Future of Schools

Christel House Academy's grade falls from A to F

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Christel House Academy blamed last year's big drop in ISTEP scores on online testing glitches. This year, it's passing rates jumped back up.

Christel House Academy, the charter school that earned an A in 2012 only after former state Superintendent Tony Bennett’s lieutenants made changes to the grading formula, was given an F on Friday for 2013.

But officials from the school, which some accused of receiving special treatment last year, said it’s this year’s F grade that they can prove is unfair. Their appeal, which was denied, should have resulted in a grade change, school officials said.

In fact, Christel House’s CEO Carey Dahncke said the school’s grade called into question new state Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s assertion that testing errors last May had minimal effect on student scores or school grades. Dahncke said the school’s own analysis showed 90 percent of Christel House students who passed state tests last year but failed this year were also among those who were kicked offline during testing.

“That was the common element,” he said. “It is due to the testing disruptions.”

After months of problems, the Indiana State Board of Education Friday issued A to F grades for all schools more than seven weeks later than last year. The delay had become a point of contention between Ritz and the state board, escalating political tensions that had been building over questions of who guides education policy in Indiana.

But the protracted discussion and internal vetting of ISTEP test results and the new grades did not erase questions about whether the grades are valid.

In May, about 80,000 of the roughly 500,000 students who took ISTEP experienced problems taking the test online. In some cases, the test froze or response time lagged. Some students had to repeatedly log back in.

Over the summer the state hired an outside evaluator to verify the validity of the scores. His report found just 1,400 student tests were invalid, causing virtually no impact on school and district results, state officials said.

Still, it’s not just Christel House that is concerned that their grades were impacted by the testing problems, despite the education department’s assurances.

“That was a pretty widespread thought,” said Todd Bess, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals. “Whether that manifested itself into actual grade changes. That’s a good question.”

Ritz’s spokesman, Daniel Altman, said all appeals were carefully considered, including Christel House.

“They went through the exact same process as every other school,” he said.

But Christel House, which has earned A grades since 2006, saw 40 percent of its 679 test takers affected by glitches, school officials said. At several grade levels, it was those same kids who failed the test and contributed to a slide in the school’s passing rates.

Last year 81 percent of Christel House students passed both English and math on ISTEP, about 10 points above the state average. This year, the passing rate for the school dropped to 71 percent.

Some examples from Christel House’s internal review:

  • Last year 95 percent of third graders passed the state’s third grade reading test. In fourth grade this year, just 61 percent passed the English test. All of the 15 students who passed at third grade but failed in fourth grade had a testing disruption.
  • In seventh grade, the passing rate in math fell to 55 percent passing from 91 percent the prior year, when the students were in sixth grade. Again, all 19 students who went from passing to failing faced testing problems.
  • At eighth grade, all eight students who failed in 2013 but passed the prior year experienced ISTEP glitches.

“You’d have to be teaching kids the wrong thing to have that many kids go from passing to failing,” Dahncke said. “None of it adds up.”

So much of Christel House’s test data appeared to be affected by ISTEP problems that it appealed its F grade and asked instead to be given no grade for this year, Dahncke said.

“You can’t calculate a grade with all this bad data,” he said.

Christel House was among about 150 schools that appealed their grades. At Friday’s state board meeting, education department staff said no schools who appealed their grades based on concerns about ISTEP testing problems were approved for a grade change.

The school’s 2012 grade was at the center of a stormy debate over whether Bennett manipulated the A to F formula to help Christel House maintain its A.

News reports last summer revealed emails from the fall of 2012, obtained through public records request, in which Bennett’s staff fretted that Christel House might not receive an A. Research by Bennett’s team led to a proposal to tweak the grading formula in a way that raised grades for Christel House, serving students in grades K to 10, and 11 other schools with unusual grade configurations,. That brought charges from Bennett’s critics that the A was undeserved.

An outside review of Bennett’s formula changes from a pair of consultants hired by Republican legislative leaders later ruled called them “plausible” but declined to explore the motivations of Bennett and his lieutenants.

 

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.”