Making the grade

In Chicago, the surprising reasons so many students fail P.E.

PHOTO: Getty Images

Back in eighth grade, Jennifer Nava used to love physical education.

“It is super fun and you feel safe and comfortable participating,” said Nava, now a junior at Thomas Kelly High School in Chicago’s Brighton Park.

But when she started ninth grade, that changed dramatically. “In high school, you don’t want to put effort into it and embarrass yourself,” she said.

Even so, Nava figured out how to pass P.E. But not all her classmates managed to do the same.

Surprising new research shows around one in 10 Chicago students fail P.E. — a higher rate than math, English, or any other class. Yet nearly everyone passes gym in eighth grade.

The failures matter because experts say they could portend eventual failure in high school and beyond.

So why does P.E. suddenly become so challenging in ninth grade?

For one thing, the course changes significantly. In middle school, students may have gym class once a week and don’t have to change clothes. In high school, freshman have gym every day, must bring and change into exercise clothing, and also have to take a health and reproduction class.

Students like Nava say those changes, compounded by adolescent self-consciousness heightened by having to take their clothes off in a crowded locker room and to shed sweaty clothing and rush to the next class, felt like too much.

The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research’s Hidden Risk report analyzes Chicago Public Schools student grades across a range of subjects from eighth to ninth grade. It found that some of the sharpest drops in GPA came in non-core subjects such as P.E. and art.

One Chicago P.E. teacher, Carly Zwiazek, said that, on any given day, she may see up to 200 students, or 40 to 45 students in each of her classes at Curie Metro High School in Archer Heights. Teaching such large classes makes following up on no-show or lagging students is challenging, she said.

She said she fails students who skip class, but not necessarily those who refuse to change into gym clothes. “That is only part of your grade for the day,” she said. “The lesson is to engage based on your skill level.”

She sees P.E. as a lab to learn to manage mundane but important demands of life as adults. “I simply connect it with the real world,” Zwiazek said. “You’ll have to wear the appropriate stuff to work, work with people you normally don’t like to work with.”

But she struggles to convince students, as she battles social attitudes that devalue exercise and gym. “The classes aren’t taken seriously. They are looked at as electives,” she said. “But if they are a high school graduation requirement they should be held to the same level of importance.”

The freshman year conundrum

The transition from eighth to ninth grade is tough, and that isn’t a new phenomenon. No matter how well they did in middle school, nearly all Chicago students see their grades fall when they start high school.

That difficulty surfaces at a critical time: Some education researchers have called ninth grade the most important year in high school.

The Chicago district uses a metric called “freshman on-track” to judge whether students are making enough progress to position them to graduate on time. This year, the district hit its highest measure for freshmen on track yet, at 89.4 percent.

But that figure doesn’t take into account non-core classes like P.E.

What struck researchers was the sharp rise in failure rates in subjects such as P.E. that, only the year before, most students were passing.

In Chicago, hardly any eighth-graders fail P.E., said Jenny Nagaoka, the Consortium on School Research’s deputy director. But in ninth grade, almost 10 percent fail, the research found.

That was the biggest drop in grades for any subject, with an average drop of 0.81 point from middle to high school. The drop was particularly sharp for black boys, whose grades in P.E. dropped one full point, and for students who were already at high risk of dropping out of high school.

The figures are important not only as indicators, but because non-core subjects make up one-third of many students’ grade-point averages.

“If you fail P.E., your probability of graduating is a little bit lower than if you failed just algebra, or just English, or just biology,” said Nagaoka. “We tend to discount less academic classes, but they are as predictive of graduation as core subjects.”

A sharp learning curve

Why are so many students failing or struggling in P.E.? Former and current Chicago students say it’s because P.E. in high school runs into a perfect storm of students’ body insecurities, the logistical difficulties of changing clothing during the school day, and the struggle of juggling classes in a demanding new environment.

P.E. and health class are mandatory in ninth and 10th grades.

