ILEARN and free lunch data in Indiana offer a window onto public, charter, and private schools and the populations they serve
Free lunch rates are a proxy for family income levels. To qualify for free lunch, you need to make 130%, or lower, of what the federal government has set as the poverty level for a family of a given size. In 2018–19, that was about $33,000 for a family of four. A high free lunch rate means that a school serves mainly low-income families, many of whom are likely dealing with the stresses of poverty: food insecurity, unemployment, multiple low-paying jobs, irregular medical care, transient housing situations, and transportation challenges. A low free lunch rate, on the other hand, means that a school serves a more affluent population with more of its basic needs met.*
In the course of looking into how free lunch rates are related to ILEARN passing rates, we got valuable information about what income levels different types of Indiana schools—all publicly funded—are serving. Among public, charter, Catholic, Lutheran, and “independent” (other religious private) schools, there are clear trends, and clear aggregate differences, in student bodies when it comes to wealth, poverty, and the stretch between.
How do free lunch rates differ at the different types of schools? Here are some takeaways:
1) Public schools serve the most students and the broadest range of students. Some public schools have very low free lunch rates, some have very high ones, and many are in the broad middle: they are densest in the 25% to 75% free lunch range. There are many public schools in the 0–25% range, and slightly fewer in the 75–100% range.
Because there are so many public schools, the dots representing schools form a large oblong shape, like a big diagonal fish, and you can clearly see the close connection of free lunch rate and ILEARN scores.
2) The bulk of charter schools serve higher-poverty populations, likely because many are in the urban cores of Indiana’s cities. Only eleven of the 59 charter schools pictured here serve a population in the first two quartiles of free lunch, the 0–50% range. The rest are pretty evenly distributed throughout the 50–100% range, but with a number clustered on the 100% mark. (There are about 100 charters in Indiana this year, but about forty do not have populations that were tested—probably because they are high schools only.)
Keep in mind that the number of charter schools is different than the number of charter students. About a quarter of charter students attend poorly performing online (“virtual”) charter schools. That’s not visible in the ILEARN data because those online schools are mainly high schools, whose students did not take English and math ILEARN.
3) Lutheran schools are clustered in the lowest poverty (0–25%) quartile, with some in the 25–50% range and only three total schools in the 50–100% range. Lutheran schools are not evenly distributed. They are serving well-off students, relatively speaking. They appear to have lower average ILEARN performance than public schools with similar free lunch rates.
4) Catholic (Archdiocese) schools are densest in the lowest poverty (0–25%) quartile, with a fair number in the 25–50% quartile, fewer in the 50–75% quartile, and very few in the 75–100% free lunch quartile. Their scores are no higher on average than those of public schools with similar free lunch demographics. As public schools do, they show a strong connection between scores and free lunch rates.
5) Independent schools (mainly religious schools that are neither Catholic nor Lutheran) are all over the map both in terms of free lunch rate and scores. While the free lunch/ILEARN score connection is present, many have lower scores than the public school trend line would predict.
Looking at these graphs, it’s impossible to argue that publicly funded schools that are not public are showing higher achievement (as measured by ILEARN) than public schools when you take into account the income levels of the populations they serve. That’s probably why some well-bankrolled entities advocating for “choice”—i.e., the diversion of public funds into private and privatized schools—have pretty much abandoned that line of argument. Others are still making it despite evidence to the contrary.
What, then, is the Indiana supermajority's rationale for moving public money into schools that do not have the same transparency requirements, obligations to serve all students, and democratic local governance as public schools? In the case of the Catholic and Lutheran schools, money is leaving the public school system, further depleting inadequate funds, to go to private schools that disproportionately serve more affluent students.
When state grades based on ILEARN are given to schools, they will reward the affluent and punish the poor, just as they did with ISTEP. This is not an occasional problem, a bug, but rather a feature that is baked into the school grading system. Teachers rallying at the Indiana Statehouse on November 19 will be demanding that legislators hold schools and educators harmless for low scores in this first year of ILEARN. But even if legislators and the State Board of Education respond as they should, it will not address the larger problem: that grading schools based on test scores consistently labels and harms schools and educators serving vulnerable populations.
Do your state representative and senator approve of that? Do they vote to transfer taxpayer dollars away from public schools into other, less accountable types of schools? Have you asked them? Have you conveyed your concerns? When you talk to your local legislators, we encourage you to print out these graphs, which use data from the Indiana Department of Education.
–Keri Miksza and Jenny Robinson
*It’s important to note that free lunch rates don’t tell us about the extremes and are limited in their description of an area’s income. For instance, a school with a 20% free lunch population could potentially have a higher average income among its families than one that served 10% free lunch.
Back in September, I drove up and down the state delivering more than 100 yard signs to cities from Portage and Anderson to Charlestown and Newburgh. People (my husband) thought I was insane. I drove all by myself in peace and quiet (we have two young kids), away from the internet and in between projects for the two jobs I have (I’m living the American dream). I binged on podcasts and listened to stand-up comedy, uncensored, because I could. I stopped at local food joints as well—from Big Ben’s BBQ in Jeffersonville to Henze’s bakery in Valparaiso. I also sat at many railroad crossings. I think Griffith and Porter tie for two of the largest crossings I recall encountering in Indiana. All in all, this trip doesn’t sound too insane to a 40-something mom.
Some of you had amazing fall décor—big word planks (with messages like “Welcome Fall”), sitting next to your front doors, are popular all over Indiana. Others were still holding onto summer and had your green thumb on full display in your front yards and decks.
But, let me get to the point: what I learned from this road trip.
