School Choice

Indianapolis private schools score high but most saw ISTEP drops

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Hasten Hebrew Academy in Washington Township was the highest scoring private school in Indianapolis and also had one of the biggest gains over last year.

While many Indianapolis private schools were among the state’s very highest scoring on this year’s ISTEP test, a surprisingly high number of them saw lower scores than in 2013.

Statewide, about 43 percent of about 300 private schools did worse this year than last year. In Indianapolis, it was a majority of private schools — 55 percent — that lost ground from the prior year. (Find your school’s ISTEP scores here. Or see a sortable list of Indianapolis private school scores at the bottom of this story.)

There some factors to consider in those results.

ISTEP is only given in grades 3 to 8, so private high schools, some of which tend to be high-performing, are not included. Also, not all private schools with elementary grades take the state test. It is not required for private schools. And many of the schools that lost ground from the prior year were only down slightly from where they were.

That appeared to be the case for several Indianapolis Catholic schools that dropped less than two percentage points from the prior year but still saw more than 90 percent of kids pass.

Helping fuel strong Catholic school results each year is consistency, said Greg Otolski, a spokesman for the Indianapolis Archdiocese.

“Students who attend Catholic schools are well prepared and do well on the test,” he said. “A lot of that has to do with what we get with kids who come to our schools. We get them early and they tend to stay. When we can get kids in early grades and keep them, we do a very good job of teaching them the basic building blocks to be good students through their entire lives.”

In Marion County about one-third of private schools rank in the top quarter for percent passing both English and math on ISTEP among more than 1,800 schools who took the exam statewide. That percentage is four times higher than the percentage of schools ranked in the state’s top quarter for all eight Marion County townships combined (8 percent) and almost eight times more than Indianapolis Public Schools (5 percent) and all of the county’s charter schools combined (4 percent).

Five of the state’s top 10 schools for percent passing ISTEP were private schools, including Indianapolis’ Hasten Hebrew Academy, ranked eighth with 98.2 percent passing.

Principal Miriam Gettinger said Hasten made a concerted effort to reach for very high scores this year that paid off.

The school has had a long run of very high passing rates in the range of 90 to 95 percent passing, but last year slipped to a still very high 89.3 percent.

Gettinger said the staff went to work figuring out what their students needed help with.

“After last year we did some very careful data analysis of our school and their scores,” she said.

The school does not have access to diagnostic tests that public schools use to prepare for the state test, Gettinger said, so teachers created their own mini-tests with ISTEP-like questions focused on areas they identified as weaknesses for their students.

One example was math problem-solving. Teachers wrote ISTEP-style questions that students took each week to check on how well they were learning the concepts from class and figuring out how to apply them for the state exam.

In writing, students got more practice in ISTEP-like essay questions, writing narrative or persuasive essays each week.

At the same time, Hasten is solidifying a curriculum change it made about five years ago, with a heavier focus on critical thinking skills and writing in all subjects, even art, music and physical education.

“At the end of gym, they’ll write a reflection on the activity or a social scenario, like competition,” Gettinger said.

The curriculum changes, she said, made Hasten a stronger school.

“We absolutely will not teach to a test,” Gettinger said.

In Marion County, eight of the top 10 ranked schools for ISTEP passing rate are private schools, along with two IPS schools: Sidener Academy, a magnet school for gifted students which ranked No. 1 statewide at 100 percent passing, and School 84, a Center for Inquiry magnet school, which ranked 20th statewide with 96.3 percent passing.

Most of the county’s top 10 are Catholic schools, led by Immaculate Heart of Mary School on Indianapolis’ north side at 94.7 percent passing.

Immaculate Heart of Mary School had the highest ISTEP passing rate of any Catholic school in Indianapolis
PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Immaculate Heart of Mary School had the highest ISTEP passing rate of any Catholic school in Indianapolis

A factor that might be helping Catholic school performance is a tradition of strong parental involvement. That might be partly driven by the desire to get the most out of the tuition parents pay, said Otolski, but it’s also because of an openness to parents in the school and an emphasis on involving them in student learning.

“If you’re paying $4,000 or $5,000 a year to send your kid to a grade school, I suppose you might be more motivated to pay attention to what your kids are doing,” he said. “But every parent wants their child to succeed. Catholic schools are really open to inviting parents to take part inside the classroom. Expectations are set early on that there will be a lot of work and parents are going to have to be involved to guide children to learn good study habits.”

The top scoring township school — Lawrence Township’s Amy Beverland Elementary School — ranked 14th best in the county and 186th statewide at 90.2 percent passing.

In other states, few private schools participate in the state testing program, but most in Indiana do. Private schools in Marion County have long been among the highest scorers on ISTEP. Enrollment at many private schools, especially Catholic schools, is growing thanks to Indiana’s fast-growing voucher program, which allows low- and middle-income families to use tax dollars to pay a portion of private school tuition bills for their children.

Critics say a big reason private schools do better on ISTEP is because they can be selective, picking which students to enroll and expelling those who fail to behave or achieve academically. Several of the county’s private schools use vouchers to serve significantly poorer students, who tend to have more problems in school. But some of those schools still scored well on ISTEP.

Otolski said it might be true that some Catholic schools have demographic advantages that help them perform well on ISTEP. But that’s not always the case.

“We’ve got kids all across the economic spectrum,” he said. “We have plenty of schools that are toward the core of the city that have just as much of the same kinds of difficulties as public schools.”

unions in charters

When charter schools unionize, students learn more, study finds

A UFT organizer hands out a pro-union flier to Emily Samuels, one of Opportunity Charter School's administrators. To the left, Ana Patejdl, a teacher at the school.