Veronica Rodriguez, who graduated from Back of the Yards High School last spring, said many girls in her classes would go into bathroom stalls to change instead of in the locker room. It took them more time, she said, but made them feel more comfortable.

Rodriguez said changing and participating are particularly difficult for girls.  Students who wouldn’t swim during their menstrual periods would earn penalties from teachers.

“They would add a lot of pressure and shame students who wouldn’t want to participate in activities,” said Rodriguez, now a freshman at the University of Illinois at Chicago, about her teachers.

P.E.’s focus on following rules might explain the high number of black and Latino male students struggling in gym. The Hidden Risks report notes that grades in gym are often based on judging compliance and discipline, areas in which research shows that educators more harshly judge male students of color.  

Nava said she would like to see gym teachers be more understanding of teenagers, especially those dealing with their first years of menstruation.

“When a period hits, it’s really embarrassing to have to wear shorts,” she said. “If they don’t feel comfortable playing basketball on their period you shouldn’t threaten them.”

She also said some of the reasons given for changing clothing in P.E. — so that students don’t get sweaty — are less important in schools where temperatures fluctuate. Many neighborhood Chicago schools fail to control building temperatures. At Kelly, Nava said, students roast in classrooms in both summer and winter. Changing for gym, she said, “is not making a difference.”

Instead, Nava said she would tell her gym teacher that she forget her gym clothes and join students standing along the wall instead of running laps or playing basketball. Then, one week a month, she would be sure to bring her gym clothes every day so her grade didn’t drop.

And when it was time to go to another class from gym and she was running late, Nava would prioritize arriving on time. “If I have to pick between my AP psychology class and P.E., I’m taking my AP psychology.”

Focus on the transition

Over the past decade, the district has tried to smooth the transition for entering ninth-graders, in part by focusing on young people who were at risk of dropping out and by zeroing in on students struggling in their core subjects.

The Hidden Risks report, school officials acknowledge, shows a lingering, clear gap.

The district must pay more attention to student performance in non-core classes, Janice Jackson, CEO of Chicago Public Schools, told Chalkbeat. “I can see this influencing practice at the school level,” Jackson said. “There is the next edge of growth, and this data has really pointed that out.”

One model might come from North-Grand High School, which emphasizes the importance of P.E. from freshman orientation, when new students learn they need P.E. and health credits to graduate. P.E. teachers spell out expectations in detail, Principal Emily Feltes said.

“We talk about what to do if you miss a day,” she said. “Even things like, ‘You will have a locker in the locker room, let’s practice putting our stuff in there.’”

The school also includes P.E. teachers in conversations with English and math teachers about student development and how to help a student’s performance.

“I think it has been helpful for us to have them involved in professional learning communities,” Feltes said.

At Sullivan High School, Principal Chad Adams regards the nearly 10 percent P.E. failure rate as “kind of alarming.”

Sullivan folds electives into the literacy department, in an effort to integrate them with the academic instruction all students receive. “We look at standards being taught in English and social science, and try to find standards we can also teach in elective classes,” Adams said.

To fully track how non-core classes like art and P.E. affect student achievement, the Hidden Risk report suggests expanding the definition of the “freshman on-track” metric to consider failure in non-core classes as a warning sign.  

The report also suggests that, in light of the large number of black and Latino male students struggling in P.E., educators review how they’re grading, to correct for teacher bias about compliance and discipline.

Jennifer Nava has another suggestion. She said she’d like to see schools find a more thoughtful way to balance P.E. requirements with the comfort of teenagers in the difficult first year of high school.

“Students have to pick between their own comfort and grades,” she said.

ethnic studies

50 years in, why the fight for Mexican-American studies in schools is still in its early stages

PHOTO: Annie Wells/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Sonia Salazar, a college student, joins over 1,000 people to commemorate the historic East LA student walkouts of 1968 earlier this year. Mexican-American Studies courses are gaining traction now in K-12 schools after years of growth in higher education, a panel concluded during a recent civil rights conference in San Antonio.

Thirteen-year-old Alejandra Del Bosque knows not everyone gets to take a class like hers.