In the end, what I learned is simple, obvious, and contrary to the messages coming out of the statehouse: We who support public education come from all walks of life. Public education is the great equalizer. Public schools are the hearts of our communities and need qualified staff and teachers to ensure proper operation. Underfunding public education makes no sense. The current funding course the state is on for the sake of “choice” could more aptly be termed "austerity” and is not sustainable. If it were, we would not have referendums to help pay for teachers. It is imperative to pay attention. Let's focus on getting the right people into office to ensure that ALL Hoosier children will have access to an equitable education offered by accountable schools filled with well-trained, well-paid teachers and support staff.
Tomorrow and every election day, be sure to vote for public education.
—Keri Miksza, vice chair of Indiana Coalition for Public Education–Monroe County
This guest post is by Joan and Phil Harris, authors of The Myths of Standardized Tests, longtime ICPE members, and former ICPE–Monroe County board members.
Welcome to a new school year, and with it another assessment and yet another waste of Hoosier tax money and student and teacher time. Indiana’s constantly changing assessments make it impossible for any long term comparisons, as our state superintendent has acknowledged. What’s more, the information about how the test was developed is not available to the general public and apparently not to the Department of Education personnel either.
The problems that have recently been identified with the new ILEARN are imbedded in the details of the test item development and the number that was chosen to define passing scores. There are generally accepted standards for test development and test use, and they apparently have not been addressed in the preparation of Indiana’s ILEARN. The Department of Education seems not to have provided the required oversight of the development process.
MCCSC Superintendent Judith DeMuth and other Indiana district superintends are correct in publicly criticizing the state assessment. But this public criticism needs to go further, since ILEARN involves a lot of teacher and student time without providing any useful information for either teachers or students.
However, the pause that the state has invoked for last spring’s test needs to be broadened to cover the entire state assessment plan, so that the Department of Education and state legislators do not continue to use the test data for purposes for which the test was not created. The American Educational Research Association, the American Psychological Association and the National Council on Testing and Measurement have adopted testing standards, which are easily located online but are in no way visible in the current draft of the ILEARN test. The public outcry over this large expenditure for a testing program that has no evidence of meeting the development standards should be loud and continuous. The Department of Education has no authority to require the state’s school districts to administer an assessment tool that has not been appropriately validated. This lack of oversight has been apparent for many years, and the public needs to be aware that millions of dollars of state tax revenue have been and continue to be spent for seriously flawed products.
All Hoosiers need to have a conversation about how to develop meaningful learning measures of what we expect our students to know and be able to do. These better assessment tools may not be the kind of tools that the state says it needs to compare districts, but that comparative information is not particularly useful as the students in each district across Indiana are very different. Children in our public schools are not products that are identical and so should not be compared. Classroom teachers are in a much better position to monitor and appraise the work of students and to report on the level of performance with regard to our state content objectives and standards.
You wouldn’t want to purchase a medical prescription that hadn’t met safety standards set by the Federal Food and Drug Administration. Nor should Indiana buy a test that hasn’t been appropriately vetted by generally accepted test development and use standards.
—Phil and Joan Harris
This guest post is by author, educator, and consultant Ray Golarz. For almost 20 years, Dr. Golarz directed work with at-risk children and gangs near Chicago. In addition, he did extensive work with juvenile courts, probation offices, and police departments.
The tragedy of this story is that it is the story of thousands and thousands of hardworking Americans.
Stan and Mary were married in 1953. In 1956, Stan returned home from the Korean War and got a job working on the Lake Erie docks in Cleveland. Soon Mary had their first child. A house became available in a modest neighborhood. With financial help of family they bought it. The house had a basement, kitchen, dining room, a small den, one bathroom and four bedrooms upstairs.
For the first five years after purchasing the house, they bought only the essentials. With any money left over they paid back their relatives.
Ultimately, they had five children who all attended the school down the street — Roosevelt Elementary. It was a school where parents and teachers worked together. Children understood that violating standards would not be tolerated.
Over the years Stan slowly improved their house. A second bathroom was added and in 1963 Stan began remodeling the kitchen, giving Mary a double sink, a window to look out of over her backyard and a larger area for the kitchen table. He finished the kitchen in 1965. In addition, he rewired the basement, built bookshelves in the den and put in a two-car garage. With friends and relatives, Stan laid a concrete driveway on the side of the house back to the garage. By the time he retired, there wasn’t much that hadn’t been rebuilt, repaired or touched up.
After a long, good life together raising their family in that comfortable home, Mary passed away. Stan, shortly thereafter, began getting confused, fell badly a couple of times and then went to live several miles away with a daughter and her husband.
Stan and Mary hadn’t saved a lot. They had spent their money frugally while raising their family. Stan had done most of the home improvements. Mary had cooked, cleaned and helped maintain the condition of their home while she tutored, nursed and gave individualized attention to a growing and maturing family.
Stan’s only real asset was the house, and now the time had come to sell it. He had kept it in good shape, and its reasonable sale would give to each of his children a small inheritance. So Stan arranged a meeting at the house with a real estate agent.
“Sir, I know the house is in great shape and immaculate but the school down the street has just been given a grade of ‘F’ by the state. So, finding a family willing to buy here will be immensely difficult. You may need to come down at least $40,000 or maybe more if you want to sell.” Stan said nothing. He just dropped his head then walked slowly to the sink and looked out of the window that Mary loved so much.
It was now time to say goodbye to the house and have his daughter drive him back to her home. They stopped for a red light, and from the rear seat of the car he looked out. He could see after-school children laughing and horse-playing as the left Betty J’s corner store, chewing their penny candy on their way home, full of hope and joy as his kids and their friends had done so often years ago. Stan slowly turned from the window and looked forward. He smiled. Nothing of real importance had really changed in the neighborhood.
Maybe someday someone would explain to him exactly what an “F” school was and why it meant that he now practically had to give his house away.