> SOUTHERN INDIANA —
Their scores weren’t up to the state standards, but considering the circumstances of one charter school and gains made by the other, ISTEP+ results for area charter schools in 2011 showed promise.
Community Montessori in New Albany showed substantial gains in many subject areas this year, but the school’s teaching philosophy doesn’t focus as much on standardized testing results. Rock Creek Community Academy in Sellersburg showed reasonable results for its first year as a charter school and also has a vastly different student population than in years past. With some work, its administrators hope to make state averages next year.
But whether their approaches to education and focuses on teaching match traditional methods of instruction or not, new legislation holds charter schools to higher levels of accountability when it comes to ISTEP+ and Adequate Yearly Progress. How they’re handling that contrasts from one to the other, but it’s a change they both face.
Their numbers aren’t impressive at first glance. Community Montessori scored 14.3 percentage points below the state average in the math portion of ISTEP+ this year, 4.6 percentage points behind in English/language arts and 11.7 percentage points behind in students passing both subjects.
But their gains were significant and their scores in science and social studies were either close to state average or well above. Their scores in math were 16.5 percentage points above their scores in 2010, they increased their English/langauge arts scores by 4.5 percentage points and gained 13.5 percentage points in students passing in both subjects.
But Barbara Burke Fondren, director of the school, said while standardized testing is something they have to administer, it’s not the focus of how they teach at the school.
“We know that if we did more, our scores would be higher, but then we wouldn’t be a Montessori school,” Fondren said. “It’s exciting that we could make that minor of an adjustment to get those gains, but it’s also kind of scary, isn’t it?”
The school is within 2 percentage points of the state average in science and 9.2 percentage points above state average in social studies. Fondren said much of the school’s curriculum based in humanities and culture, as well as helping students making relevant connections in geography and history.
Fondren said the school adjusted the time it spent on improving ISTEP+ scores, focusing about 20 percent of their time on that. The rest of the time is spent on their own method of education, including their focus on child development outside of academics and a more individualized approach to each child.
Once a month, students were given a practice ISTEP+ test. Fondren said the academic standards for ISTEP+ were included in course curriculums while maintaining the balance of their methods and philosophies.
“We know how to raise test scores, that’s not the issue, it’s how much we decide to spend on that component,” Fondren said. “We made some very minor adjustments. Our kids don’t use textbooks, we don’t have workbooks, we don’t have grades.”
New legislation passed at the beginning of July gives charter schools more free rein in the ways of sponsorship and allowing more students to attend. But it also holds them at higher levels of accountability on state testing, as well as giving charter schools overall grades much like public schools.
“The accountability is still pretty broad in that process,” Fondren said. “Yes, there is a new layer of that at the state level, but that was done by our [charter] authorizer in the beginning. It’s going to be interesting with the [federal] Common Core unit. The focus is more on application and critical thinking.”
While progress on ISTEP+ is viewed as a measure of success by the state, Fondren said their focus will remain on educating the whole child.
“Gain isn’t our goal, our goal is to look at each child as an individual and support their own growth,” Fondren said. “We see where they are and where we can help them to grow. Sometimes growth is academic, sometimes growth is social or emotional, sometimes growth is moral.”
Meanwhile, Clark County’s charter school tends to follow a more traditional approach to state testing than its cohort in Floyd County.
The 2010-2011 school year was the first for Rock Creek Community Academy as a public charter school, though it existed as a private Christian school for years. Rock Creek won’t be graded on AYP this year and the growth from its time as a private school won’t count. The stakes weren’t as high for Rock Creek as they were for other established schools in both counties.
But Sara Hauselman, principal, said that didn’t mean they weren’t trying for the best possible results.
“I had great hopes that we could even reach what the state standards were this year, but in reality, I probably knew that wasn’t going to be what happened,” Hauselman said.” But I was cautiously pleased with the fact that it’s our first year. The state and Ball State sets this as a baseline year.”
The school still fell behind the state averages in every category, coming closest in English/language arts. But the shortfalls were mostly within 5 percentage points of the state averages, with math scores at nearly 10 percentage points behind.
Hauselman said with a student population that nearly doubled in one year and a considerably different group of students than they had before, the school had some challenges in the way of maintaining its own level discipline and getting students up to standards.
She said as students learned what was expected of them in terms of saying “yes sir,” “no sir,” “please” and “thank you,” she thinks those set standards will help them focus more on academics in the coming school year.
“That’s why I was so glad we came in where we did,” Hauselman said. "I think we’re going to be able to set goals and attain them from year to year. I knew we could do this. I’ve got very hard working teachers that are willing to meet this challenge.”
She said the school will implement an elementary reading program to give students more sustained reading time, as well as an incentive program to motivate them to raise their standards.
But standardized testing is a big concern for Rock Creek, Hauselman said.
“We are concerned about the concept of the whole child, we do an awful lot of character education...,” Hauselman said. “But the reality of this is whether you’re trying to get in college or wherever you’re trying to go, you’ve got to have good test scores, that’s just a fact. We’re much more of a traditional school.”
She said she hopes the school shows gains in their scores next year and meet state averages, but doesn’t want to make the goals unrealistic.
“I would love to be able to getting to at least 70 percent,” Hauselman said. “Whether that can happen or not, I’m going for it. I’d like to go a little higher, but I think that might be pressing it.”
With contrasting views on how to educate children, Community Montessori and Rock Creek approach standardized testing in different ways.
While Rock Creek sees testing as a integral part of student success, Community Montessori views it as just one aspect, and one that doesn’t even count for a whole lot.
“We have to be careful that we don’t just look at the standardized test,” Fondren said. “If we keep playing that game, we’re going to lose. Sometimes we have kids here that have struggled socially or emotionally and the results aren’t going to be shown in the test. That’s pretty powerful stuff.”
Gloria Murray, the dean of the School of Education at Indiana University Southeast, said schools need to keep an eye on their performance on ISTEP+, but they also need to nurture children in other ways.
However, she said ignoring it altogether could have serious consequences for charter schools.
“They need to look at [testing], but they need to look at it from the perspective of it being one measure of their child’s success,” Murray said. “It’s one measure, that’s all it is. I think that one thing is important because ... the result of doing well or not doing well results in a school being closed down or being recognized positively.”
Murray said state testing isn’t really created for private or charter schools and sort of goes against anything outside of the public school realm. But it’s still a measure parents consider when choosing a school for their children.
She said Community Montessori, in particular, goes beyond the state testing measure in its philosophy of education.
“In the case of Community Montessori, they have a very specific vision of education,” Murray said. “In order to be true to that vision, they could never look at just that one thing.”
Hauselman said those other areas of growth are also important, but when it comes to test scores, she hopes Rock Creek continues to make gains.
Fondren, on the other hand, said she hopes her school’s teaching method will help children make lifelong gains.
“What we know about standardized testing is that it does not equate to lifelong success,” Fondren said.
BY THE NUMBERS
State ISTEP+ passing averages
• Math: 79 percent
• English/language arts: 78 percent
• Both: 70.2 percent
• Science: 69 percent
• Social Studies: 67 percent
How Community Montessori performed
• Math: 64.7 percent
• English/language arts: 73.4 percent
• Both: 58.5 percent
• Science: 67.5 percent
• Social Studies: 76.3 percent
How Rock Creek performed
• Math: 69.6 percent
• English/language arts: 73.9 percent
• Both: 64.4 percent
• Science: 66.2 percent
• Social Studies: 61.7 percent