In it, she’s learned about Mexican-American students who staged walkouts in the late 1960s and early 1970s to protest the lack of resources available to their schools. She’s also learned how her state’s school funding system has still been deemed inadequate in recent court rulings.

“There was so much to learn about my heritage that I didn’t know,” Del Bosque said. “But from what I understand, it’s a unique class that’s not everywhere. For me, as a Mexican-American, it’s exciting.”

Her experience remains relatively rare. Fifty years after televised civil rights hearings galvanized the Chicano movement, academics and activists agree that the push for Mexican-American studies still lacks basic resources. And though interest is increasing, in part thanks to President Trump, growth has been slow — especially in K-12 schools, since college-level programs have traditionally gotten more attention.

“That was a big mistake we made,” Juan Tejeda, a professor at Palo Alto College, said last week. “There should have always been a focus on developing culturally relevant curriculum from pre-K through 12.”

He spoke at an event commemorating the 1968 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Hearings on Mexican-Americans in the Southwest, where he and others took stock of the movement that emerged in the decades since to better engage Latino students. (Of the 58 million Latinos in the U.S., nearly two-thirds are of Mexican descent, and most were born in the U.S.)

That’s long been a challenge for schools, especially as most educators are white. Some research has suggested that when students see themselves reflected in their curriculum, test scores and graduation rates rise. Another study found that taking an ethnic studies course helped reduce dropout rates.

Not many students have access to those courses, though. There’s no solid national data on how many school districts have some form of Mexican-American studies in their schools. California is understood to have taken the lead, while Tejeda estimated that only about 38 of more than 1,000 Texas districts have started a program.

That’s partly due to ongoing political opposition.

Arizona’s ban on teaching Mexican-American studies back in 2010 was a wake-up call for the movement, Tejeda said. (Last year, a federal court ruled that the state’s move was “racist and unconstitutional,” but Tucson hasn’t reinstated its program yet.)

Over the last decade, Mexican-American professors built a network that evolved into a group called Somos MAS. The group began a push for a standard high school elective course in Texas.

After four years of lobbying, the Texas board of education approved the course last year. Battles have also turned toward materials: When the book to be used in schools for Mexican-American studies was released in 2016, it was described by many Chicano scholars as racist for its portrayal of Mexican-Americans as lazy and un-American. That book was later thrown out, as was another the board didn’t like in 2017. Then came a debate over the course’s name, which just ended in September.

Those fights were about more than details – they were about granting the topic legitimacy, and about making it easy for teachers to introduce the material, said Lilliana Patricia Saldaña, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

“There were already some teachers here or there taking upon themselves to incorporate the studies into the schools, but it was sporadic, and accurate materials weren’t always easy to find,” Saldaña said. “Approving a course that can be aligned with state standards is ideal and would allow for the programs to be more streamlined.”

Another key challenge: in many cases, limited student interest. At the college level, Our Lady of The Lake University — the host of the hearings in 1968 and the conference last week — considered nixing its Mexican-American studies program in 2012 because of the small number of participating students. It was later saved.

“That also reminded us that if we don’t fight to keep these programs, they will be lost,” Tejeda said. “But what we needed to do was focus on getting students interested while they are younger.”

Saldaña says student interest has grown more recently thanks to political rhetoric around immigration, specifically from President Donald Trump. Trump has disparaged Mexican immigrants, questioned the impartiality of a Mexican-American judge, and made wanting to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border the center of many political speeches.

“Between what we are seeing with the current administration in office, and the battle here on the ground over the course we have been fighting for, students are getting a real-time lesson,” Saldaña said.

Somos MAS now hosts an annual summit for K-12 educators to come learn about Mexican-American Studies and how to integrate lessons into their classrooms. The University of Texas at San Antonio also offers a summer training institute that has drawn nearly 100 teachers at its most recent gathering.

It’s not nearly enough, the panelists said. “What needs to happen next is a focus on building infrastructure: such as more teacher training opportunities on how to incorporate MAS in their classrooms; a teacher certificate in Mexican-American Studies, and more advanced degrees in ethnic studies so students see a future in this field of work,” Saldaña said.

