After Weeks Of Planning For Tests At Arlington High, Staff Take Extraordinary Measures To Make Sure All Students Get To School
Test coordinator Tina Ahlgren checks containers of exam supplies that teachers will pick up and use when proctoring the ISTEP 10 or the traditional end of course exams. (Eric Weddle/WFYI Public Media)
It’s early on Monday, Dec. 11 at Arlington High School and test coordinator Tina Ahlgren is trying to track down six missing students.
She and other staff have already spent the weekend calling phone numbers they’ve cobbled together to reach parents of these and other students who have yet to show up and take one of two standardized tests – the ISTEP 10 or end of course exam, known as the ECA.
“Right now I'm going through the kids that we're most concerned about. These are the kids that haven't made a single test,” Ahlgren says as she scrolls through a student database on her office computer. “They haven't had any response from any parents and their attendance is bad enough that we're very concerned about them.”
Indiana students need to pass one of those tests to earn a high school diploma. At Arlington, on the city’s Eastside, more than 200 students – including the entire junior class – have yet to pass both math and English portions of the test. Due to changes in state law, which test a student is required to take – ISTEP or ECA – depends on their graduation cohort.
But by this point it is clear, some students had up to seven opportunities to pass the test during the past few years. This could be one of the last chances for them to earn a passing score.
Arlington staff are aiming for 95 percent of students to complete the tests between Dec. 4 and Dec. 14. School administration chose to pack the testing into two solid weeks so staff would be able to offer “make up” tests days for the expected high rate of absences and students skipping out on the test.
As of that morning, with a few days left in the testing window, just 81 percent finished the ECA and only 73 percent are done with the ISTEP.
“We want 100 percent, right? If they miss a chance to take their graduation test, that does hurt them in the long run,” Ahlgren says. “I’m not worried about us, I’m worried about them. We need to take every opportunity so they can have a chance of graduating.”
Since Arlington was returned to Indianapolis Public Schools in mid-2015 after a failed state takeover, it’s faced a wide range of challenges when it comes to testing.
In Spring 2016, Arlington students were kicked off the online-testing system hundreds of times a day. That led to a paper and pencil exam being used the next year.
This past summer, students in grades 9-12 at John Marshall High School were transferred to Arlington as that school became a stand-alone middle school. The consolidation boosted Arlington's 9-12 enrollment by around 400 students to 770 this year. Next year, John Marshall will close and Arlington will become a 7-8 grade middle school.
For high poverty high schools like Arlington, students can struggle with a range of personal issues or family responsibilities that make it a challenge to pass the standardized tests.
Students may be working jobs to help pay the rent, or in charge of taking care of younger siblings, school administrators say. Then there are times, staff in the building have to chase down students attempting to avoid the exams.
Couple that with the high-stakes accountability linked to the tests and the pressure mounts for a school like Arlington to pull off an effective round of exams.
Last spring, 92.3 percent of students required to take the ISTEP 10 for the first time completed all parts.
While the percentages of students retaking the ISTEP 10 and ECA are not calculated toward a school’s A-F grade, passing the tests remain essential for a student to earn a Core 40 diploma.
All of this forced Ahlgren to attempt planning for every glitch whether it be human or technical.
“All of those things we are doing now to prepare are because of negative experiences. A lot of the stress is like self-perpetuated. I am little bit of a perfectionist with my work, not necessary others,” she says. “I want all my work to go be perfect. I don't want a kid to do bad on a test and its my fault.”
When testing began around 8 a.m. Dec. 4, Arlington went into lockdown. That means no students are allowed in the hallways outside of changing classes.
The lockdown continues most of the week during which 14 testing sessions are held each day: three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon.
Every staff member had a packet – Arlington High School Winter Testing Logistics – that detailed where they and the students were required to be each hour. Some staff proctored testing rooms while others managed the more ad hoc “make up rooms” for students showing up late or mid-week.
When students logged onto the online test that morning, three dry-runs of technology had been completed in previous weeks to suss out possible failures.
“Cause at end of the day, the goal is for the kids to have a smooth testing experience,” Ahlgren says.
During the first week of testing, computer problems are quickly dealt with. Staff scours the school for students skipping the test. They monitor surveillance video of the hallways. They even go to each class for headcounts to locate students attempting to hide.
