GOSHEN — Comparatively low scores on a standardized test released this week indicate there’s plenty of work to do in ensuring that the district has a viable curriculum for all of its students, Elkhart Community Schools Superintendent Steve Thalheimer said Friday.
Teacher turnover and challenges faced by students outside the classroom in his district were among issues cited by Thalheimer on Friday ahead of a news conference featuring superintendents from all seven school corporations in Elkhart County.
Each superintendent spoke briefly about the obstacles educators face, advocated for legislative remedies against those obstacles and focused on innovative and collaborative approaches schools and businesses are taking to transform education. The press conference at MapleTronics Computers was organized by the Horizon Education Alliance.
Scores for Indiana’s standardized ILEARN test were released to the public Wednesday, and Elkhart County’s largest school district scored significantly lower than the state average and neighboring school districts.
Statewide, only 37.1 percent of students tested proficient in both the math and language arts sections of the test for third- through eighth-graders. This was the first year for the test, which replaces last year’s ISTEP exam.
In Elkhart County, four of seven local school corporations scored above the state average. The highest-scoring district in the area in that category was Wa-Nee Community Schools with 51.7 percent, followed by Fairfield with 46.5 percent, Baugo at 44.7 percent, and Middlebury at 37.7 percent.
Meanwhile, results indicated that Concord and Goshen scored below the state average, earning 35.9 percent and 33.1 percent, respectively.
The county’s largest school district, Elkhart Community Schools, scored the lowest at 22.2 percent.
In an interview before the news conference, Thalheimer said the district was already working to identify the skills students need to learn to be successful and how to best to achieve those goals.
“Part of our professional learning community’s process within our buildings is to identify what those essential skills are and ensure that we’re teaching those to students,” he said.
That process has been emphasized at the beginning of the school year, Thalheimer said. He indicated that the administration has had administrative meetings through the summer and “that process is very key and core to what we’re doing moving forward.”
Thalheimer said the district adopted a new reading program in the spring to help bring consistency to how those standards are taught and is also looking this year into evaluating its math resources to address those essential standards.
Of the 17 schools that took the test at Elkhart Community Schools, three received single-digit passing rates – Roosevelt STEAM Academy earned the lowest with only 3.2 percent of students listed as passing both language arts and math, followed by Mary Beck at 7.1 percent and Hawthorne at 8.3 percent.
Thalheimer said many of the lower-performing schools serve higher populations of transient students
“Typically within a building, the longer students are with you, the general trend is that they improve,” he said. “But the difficulty is when the vast majority of those students are moving in and out, it’s difficult for you to build from one year to the next in terms of learning. It’s also difficult to build in terms of establishing behavior expectations when those students are coming to us.”
This year, for example, Thalheimer said, a large number of students are from out of state.
“So, those students moving in are needing to learn how to behave and operate within a school in addition to them learning the academics,” he said. “It’s sort of always a point of starting over with those students in terms of behavior expectations, which then impacts the ability to move them along academically.”
Students who faces challenges outside the classroom often need extra attention, Thalheimer said.
“As we’re learning about social-emotional learning, the students that are coming from adverse experiences ... we’re needing to build those relationships, establish trust and get those students in a position to be able to learn, and so that’s a challenge being experienced by those schools,” he said.
Thalheimer said all staff in all buildings are working on “trauma-informed practices” so they can know how to build those relationships with students while also learning how to de-escalate behaviors and get the students to a position where they’re ready to learn.
On another issue, Thalheimer said many teachers leaving the district for another in hopes of receiving better pay or benefits, which in turn, makes it hard for a student to establish a relationship with teachers.
“I had a teacher tell me the other day, with teachers coming and going from buildings, if students have had a difficult time building relationships and trusting people, and then they look around and see that many of the teachers they had last year are gone, that feeds into that cycle of, here are some more adults who don’t care for me,” he said.
As fewer than half of Indiana students passed both section, math and language arts, some of the state’s leaders are calling for legislative action to prevent these scores from causing any repercussions against schools and teachers due to poor student performance, and local top school officials are on board with the effort.
“When you’re seeing that kind of drop statewide regarding test results, I don’t know how in the first year of having a new test you can hold districts to the same standard,” Thalheimer said.
In a joint statement, Horizon Education Alliance and the Elkhart County superintendents challenged legislators in Indianapolis to find a way to measure student progress toward graduation and to find a way that doesn’t punish schools but recognizes collaboration and emphasizes achievements.
“If there must be a test, create one that doesn’t require educators to throw their lesson books out the window and spend a whole year ‘teaching to the test,’” the statement said. “Look to other states and other countries for ideas and inspiration on the road to a better system. And you needn’t look any further than Elkhart County for examples of how collaboration and innovation lead to better environments for business leaders, educators and students to build brighter futures.”