Students from KIPP Camino Academy. (Photo by Francisco Vara-Orta)

One school that has moved ahead with Mexican-American studies course is KIPP Camino Academy in San Antonio. After a pilot program two years ago, the class is now an elective for seventh- and eighth-graders.

On Friday, 20 of the KIPP students watched the discussion on the 50-year fight to get Mexican-American studies in their schools with their instructor, JoAnn Trujillo.

“Some of these kids have driven by the university here and never have gotten to step foot on its grounds,” Trujillo said. “So us being here — in part because of the program, and seeing how Mexican-American studies is something special that had to be fought for many years — will plant seeds about going to college and feeling more self-worth.”

Data dive

Hardly any kids passed ISTEP at one of Indiana’s largest schools. Here’s why it’s not getting an F

Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy is one of the state’s largest and fastest-growing schools. But because too few of its students took the state exams — and those who did weren’t enrolled long enough — there is no clear picture of how well the school is educating them.

The virtual charter school, which opened in 2017, more than doubled in size to 6,232 students since last fall, in part because state data shows more than 1,700 students transferred from its troubled sister school, Indiana Virtual School.

But despite Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy’s rapid growth, the school is bypassing a key accountability measure that Indiana thinks is important for transparency: A-F grades, which were approved by the Indiana State Board of Education on Wednesday.

Read: As students signed up, online school hired barely any teachers — but founder’s company charged it millions

Education department officials said the school did not get a grade, despite its high enrollment last year, because it did not test enough students who had been enrolled long enough to have one calculated. State grades are based primarily on student test scores, and virtual schools are known to struggle to get their remote students to sit for exams.

State test participation rate data shows IVPA tested about 19 percent of its 346 10th-graders in 2018 — about 65 students. To use test scores to calculate a school grade, the state requires that at least 40 test-takers must have attended the school for at least 162 days, a majority of the school year. But state officials said that while the school enrolled 48 10th-graders who met the attendance threshold during the testing period, only three of those students took the exams.

Federal requirements say schools must test at least 95 percent of students, and school grades can be affected if a school falls below that percentage. But there is currently no consequence for a school that doesn’t test enough students to get a letter grade.

The students who were tested at IVPA posted poor results: 5.7 percent passed both state English and math exams.

Leaders from Indiana Virtual School and IVPA did not respond to requests for comment on A-F grades or testing participation, but the schools’ superintendent Percy Clark said in an emailed statement that students from varying education backgrounds select IVPA, and that the school was designed to serve students who are far behind their peers academically.

“Our students CHOOSE to come to Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy from many different backgrounds, and we accept everyone regardless of where they are on their academic journey,” Clark said.

Virtual charter school critics say IVPA’s lack of a letter grade is an example of how the schools are able to avoid scrutiny.

“It’s absolutely indefensible,” said Brandon Brown, CEO of The Mind Trust, an organization that advocates for charter schools but has been a vocal critic of virtual charter schools. “When it comes to charter schools, the grand bargain is that the charter school gets increased autonomy, and in exchange, there is greater accountability. It’s hard to see where the accountability is for virtual schools right now.”

In contrast to IVPA, other large virtual schools in the state tested at least 90 percent of their students, and nearly every traditional school in Indiana met the federal threshold for testing students.

Indiana Virtual School, the subject of a Chalkbeat investigation that revealed questionable educational and spending practices, tested about two-thirds of its students in 2018. Students at the school, which received its third F grade from the state this week, did marginally better than at IVPA, but performed far below state averages: 18.6 percent of elementary and middle school students passed both tests, and 4.4 percent of high-schoolers did. State law says schools are up for state board of education intervention when they reach four consecutive F grades.

