Are Children Learning

Indiana sees a small gain in ISTEP scores

PHOTO: Jason Seliskar via Flicker

Hoosier kids in grades 3 to 8 collectively made the smallest gain on ISTEP in five years in 2013-14, gaining just one percentage point over the prior year.

Statewide, 74.7 percent of test-takers passed both the English and math portions of ISTEP, according to data released today by the Indiana Department of Education. Find your school’s scores here.

In a statement, State Superintendent Glenda Ritz focused on the good news of another gain. Indiana students haven’t lost ground on ISTEP since 2009.

“This year, we saw yet another increase in student performance indicated through ISTEP,” she said. “These increased scores are just one sign of the great learning that is happening in Indiana Schools.”

The annual release of scores for nearly 500,000 students in the past was released in June but last year was delayed to September after problems with online exams required a review of the results. This year, there were no major problems with ISTEP online. Ritz said in a radio interview last month that a decision by Fort Wayne schools to administer the exam entirely on paper this year slowed scoring and delayed the release of results.

ISTEP is the backbone of Indiana’s school accountability system, playing central roles in A to F grades assigned to schools, expected to be out later this fall, and evaluation scores for teachers. Scores have not yet been released for high school end-of-course exams in Algebra and English.

Statewide, preliminary reading scores made a solid 1.2 percentage point gain over last year to reach 80.7 percent passing. In math, students gained a half point to 83.5 percent passing.

Carmel (93 percent), Zionsville (92.8 percent) and West Lafayette (92.1 percent) were the top three districts for percent of students passing ISTEP for the second straight year. Brownsburg (sixth best with 90.5 percent passing) was also in the top 10. All of those districts are among the state’s wealthiest communities.

On the other end of the spectrum was Indianapolis Public Schools, serving one of the poorest communities in Indiana, again ranked fourth from the bottom out of 290 school districts, tied with Medora at 51.6 percent passing. While last year the district could point to IPS as having one of the strongest gains in passing rate in the state, the news was not as good this year — a modest 0.5 percent gain.

All but 10 of the 58 IPS schools that took the test were ranked in the state’s bottom 25 percent for passing rate. Eight IPS schools were in the bottom 50 out of more than 1,800 schools that took ISTEP statewide.

But the news was not all bad for the district. Sidener Gifted Academy, an IPS magnet school for students that are identified as gifted, again was the top-rated school in the state, this time with 100 percent of its students passing ISTEP. This year two other schools joined Sidener at the top — Flaget Elementary School in Vincennes and St. Wendel School in Posey County.

Elsewhere in Marion County, Franklin Township again has the highest passing rate with 82.8 percent passing, up about one point from last year.

Wayne Township had by far the biggest ISTEP gain in the county: up 5.8 points to 64.4 percent passing. Two Wayne Township schools were ranked among the top 30 in the state for the biggest gains over last year: McClelland Elementary School (up 19 points) and North Wayne Elementary School (up 15 points).

Meanwhile, Warren Township (down 1.1 points) and Lawrence Township (down 0.4 points), were the only Marion County districts that saw their passing rates drop.

Much awaited results for four schools taken over by the state in 2012 and handed off to be run independently by charter school organizations showed some solid gains, but all four remained among the lowest-scoring schools in the state.

Seventh and eighth graders at Arlington High School, formerly of IPS, had an 11-point gain to 35.5 percent passing. Howe High School, also from IPS, gained eight points to 37.7 percent passing for its middle school students. That was the best of the group but still ranked in the bottom 1 percent of all Indiana schools.

Also in state takeover from IPS is Donnan Middle School, where scores were mostly flat at 24.9 percent passing, up 0.5 percent. Roosevelt High School, a Gary school in state takeover, gained 4.6 points to 20.3 percent passing.

Roosevelt is run by Tennessee-based Edison Learning and Arlington by Tindley Accelerated Schools of Indianapolis. Howe and Donnan are managed by Florida-based Charter Schools USA. Manual High School, formerly of IPS and also run by CSUSA, only serves grades 9 to 12, so its students don’t take ISTEP. Arlington, Howe and Roosevelt serve grades 7 to 12.