When charter school teachers push to unionize, charter leaders often fight back.

That’s happened in Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Washington DC. Unionizing, they argue, would limit the schools’ ability to innovate, ultimately hurting kids.

But a new study of California schools finds that, far from harming student achievement, unionization of charter schools actually boosts test scores.

“In contrast to the predominant public opinion about school unionizations, we find that unionization has a positive … impact on student math performance,” write researchers Jordan Matsudaira of Cornell and Richard Patterson of the U.S. Military Academy.

The analysis is hardly the last word on the question, but it highlights the limited evidence for the idea that not having unionized teachers helps charter schools succeed — even though that is a major aspect of the charter-school movement, as most charters are not unionized.

“Contrary to the anti-worker and anti-union ideologues, the teacher unions in charter schools don’t impede teaching and learning or hurt kids,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents teachers in more than 240 charter schools. “And the findings — that schools with teachers who have an independent voice through its unions have a positive effects on student performance — are consistent with common sense and other studies.”

The study, just published in the peer-reviewed Economics of Education Review, finds that about a quarter of all charters in California — 277 of 1,127 — were unionized as of 2013. Together, they taught nearly a third of the state’s students in charter schools.

Forty-four of those schools unionized between 2003 and 2013. To understand the effects of that change, the researchers compared trends in test scores of schools after they unionized to similar schools that didn’t unionize during that time.

The researchers find that unionization increased students’ annual math test scores, and those gains persisted for least three years. The students who started at the lowest achievement levels seemed to benefit the most.

Those gains were fairly substantial: In math, they were about three times the size of the total advantage conferred by urban charter schools nationwide, according to research frequently cited by charter school advocates.

The estimated impact on English scores was positive, but small and not statistically significant.

The paper was not able to explain why unionization seemed to improve student learning, though the authors say it could relate to improved teacher morale or better relationships between teachers and school leadership. Oddly, unionization seemed to lead to a decline in teachers’ years of experience; it did not have any effect on class size.

The study comes with some significant caveats. Although the researchers make extensive efforts to make apples-to-apples comparisons among schools, it’s difficult to be sure that unionization is what caused the test-score gains. If schools that were already more likely to improve were also more likely to unionize, that could explain the results.

David Griffith, a senior research and policy associate at the Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, said the study was well done but noted its inability to explain the results.

Griffith, who released an analysis last week showing that unionized charter schools have relatively high rates of teacher absenteeism, also pointed out that many charters without unions are successful.

“Even if this study is true for these particular schools, we have examples of really high-performing non-unionized charter schools,” he said. “It’s difficult to leap from this study to say that [for example] KIPP, which gets these fantastic results, should unionize.”

Previous research has shown middling performance for one of the most high-profile unionized charters in the state, Green Dot, while other non-unionized schools, like the Alliance charter network in Los Angeles, posted better scores.

In contrast to the latest research, a previous study of California’s charter schools found that unionization had no significant effect on test scores.

Since the findings are focused on just a fraction of California’s unionized charter schools, they might not apply to other charter schools in the state or country — or say anything about the effects of unions in traditional public schools.

showdown

McQueen’s deadline looms for Memphis and Nashville to share student info with charter schools — and no one is budging

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A request for student contact information from Green Dot Public Schools to help with enrollment efforts sparked a fight between the state and Shelby County Schools.

As Tennessee’s two largest school districts fought an order to share student information with charter schools, the state education commissioner set a deadline last week.

Candice McQueen told the superintendents of Shelby County Schools and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools they had to provide the data to charter schools that asked for it by Sept. 25 — or the state would “be forced to consider actions to enforce the law.”

But with just three days until the deadline, neither district has said it will budge. The consequences “will be determined Monday,” McQueen told Chalkbeat on Friday.

McQueen has not offered more information about what those consequences could be, though some lawmakers have worried it could mean funding cuts. There is some precedent for such a move: The Nashville district lost $3.4 million in state funding in 2012 when it refused to approve a controversial charter school, according to The Tennessean.

The clash comes after the Nashville and Memphis districts refused to turn over student contact information to charter networks, who argue that information is vital to their operation. Many Memphis schools, including those in the state-run school district, have been struggling with under-enrollment.

An amendment to an untested U.S. Department of Education rule suggests local districts can withhold information like phone numbers, addresses and email addresses — but a new state law requires Tennessee districts to hand it over to charter schools within 30 days.

The state department of education asked the attorney general’s office to weigh in. Last week, the attorney general said the districts had to turn the information over, but also that districts could take a “reasonable period of time” to notify parents about their right to opt out.

Shelby County Schools posted opt-out forms for parents on its website the next day, and gave parents until Oct. 22 to fill them out. The form allows parents to keep their information from charter schools specifically or from outside entities more broadly, including companies like yearbook providers, for example.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

The school boards for the two districts have been in lockstep in defying the state’s order, with the Memphis board even offering to write a legal opinion if Nashville were to go to court over the issue.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said his legal team is still reviewing the attorney general’s opinion.

“We still want to make sure parents know what their options are,” Hopson told Chalkbeat on Tuesday. “When we [McQueen and I] talked, she understood that our opt-out forms were out there.”

Anna Shepherd, board chair for the Nashville district, said the board met with its attorney this week to discuss the issue but took no action.

“We have not had any further conversation with the state concerning the release of data for MNPS students,” Shepherd said by email. “I’m not anticipating any action [before Monday].”

Reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.