Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom


Indiana’s Reputation Post-RFRA Reaches Potential College Students

Universities around Indiana are responding to the religious freedom bill passed last week.

Universities around Indiana are responding to the religious freedom bill passed last week. (Photo Credit: Barbara Harrington/WTIU News)

Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act dominated headlines last week and garnered national media attention. In response to the law, corporations, organizations and other state governments announced they wouldn’t work with Indiana if the law remained intact.

The portrayal of Indiana in national media also affected the decisions of a more impressionable group of outsiders: high school seniors from other states considering Indiana colleges and universities.

Almost every day this month, hundreds of prospective students will visit Indiana University’s campus. They either recently committed, or are trying to get one last feel for the university before choosing a school by the May 1 deadline.

Liam Dixon is one of those students taking an April campus tour. He applied to 18 universities and has spent the majority of his senior year at his home in Irvine, Calif. trying to decide which one is the best fit for him. He recently settled on IU.

Liam Dixon, a high school senior from Irvina, Calif., will attend IU-Bloomington this fall. He visited campus for the first time this week, after reading about Indiana's religious freedom law.

Liam Dixon, a high school senior from Irvina, Calif., will attend IU-Bloomington this fall. He visited campus for the first time this week, after reading about Indiana’s religious freedom law. (Photo Credit: Barbara Harrington/WTIU News)

Around the same time he committed to IU, the news of Indiana’s religious freedom bill reached Dixon in California, where he goes to school with openly gay students and lives in what he calls a very open-minded community.

“I didn’t know how to interpret hearing they were being so close-minded and conservative on this on specific topic,” Dixon says.

Dixon wasn’t the only out-of-state student to question his decision about spending the next four years in Indiana after reading about the law. The Admissions Office at IU received multiple calls and emails from out-of-state students and their families.

“These are families that have developed relationships with us and they’ve visited us many times and they’ve been engaged with us throughout their process,” says Sacha Thieme, Executive Director of Admissions for IU. “They just want to know that the experiences that they’ve had with Indiana University and Bloomington to date are going to be the same experiences they can expect in the future.”

Thieme says although the concurrent timing of the commitment deadline and RFRA was unfortunate, it helped engage prospective families with IU and learn even more about the university.

“We welcome families to ask questions, we welcome students to ask questions, we’re an institution of higher education we invite academic inquiry,” Thieme says.  Continue Reading

Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader? Indiana’s ISTEP Will Push Kids

This spring, Indiana students will take a new version of the ISTEP.

This spring, Indiana students will take a new version of the ISTEP.” credit=”biologycorner (flickr)

There’s an old phrase, nothing’s sure in life except for death and taxes. We could probably make an argument for standardized tests as well (even Harry Potter took an annual exam in his mythical, made up school year).

These tests carry important consequences for teachers, schools and students, and in Indiana this year, students will take a new version of the state’s standardized test, the ISTEP+.

Simply put, the test will be harder. The content of the questions is the same, but the format will look different. For one, there won’t be as many multiple choice questions. Another change is that students will have to explain how they got to their answer.

Why are we changing the test?

When Indiana passed its own academic standards this spring, Michele Walker, Director of Assessment for the Indiana Department of Education, and her team were charged with creating a test to match the new standards.

An assessment matching the new standards was also a requirement to receive a No Child Left Behind waiver extension.

Walker says another change the IDOE wanted to make to the test, is adding a more focused writing prompt. Rather than asking students to write about something inconsequential like whether the cafeteria should add cake to the menu, students will be asked to read a passage and write a paragraph or essay on a related prompt, using the passage for evidence. Continue Reading

As State Officials Ponder Fines, Testing Company Execs Explain ISTEP+ Disruptions

Apologetic executives from the testing company whose servers overloaded twice — interrupting April’s online ISTEP+ exams twice — told the combined membership of the Indiana House and Senate Education Committees that they took responsibility for the errors.

“I have family here in Indiana,” said Ellen Haley, president of CTB/McGraw-Hill. “It was very disappointing to have this happen and have this impact schoolchildren in Indiana. Please accept my sincere apologies and regret that anything at all happened.”

Haley’s statements came on the same day Department of Education officials announced they would be seeking at least $613,600 in damages from CTB — though a Department of Education spokesperson later stressed that the penalties “could reasonably go into the millions” — in part to pay for an outside review of the disrupted exams that’s already underway. Continue Reading

How A Group Of High School Students Wants Indiana To Grade Their High School

The eight students in Ben Davis High School’s AP Statistics class didn’t have time for senioritis. On Tuesday, their last day of high school ever, the eight college-bound seniors dressed up for a final presentation.

The subject: Indiana’s A-F rating system for schools.

We first met this group two weeks ago after Wayne Township superintendent Jeff Butts asked me to explain the labyrinthine grading formula to the class.*

For the next step of their assignment — making formal recommendations for how to re-write the A-F model — Butts invited three state lawmakers, including House Education Committee Chair Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, and a representative for state superintendent Glenda Ritz to the Indianapolis high school to hear their proposals.