This is the second year of test results for the takeover schools. Gains exceeded last year’s, which were considerably smaller at all four schools.

Arlington appears headed for an exit from state takeover after its operator, Tindley Accelerated Schools, told the Indiana State Board of Education it wanted to end its contract early because managing the school had become too costly. A committee that includes officials from IPS, Tindley, Mayor Greg Ballard’s office and the state forged a deal to keep Arlington operating under Tindley this year and is working on a transition plan for next year.

Tindley’s move raised questions about whether state takeover was working. Today’s scores were mixed as evidence for the program’s effectivenss. While the gains at some schools could be seen bolstering the argument that takeovers can make a difference, the persistently low passing rates have been cited as demonstrating the idea is ineffective.

 

 

union power

Gutting Wisconsin teachers unions hurt students, study finds

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2015.

The high-profile fight to limit union power was replete with drama — including a recall election and state legislators fleeing to neighboring states.

In the 2011 battle in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker ultimately came out the victor. The controversial law passed, Walker won the recall, and the Democratic-aligned unions have lost much of their power.

But new research points to other losers in the fight: students in the state’s already struggling schools.

The first study to assess how Wisconsin’s high-profile weakening of unions, particularly teachers unions, affected students finds that it led to a substantial decline in test scores.

The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments for a case, known as Janus, that could dramatically scale back union power across the country — essentially taking aspects of the Wisconsin model national. And they give credence to concerns from unions and their defenders that weakening teachers bargaining power would ultimately make schools worse, not better.

A report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress released Wednesday highlights this research — and the fact that teacher pay and average experience declined in the wake of the law, known as Act 10 — to argue that weakening unions ultimately harm schools.

“Those concerned about the quality of public education — and of all public services — should understand that Wisconsin’s Act 10 and associated budget cuts have not had the positive impact on education that its proponents claimed it would,” the CAP report argues.

Still, the research, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, only assesses the short-term impact of Wisconsin’s law. It adds to a complicated set of research findings on unions that doesn’t render a clear verdict.

Short-term effect in Wisconsin is negative, especially for low-achieving schools

The new research looks at the effects of Wisconsin Act 10, which became law in 2011 and severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt of unions.

The paper’s author, Jason Baron, took advantage of what was essentially a natural experiment set up by the law. Act 10 did not affect all school districts at once — a handful of school districts were allowed to maintain union rules until their existing contract expired up to two years later. That helped isolate the immediate impact of the law.

Baron found that weakening unions led to declines in test scores, particularly in math and science. The effects were fairly large, comparable to sharply increasing class sizes. And the harm was not evenly distributed: Schools that started out furthest behind were hurt the most, while higher achieving schools saw no impact.

Other research may help explain why.

The law led to big cuts in teacher compensation, particularly for veteran teachers and especially in health insurance and retirement benefits, according to one paper. There was also a spike in teacher retirement immediately following the law’s passage.

As compensation drops, it may become harder for district and teachers to recruit and keep teachers. An increase in retirement also reduces teacher experience, which has been linked to effectiveness.

Another study found that some Wisconsin districts moved from a single salary schedule to a performance-based pay system after Act 10’s passage. Those performance pay systems were more likely to be adopted by higher-achieving districts, potentially allowing them to lure effective teachers away from struggling schools.

“Following Act 10, high-performing schools filled vacancies from teacher retirements by poaching high-quality teachers from low-performing schools through attractive compensation schemes,” the paper concludes. So while those retirements might have hit all districts equally, high-performing districts were better able to make up the difference — at the expense of low-performing schools.

There is one study that complicates the narrative in Wisconsin. As retirements spiked, it found that academic achievement actually increased in the grades that teachers left. It’s not clear what explains this.