When new students enroll during the two weeks of testing staff rush to sort our academic history and any additional testing requirements a student's IEP, or individualized education programs, calls for. Within a few hours of walking into the school, a teen who had been incarcerated since last spring was preparing to take a test.
All of the prep work seems to pay off by Friday, Dec. 8, the last day of regularly scheduled testing.
But students not showing up is harder to control. Arlington staff entering the weekend now have five school days to track down dozens of students yet to take the tests.
'Above And Beyond'
By Monday, Dec. 11, most students required to test are accounted for. Some of the weekend phone calls paid off.
But no one had been able to make contact with six absent students. With just a few days left in the testing window, Ahlgren says it’s time for an extraordinary action.
“So we are going to go take the bus to their house and see what we can find,” she says.
Ahlgren and Randy Fields, head guidance counselor, review the list of missing students. They then walk carefully into Principal Stan Law’s office to tell him the plan.
Law, dressed in blue, is hunched over a desk, looking at a computer screen. He listens as Ahlgren quickly details which students are missing and which ones aren’t expected to return to school for the test.
“This is just ridiculous,” Law says. “We shouldn’t have to do all this.”
“Yeah, ECA we got the number down; ISTEP is coming down but we got to get these people,” Fields says.
“On ECA, for us to hit 95 percent, we can’t have more than three to four kids missing,” Ahlgren says. “And there is six here, alone.”
Law looks up.
“Alright,” he bellows. “This is what I call above and beyond – doing whatever it takes. Cause I tell you, it should not be this hard to get kids to come to school.”
Get On The Bus
As the two leave Law’s office, it’s quickly decided Fields will partner with social worker Kelsey Kreps on the search.
Fields takes the wheel of Arlington’s white mini school bus. Old school hip-hop plays on the radio as they head to their first house.
“I've gone out and picked kids up for the ISTEP and the ECA if they didn't have a ride. Or some kind of situation,” Fields says while driving the bus east on 38th Street. “We generally try to go into their homes and say, 'look, you need to show up tomorrow for the test.' And the majority of them do.
"But we just can't trust it with one day left. For the seniors especially.”
For the next several hours, Fields drives around the city’s Eastside – from north of 46th Street near Arlington to more than five miles south into the Irvington neighborhood.
Arlington guidance director Randy Fields and social worker Kelsey Kreps stand outside a house on the city's Eastside after knocking on the front door. It was one of their stops as they looked for absent students. (Eric Weddle/WFYI Public Media)
At one apartment, a landlord tells them the student’s family abruptly moved out. Then there’s the house where no one answers their knock – but they hear someone inside.
At another stop, a man starts yelling at the two as they walk up the driveway. Soon a younger man comes out of the house smiling. He recognizes Fields and walks up to shake his hand.
“That was his older brother,” Kreps says, after getting back on the bus. “The student doesn't live with them any longer. He is 18 or 19 so I don't think they know where he is living at right now. But older brother is going to make contact with the student.”
In all, Kreps and Fields go to eight addresses and find only one student. The girl, a junior, agrees to get on the bus. Soon after, Fields drives back to Arlington for a brief stop.
“If you go in the (school's) welcome center, Mrs. Algrehn is going to meet you so you can begin testing, alright?” Kreps says to the teen walking off the bus before looking back at her list of missing students. “Ok, what zip code do you want to go to next?”
In the end, Arlington barely misses its goal of 95 percent goal of students taking either the ISTEP 10 or ECA. A total of 17 students never show up to take or failt to or complete all parts of the test.
The reason for the students not showing up varies. A few refused to return to school because they are facing expulsion and the process was not completed before the testing window ended.
Others took a part of the test one day but stopped coming to schools. And some just haven’t been located.
Arlington social worker Kelsey Kreps and guidance director Randy Fields walk back to the school bus after looking for a student at a Far Eastside apartment complex. (Eric Weddle/WFYI Public Media)
“Some of these we will still be looking for them going forward,” Ahlgren says. “It’s not just, they didn’t test – but do we need to file education neglect? The majority of these kids are 18.”
But Ahlgren, the test coordinator, says one of the teens not found during the bus search finally turns up – a senior with 35 credits who had stopped coming to school.
After talking with him, Ahlgren says, it looks like they can help him graduate by this coming summer.
Contact WFYI education reporter Eric Weddle at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (317) 614-0470. Follow on Twitter: @ericweddle.