown may be to blame. The study notes that schools didn’t hear explicitly from the Arkansas Department of Education about the new law until January 2017.

The state disputes this — kind of — pointing to 2014 and 2015 memos, though neither actually mentions the rule change or acceptable penalties for truancy. A department spokesperson said the memos’ “regulatory authority” include the law banning suspensions.

“While [the department] does not track every phone call or correspondence, in general we have ongoing communication with educators, schools, districts and education service cooperatives,” said the spokesperson, Kimberly Friedman.

What’s clear is that only some Arkansas schools changed their practices. In the 2012-13 school year, about 14 percent of truancy cases resulted in out-of-school suspensions, and by 2015-16 that had dipped to 9 percent. It’s not clear whether that drop was due to the law.

(Notably, nearly 2 percent of truancy cases in 2015-16 resulted in corporal punishment, which remains legal in Arkansas public schools despite efforts by the federal government to eliminate the practice.)

The study, which was published last week in the peer-reviewed Peabody Journal of Education, also found that schools serving more students of color were less likely to have followed the law.

Schools with 10 percent more black students than average were about 5 percentage points less likely to eliminate suspensions for truancy. That finding underscores concerns from discipline reform advocates about the disproportionate effect suspensions have on students of color.

“The types of schools that the state was likely intending to impact … were also the types of schools that failed to comply,” researcher Kaitlin Anderson of Michigan State University wrote.

Although pointing to an outlier case, the paper highlights a key challenge of changing school discipline rules: laws and mandates are no guarantee of real change. That’s especially true if educators don’t believe in the changes, schools aren’t given the resources to change, there’s no enforcement of new guidelines — or if schools don’t know that rules have changed at all.

“You might expect [suspensions for truancy] to go down to 0 percent, but that would be if all schools knew about the law, were able to comply with the law, and wanted to comply with the law,” said Anderson.

It’s not the first study to highlight the challenges of instituting, and tracking, school discipline changes. After Philadelphia banned suspensions for certain lower-level offenses, more than three-quarters of schools did not fully comply, another recent paper found. In Washington, D.C., an investigation found that some schools simply didn’t report all out-of-school suspensions amid the district’s efforts to cut down on exclusionary discipline.

In other cases, though, policy changes are leading to fewer suspensions, at least according to official numbers. Los Angeles and New York City, for instance, have reported substantial drops in out-of-school suspensions in recent years.

A slide from research presented to the Arkansas Board of Education in February 2016. ISS refers to in-school suspensions, and OSS refers to out-of-school suspension.

In Arkansas, the back and forth over the new findings began in February 2016, when the researchers presented preliminary findings to the Arkansas State Board of Education. They reminded board members that suspensions for truancy were illegal and noted that “over 100 districts were still doing this as of 2014–15.”

Nearly a year later, in January 2017, the state commissioner of education issued a brief memo, which said that “State Board members requested the department remind districts” of the ban.

Friedman said there wasn’t data on whether schools are complying with the law this year, since schools don’t submit discipline reports to the state until June.

Arkansas now has another chance to tackle the challenge of implementing a new discipline policy. Just last year, the state passed a law prohibiting most out-of-school suspensions in in elementary school.

Anderson said that it makes sense for state leaders to engage local district and school officials more when trying to change how schools do business. “Having some of those conversations is going to be more productive in the long run rather than trying to just set a hand-offs, high-level policy,” she said.