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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, January 24, 2016 10:48 am

Horizon test scores among lowest in state

Jamie Duffy | The Journal Gazette

A Christian education was important to Rondrea Taylor when she chose Horizon Christian Academy on Broadway for her three elementary-age children.

She also liked the idea of small classrooms.

But now, she’s more concerned with the quality of their education. Classroom sizes are much bigger now, she says, and promised tutoring has not been forthcoming.

Although ISTEP+ scores are not necessarily on her mind, she might also pay attention to those. Horizon, with about 650 students on three campuses, has some of the lowest scores in the state and some of the lowest passing rates of any voucher-related school in the county, while receiving the largest amount of state voucher money – $2.2 million – for the 2014-15 school year. 

This year, the legislature gave all schools living with the A-F accountability system a pass after the ISTEP+ scores were criticized.

Spokesmen for Horizon said they serve students from "all walks of life" and that test scores are just one measure, but so is overall student growth.

The choice program, celebrated this week nationally and locally with National School Choice Week, was created to allow students to flee failing schools. Instead, the program has directed some children to schools that are performing worse than most public schools.

Statewide in 2015, 53.5 percent of all students passed the math and English ISTEP+ tests in grades 3 to 8, about 20 points lower than the four previous years, according to statistics from the Indiana Department of Education. Many schools mirrored that. 

At the K-12 Horizon Christian Academy, 3301 Coliseum Blvd. E., 11.6 percent of students passed the English and math sections in 2015. The previous year, the passing rate was 26.8 percent.

At Horizon Christian Academy 2, 2320 Broadway, a K-5 school, 8.8 percent of the students who took the ISTEP+ passed the math and English in 2015. The previous year, the passing rate was 42.1 percent.

And at the K-8 Horizon Academy 3, 2000 N. Wells St.,  26.8 percent passed in 2015, compared with 50.4 percent in 2014. 

The only schools in the county that had scores comparable to the two lowest Horizon schools are two public charter schools that do not access voucher money or the tax credit scholarship money known as SGOs.  

Smith Academy for Excellence had a passing rate of 9.1 percent, down from 21.4 percent in 2014. Thurgood Marshall Leadership Academy had a 7.1 percent rate, down from 33.3 percent in 2014. 

Another local low-scoring voucher school was Huntington County’s Aboite Christian with a 19.2 percent passing rate in 2015.

"Our goal at Horizon is to assist students from all walks of life," wrote Tammy G. Henline and Anthony L. Beas­ley, the school’s co-founders and two of its leaders, in a Jan. 15 email response. "We don’t screen out those, initially, that we know may have an adverse effect on test scores.

"We believe that success in education is determined by the student’s growth, as opposed to testing alone."

Julia Hollingsworth, Fort Wayne Community Schools board vice president, said: "If they are a private school that doesn’t screen, then good for them."

That would make them "the exception and not the norm," she said. "Public schools are not allowed to screen, private schools are."

But if Henline and Beasley are referring to children who are coming from poverty when they write "all walks of life," then other schools serving the county’s poor could be used for comparison. Thurgood Marshall and Smith Academy educate mostly low-income black children from the city’s southeast side.

At the Horizon Broadway campus, about 54 percent of the students use the federal free lunch program, a rate the state uses to measure income and poverty.

Nearly all of the elementary schools in FWCS – considered an urban school district with a free lunch rate of 56.6 percent and a reduced-price lunch rate of 7.8 percent for an overall free and reduced-price lunch rate of 66.4 percent – scored higher than the Horizon schools.

Taylor now says she is considering public schools that might "try harder to find solutions to help" her children.

While Henline and Beasley did not respond to questions regarding school fi­nances, the school curriculum or what steps the school will take to improve the ISTEP+ scores, they did write that they had anticipated low scores.

"As a result of our commitment to help all students excel by providing the opportunity to do so, we anticipated low test scores and understand that these are not truly a product of Horizon Christian Academy.

"Schools that have been established far longer than Horizon have seen declines in their test scores, and the majority of our students have come from those schools. We understand it will take time for us to get them where they need to be," the co-founders said through email. 

John Elcesser, executive director of the Indiana Non-Public Education Association, and Erin Sweitzer, communications director for the Institute for Quality Education, both based in Indianapolis, maintain that voucher school accountability is far tougher than public school accountability.

"Traditional public schools as well as public charter schools can receive an F for four consecutive years before the state can intervene," Sweitzer said in an email response. "Private voucher schools, however, are required to stop accepting new voucher students after two consecutive years of receiving a D or F.

"Furthermore, parents can pull students from a private school at any time if they believe the school to be underperforming or underserving their student – some would say this is the ultimate form of accountability," she said.

With the legislature’s decision this year to give all schools subject to the A-F accountability system a pass because of concerns about ISTEP+, that means the C, D and F ratings for Horizon Academies will be "held harmless" for this year, Elcesser said.

And as Sweitzer points out, most of the voucher schools are not only state-accredited, they land in the A or B categories. Private schools, according to the Indiana Department of Education website, are not required to be accredited by the department.

Horizon is in the Freeway Accreditation category, the last of seven categories listed on the IDOE website. The category has minimum achievement requirements, and the "contract with the State Board (of Education) serves as (the) school improvement plan."

Where the voucher money goes is up to school leader­ship. Voucher-funded school finances are not public.

Questions on achievement and voucher money put to the office of state Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, who is the Senate Education Committee chairman, were deferred to Sweitzer.

"If you want to talk about the cost of operating a school versus its academic performance," Sweitzer replied by email, "why not also look at how much of Hoosier taxpayer dollars are going to fund the operations of chronically low-performing public schools?"

jduffy@jg.net