But while the students’ pitch couldn’t be more timely — the Indiana General Assembly has given state education officials until November to completely re-write the formula — the Ben Davis class is also entering a political fray as complex as the A-F grading system itself. Continue Reading

Why Construction Referenda Could Lead To Inequalities In School Facilities

Elle Moxley / StateImpact Indiana

Facilities Manager Darren Hess and Snider High School Principal Deborah Watson explain Fort Wayne Community Schools' plan to renovate 36 buildings.

As a rule of thumb, for every ten cents a school corporation asks for when proposing a tax levy increase, it knocks a percentage point off the number of voters supporting the referendum.

“In a close election, that could make the difference,” says Purdue agricultural economist Larry DeBoer. “Though most of these elections haven’t been that close.”

Before 2008, Indiana school corporations could levy up to $2 million without asking for taxpayer approval. But changes to how schools are funded have sent an increasing number of districts to the ballot box in the last five years. Only 16 of the 40 districts that have pursued major construction projects have succeeded.

That has DeBoer and others who study school finance curious about the future of facilities maintenance in Indiana schools.

“Will it be the case that some school corporations find that they can pass the referendum and therefore they can keep their facilities up to date and have new buildings and better facilities,” he says, “while other school corporations perhaps cannot?” Continue Reading

After Project School's Closure, Parents Make New School Choice: Start Over

Kyle Stokes / StateImpact Indiana

Matthew Brooks points down the hallway of an old school building in Indianapolis in which he and other Project Libertas leaders are considering renting space next year. Project Libertas, a private, non-accredited school formed by charter school the Indianapolis Mayor's Office shut down last summer, is currently renting space in a church-owned gymnasium just northeast of downtown.

The ink was barely dry on a legal decision that sealed fate of The Project School — Mayor Greg Ballard had ordered the Indianapolis charter school to close — when some of the school’s staff declared they would still hold classes this year, charter or not.

And about 20 defiant families have done just that.

The school they’ve opened, called “Project Libertas,” has very little money. But with about 35 students in Grades K-8 and a small staff of former Project School hands, the parents are now seeking a more permanent home.

“I don’t know there’s even a word to describe us,” says parent Matthew Brooks, sitting in a small room in the school’s current location — a church-run gymnasium on Indianapolis’ east side. “We’d need a few hyphenations. We’re an independent, hyphen… communal, hyphen… startup school.” Continue Reading

Rockville Students Spend Afternoon At 'Museum'

Elle Moxley / StateImpact Indiana

Younger students walk through the halls of Rockville Elementary School as fifth graders portray famous historical figures. The students can't talk or interact with their parents or peers while part of the Tableau Museum.

You’re in fifth grade. It’s the day before school lets out for winter break. You’re excited about the holidays, the forecasted winter storm and no homework for two weeks.

But before you can go, your teacher makes you stand in the hallway — perfectly still, perfectly silent — while your peers file past. Sound like a tall order? Welcome to the annual Rockville Elementary School Tableau Museum.

We spent a lot of time covering policy here at StateImpact. I was in Rockville Thursday looking at the state’s A-F letter grade system. But when Principal Jeff Eslinger asked if I’d stay another hour “to see something special,” well, you can’t say no to that.

So for a bit of light-hearted fun, I’ll let fifth grader Kennett Taylor explain his class’ history project.  Continue Reading

What's At Stake For Special Education In Fiscal Cliff Negotiations

Kyle Stokes / StateImpact Indiana

Tori Tackett, 20, plays a board game with another student in the CHOICE program, an initiative of the Northeast Indiana Special Education Cooperative.

No Indiana school district stands to lose more than 3 percent of its overall revenues if President Obama and Congressional leaders fail to reach an agreement before a looming budget deadline.

But if Indiana schools were to lose the estimated $114 million in federal K-12 education funding at stake in the so-called “fiscal cliff” debate, programs for some of the state’s most vulnerable student populations would feel a deeper impact.

That’s because dollars underwrite services for special education students — and by law, local districts must still fund those services even if those dollars fall victim to the automatic spending cuts coming at year’s-end.

Continue Reading

Updated: Overflow Crowd Packs IDOE, Awaits Vote On Teacher Licensing Provision

A large crowd of parents, educators and advocates packed the State Board of Education’s meeting in Indianapolis on Monday morning as the executive panel met to consider a broad package of changes to Indiana’s teacher licensure guidelines.

The proposal, known in shorthand as REPA II, has been controversial, as we’ve written. Supporters say the provision offers more flexibility in who gets licensed while still allowing schools to decide what teachers get hired. Opponents say REPA II “de-professionalizes” teaching by de-emphasizing training prospective educators receive in colleges of education.

Here are some of the public comments offered on the proposal so far: Continue Reading

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