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July 29, 2011

Clark, Floyd charter schools approach ISTEP+ in different ways

> 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.

Community Montessori

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.”

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Erin Klein, a nationally-recognized education blogger and Tom Murray, State and District Digital Learning Policy and Advocacy Director for the Alliance for Excellent Education in Washington, D.C., speak to a group of educators at Jeffersonville High School on Monday. They were just a couple of the big-name education personalities at the second annual Greater Clark Connected Conference.

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