Brown: Students Are Making Modest Learning Gains. That’s Not Good Enough

In Indianapolis, and across the country, districts must accelerate progress to reach the levels of academic mastery that students deserve

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The COVID-19 pandemic created unprecedented challenges for schools, resulting in significant declines in academic achievement for students across the country. The recent national study from NWEA examining MAP scores revealed that students are making modest gains, but COVID-related disruptions continue to impact student learning. Children of color and low-income students continue to unfairly bear the brunt of these challenges. 

Unfortunately, Indiana schools have not escaped the pandemic’s crushing impact on learning. Like students across the country, children in Indiana are still working to make up for learning loss after major disruptions that impacted three consecutive school years. 

In 2021, the percentage of Hoosier students passing both the math and English sections of the state assessment for grades 3 to 8 fell by 8.5 percentage points when compared to the 2019 assessment, dropping from a 37.1% pass rate to 28.6%. The reality that almost three-quarters of Indiana students did not demonstrate mastery of grade-level content last year was deeply concerning and increased the urgency to reverse the slide for this most recent school year.

With the release of Indiana’s 2022 state assessment results, we now have a new glimpse into how well students are progressing. On the whole, proficiency increased modestly. For all Indiana students, combined ILEARN proficiency for grades 3 to 8 improved by 1.7 percentage points. Gains for Black, Latino and low-income students were similar. These small improvements erased only about 20% of the proficiency decrease from 2019 to 2021. 

In Indianapolis, public schools made similar gains to the state average. As a whole, public schools in Indianapolis increased their overall proficiency by 1.9 percentage points. Black students gained 1.4 points, Latino students gained 1.2 points and low-income students gained 2.1 points.

Indianapolis includes 11 school districts, the largest being Indianapolis Public Schools. Many of the city’s 10 other districts markedly underperformed state averages, increasing Black and Latino proficiency by only half a percentage point on average. Some of these districts actually saw proficiency rates for these students decline once again.

However, public charter and autonomous innovation network schools in Indianapolis achieved proficiency gains meaningfully larger than the state average. Independent charter schools, for example, increased their overall proficiency by 3.8 points, matching or surpassing the increases for all of the 11 Indianapolis districts. 

Independent charter school gains were particularly strong for Black students, who increased their proficiency by 4.1 points – by far the largest gain in the city. Within the Indianapolis Public Schools boundaries, 10 of the 12 public schools that achieved the largest proficiency increases for Black students were charter and innovation schools.

Latino and low-income charter students also posted strong gains, jumping 3.6 and 3.7 points, respectively. Taken together, these gains erased up to 50% of the pandemic proficiency decreases for various student groups. 

Put another way, 2022 ILEARN proficiency gains mean that Black independent charter school students in Indianapolis improved their proficiency by twice the state average, three times the city average and seven times the surrounding district average. Latino students in independent charter schools improved by twice the state average, three times the city average and six times the surrounding district average.

While it is nice to see state assessment scores and other progress indicators, like results on the NWEA MAP assessment, improve for the first time since 2019, overall proficiency rates continue to be unacceptable. The sobering reality is that 70% of Hoosier students are still not demonstrating the grade-level mastery that is critical to their future success. 

If Indiana students continue to make marginal performance gains similar to this year, it will take another four years to merely catch up to 2019 proficiency levels, which were already too low to begin with. It will take even longer for many Indianapolis districts to achieve the same. 

The good news? Charter schools in Indianapolis provide a blueprint for more rapid acceleration of academic progress, particularly for historically marginalized students. Districts, educators and leaders who can drive systemic change have a moral obligation to replicate that success. The most successful local charter schools have three conditions for success that can be applied nationwide: strong school leadership, autonomy to make decisions at the school level and accountability for results.

In Indianapolis, the strongest school leaders have a laser-like focus on academic and operational success. They select a high-quality curriculum, think strategically about teacher development and retention, and cultivate a strong school community that includes parents. At The Mind Trust, part of our work is to invest in current and future leaders to ensure our local schools continue to have great leaders. 

Autonomy ensures these school leaders are not tied down in bureaucracy and can nimbly make decisions that work best for their unique school communities. This helps drive innovative thinking and has resulted in the creation of successful, locally managed public charter schools like Paramount Schools of Excellence, which has grown to three campuses in the city. The schools all outperformed the statewide ILEARN pass rates and even surpassed those of schools in much wealthier districts. 

Innovation and autonomy must also be paired with accountability. Students and families win when measures are put in place to ensure schools serve all students well. In Indianapolis, high-quality authorizers like the Mayor’s Office of Education Innovation examine academic, financial and operational indicators that demonstrate the quality and sustainability of schools in their portfolio. 

Students in today’s classrooms will be the nation’s future leaders, educators, entrepreneurs and neighbors. The trajectory of millions of students’ lives depends on the willingness of district leadership, educators and community members to take action on this data and urgently accelerate progress to reach the levels of academic mastery that they deserve.

Disclosure: The Mind Trust provides financial support to The 74.

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