Brown, who used to work in the Indianapolis mayor’s office overseeing charter schools, said this is where charter school authorizers — the entities charged with monitoring the schools’ operations, finances, and academics — need to be involved. Daleville Public Schools, a small rural district near Muncie, oversees IVS and IVPA. State education leaders have previously questioned whether school districts have the capacity and expertise to oversee statewide charter schools. District leaders did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“If I was still an authorizer and one of our schools had less than a 20 percent rate of their students taking the ISTEP, we would be mortified, and we would be holding that school accountable with very clear measures,” Brown said. “In light of the tens of millions of dollars used to fund this school, there has to be at least a basic level of accountability, and right now, it’s hard to account for how that money is being spent because we just don’t know.”

With such high enrollment numbers, Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy could together bring in upward of $35 million from the state for this school year, according to funding estimates from the Legislative Services Agency.

At the state’s other full-time virtual charter schools — including those billed as alternative schools like IVPA — state grades are rising as enrollment grows. Indiana Connections Academy is up to a D this year from an F, and Insight School of Indiana is up to a C from an F. For grades under Indiana’s federal plan, the schools received an F and D, respectively.

Indiana Connections Career Academy enrolled about 70 students last year and received no grade, but education department officials say that is because it had too few students to calculate one, despite testing more than 95 percent of them. It’s not uncommon for small schools — especially high schools that have just one tested grade — to not get a grade. This year, the school’s enrollment is up to about 300 students.

Virtual charter school accountability has become a hot issue in Indiana. Earlier this year, the state board of education convened a committee to study virtual charter schools, which have grown rapidly here in recent years. And last month, the committee released a series of recommendations, including slowing growth of new virtual charter schools to 15 percent per year — after a school hits 250 students — for their first four years.

Getting students who are located remotely to sit for state exams is a challenge for virtual schools. Melissa Brown, head of Indiana Connections Academy, said dogged work contacting and keeping up with students has made some of the difference for her school, both in students taking tests and improving on them.

“Our teachers are relentless in trying to engage with kids,” she said. “We are by no means where we want to be. We still have a lot of work to do. But 8-point growth is something that we’re celebrating today.”

Melissa Brown said the school is also offering students who come in behind grade level more ways to make up their classes and incentives for them to stay at the school. For example, she said the school has a lot of over-age eighth-graders who should be in high school. Instead of just drilling their eighth-grade classes, they also have a chance to try out high school-level work — a taste of what’s to come, Brown said. So far, it’s working.

“We’re just trying to be really creative about helping kids progress,” she said.

At Insight, school director Elizabeth Lamey said she’s excited by how the high school has been able to help students show more growth on state tests. Currently, the school, which opened in 2016, is getting grades calculated only on how much students improve on state tests from one year to the next, not their proficiency or other measures such as graduation rate.

Lamey said improving the school’s curriculum and focusing on remediation and teacher training contributed to their progress and sets them up to continue that work.

“We hope to see even more growth this year,” Lamey said. “We know that it’s a rougher road, the older students get, to remediate. It takes more time, and we are slow and steady — we keep moving forward.”

Accountability issues will continue to be important for virtual charter schools as their enrollments grow.

Indiana’s five full-time virtual charter schools enroll about 13,000 students. Although it appears that total virtual charter school enrollment in Indiana has declined since 2017-18, those figures include the closing of low-performing Hoosier Virtual Academy. The school enrolled 1,170 students when it closed in June, which was far lower than the 3,342 it was recorded as having at the beginning of that school year.

Comparing enrollment totals between fall of 2017 and fall of 2018, every virtual charter school currently open in the state saw enrollment rise, with the exception of Indiana Virtual School. Indiana Connections Academy and its sister school, Indiana Connections Career Academy, gained nearly 400 students between them. Insight is also up 45 students.

Virtual charter schools tend to have volatile enrollment patterns in part because of how easily students can enroll and withdraw — their families don’t have to move, and they can live anywhere in the state. Students moving between schools is not unique to virtual schools, but those schools do tend to see higher instances of mobility than traditional schools.

That means it can be hard to determine just how much virtual school enrollment has changed from one year to the next — enrollment numbers reported in the fall might fluctuate wildly through the rest of year.