The larger question of how teachers unions affect learning remains up for debate

A number of other recent studies have examined the relationship between teachers unions and student outcomes outside of Wisconsin. The results aren’t consistent, but the trend has been more positive for unions of late. A caveat: Some of these studies have not been published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

  • On recent efforts to weaken unions: Research in Tennessee found that it led to a drop in teacher pay, but had no effect on student test scores. But a study of four states, including Wisconsin, that recently weakened unions found evidence of reduced teacher quality as a result.
  • On what happens when charter schools unionize: Two studies in California came to differing conclusions. One found that when charters unionize, student test scores go up, but the other showed no impact.
  • On the initial rise of collective bargaining: Another paper finds that students who went to schools where districts negotiated with unions earned less money and were more likely to be unemployed as adults. But this study looks at a fairly old data set — examining those who attended schools between 1965 and 1992.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if any of this research is likely to influence the Supreme Court, as it considers the Janus case that could make life more difficult for unions. Last month, Chief Justice John Roberts called empirical studies on political gerrymandering “sociological gobbledygook.”

study up

Trump education nominee pleads ignorance about high-profile voucher studies showing negative results

At his confirmation hearing, Mick Zais, the nominee to be second-in-command at the Department of Education, said that he was not aware of high-profile studies showing that school vouchers can hurt student achievement.

It was a remarkable acknowledgement by Zais, who said he supports vouchers and would report to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose signature issue has been expanding publicly funded private school choice programs.

The issue was raised by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who asked whether Zais, who was previously the South Carolina schools chief, was “aware of the research on the impact of vouchers on student achievement.”

He replied: “To the best of my knowledge, whenever we give parents an opportunity to choose a school that’s a good fit for their child the result is improved outcomes.”

Franken responded, “No, that’s not true. The academic outcomes for students who used vouchers to attend private school are actually quite abysmal.”

Franken proceeded to mention recent studies from Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, and Washington, DC that showed declines in test scores after students move to private schools with a voucher.

Zais responded: “Senator, I was unaware of those studies that you cited.”

Franken then asked if Zais’s initial response expressing confidence in school choice was anecdotal, and Zais said that it was.

What’s surprising about Zais’s response is that these studies were not just published in dusty academic journals, but received substantial media attention, including in the New York Times and Washington Post (and Chalkbeat). They’ve also sparked significant debate, including among voucher supporters, who have argued against judging voucher programs based on short-term test scores.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the research confusion was a bipartisan affair at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing.

Although Franken, who referred to a New York Times article on voucher research in his question, was broadly accurate in his description of the recent studies, he said that a DC voucher study showed “significantly lower math and reading scores”; in fact, the results were only statistically significant in math, not reading.

Franken also did not mention evidence that the initial negative effects abated in later years in Indiana and for some students in Louisiana, or discuss recent research linking Florida’s voucher-style tax credit program to higher student graduation rates.

In a separate exchange, Washington Sen. Patty Murray grilled Jim Blew — the administration’s nominee for assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development — on the performance of Michigan’s charter schools. Murray said that DeVos was “one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system,” describing the results as “disastrous for children.”

Blew disputed this: “The characterization of the charter school sector in Detroit as being a disaster seems unfair. The most reliable studies are saying, indeed, the charter school students outperform the district students.”

Murray responded: “Actually, Michigan’s achievement rates have plummeted for all kids. In addition, charter schools in Michigan are performing worse than traditional public schools.”

(Murray may be referring to an Education Trust analysis showing that Michigan ranking on NAEP exams have fallen relative to other states. The study can’t show why, or whether school choice policies are the culprit, as some have claimed.)

Blew answered: “The most reliable studies do show that the charter school students in Detroit outperform their peers in the district schools.”

Murray: “I would like to see that because that’s not the data that we have.”

Blew: “I will be happy to get if for you; it’s done by the Stanford CREDO operation.”

Murray: “I’m not aware of that organization.”

CREDO, a Stanford-based research institution, has conducted among the most widely publicized — and sometimes disputed — studies of charter schools. The group’s research on Detroit does show that the city’s charter students were outperforming similar students in district schools, though the city’s students are among the lowest-performing in the country on national tests.