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ISTEP scores are coming tomorrow. Here’s how this year’s scores could change and why they matter.

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

Although ISTEP’s run in Indiana will soon come to an end, there are still two more years of results to comb through. The latest are set to be released to the public Wednesday.

Years of testing chaos have meant that many in the state — particularly teachers, students and parents — have developed testing fatigue. Changing standards, changing tests and changing administrations have meant there’s been little consistency during a time that can be stressful for those in the classroom.

That stress isn’t unfounded, either — test scores are still the driving piece behind state and federal accountability, meaning they still factor heavily into A-F grades. If enough kids don’t pass and schools receive failing grades for four years, state officials get involved.

Below, we explain the ups and downs Indiana has seen for the past few years, as well as what we’ll be watching for in the new test results state officials will put out at Wednesday’s Indiana State Board of Education meeting.

Let’s set the scene.

This year marks the third year Indiana students have taken largely the same test as in prior years. The test was revamped for 2015 after Indiana abandoned the Common Core standards, one of the few moments of agreement between then-Gov. Mike Pence and then-state Superintendent Glenda Ritz.

Confusion ensued. Teachers were met that fall with a yet-to-be-created test based on new Indiana-specific academic standards, which were designed to be much tougher.

When the 2015 test did take shape, it was projected to be nearly twice as long as its predecessor, prompting Pence to sign an executive order to shorten it. The move inflamed tensions between Pence and Ritz, and ISTEP became even more politically charged. Subsequent scoring issues and a delayed release didn’t help.

But even when we did finally get results, it wasn’t the end of the drama. Almost half of all kids who took the test failed math, English or both. Statewide, the percentage of students who passed both English and math nosedived by 22 percentage points to 53.5 percent.

Before that, Indiana students collectively hadn’t lost ground on ISTEP since 2009. Taken together, the upheaval before, during, and after the 2015 test played a big role in lawmaker’s eventual decision to scrap ISTEP altogether last year.

The 2016 test was expected to offer some redemption — the first year is always rough, experts say. But the anticipated rebound did not occur. Scores dropped for the second year in a row. While the test format and content were the same, Ritz posited that the state’s switch in vendors from CTB to Pearson could explain some of the decline.

So what’s on deck for 2017?

That’s tough to say. If we use previous years as an example, another dip isn’t out of the question. But given the relative stability of the last couple years (no new test, no new vendor), this could be the year Indiana gets its score rebound.

What we do know is the 2017 testing period went off with fewer glitches compared to prior years, although a calculator mishap could force some students to retake the test.

Ok, so it’s been a little smoother. Why does that matter?

It certainly bodes well for state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, who helmed the test’s administration for the first time this past spring. She ran a campaign based on her strength as an administrator, and so far, that appears to be the case.

McCormick is also responsible for overseeing and implementing the state’s next test, which will be called ILEARN and given for the first time in 2019. If she has a good run with ISTEP, she has a better shot of ensuring the next state test can begin to recover from ISTEP’s “broken brand,” as one lawmaker put it.

It’s also the first year of testing under a new governor. While Gov. Eric Holcomb has been far less involved with education than his predecessor, as the state’s chief executive, he could get caught in the crossfire should scores tumble.

Go back to lawmakers — how are they involved?

Quite a bit, as it turns out.

Probably no state officials have had a more active role in shaping Indiana’s test than lawmakers, who are responsible for the many twists and turns the system as a whole has taken over the years. They wrote the laws that took us away from Common Core and its cheaper associated test, created ISTEP’s framework and allocated money to it.

And, they ultimately decided to kill it, sparking yet another bout of test development that will again disrupt what small amount of stability the last two years have wrought.

2017 results likely won’t have much bearing on legislation this session — the ILEARN bill last session took care of that. But as federal accountability rules continue shifting and Indiana looks to adjust A-F grades in the future, it’s important to remember lawmakers heavily influence not just how tests look, but how test scores are used.

Check back in with Chalkbeat tomorrow afternoon for news on the 2017 ISTEP scores. You can find all of our testing coverage here.

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.