Are Children Learning

Ritz tells budget makers new state tests could cost much more

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
State Superintendent Glenda Ritz presents budget requests to the State Budget Committee on Thursday.

Indiana’s move to create new state test to connect to its new academic standards — rather than follow Common Core standards and cheaper tests developed by other states to go with them — could be costly.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz told a state budget committee today that her estimate for the annual cost of the new state tests being developed for 2015-16 is $65 million, a nearly 45 percent jump from annual cost in the last state budget.

That raised alarm for Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, the chairman of the budget-making Senate Finance Committee.

“I keep wondering if we keep making it too hard and too expensive on ourselves,” he said.

The Indiana Department of Education won’t know the exact cost of the new tests until it finishes processing proposals from testing companies and selects one of them to create the new exam. The new tests will be more challenging than the current ISTEP, with more advanced material and computer-aided questions that require students to demonstrate how they got their answers using online tools.

Before 2014, Indiana was on track to use Common Core standards along with 45 other states. Two consortia of those states also developed tests to evaluate students based on Common Core standards. But earlier a Republican-led effort blocked further implementation of Common Core and a bill passed by the legislature ordered the creation of new Indiana-specific standards instead.

Kenley was among Republican leaders who voted against Common Core. Under the state’s prior contract with CTB/McGraw-Hill, ISTEP cost about $45 million annually.

“We are developing our own questions in the state of Indiana as we have always done,” said Ritz, the only Democrat holding statewide office in Indiana. “What we’re going through now is the (request for proposal) process, and so vendors clearly understand that they are aligning Indiana college- and career-ready standards to an assessment.”

Kenley and Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, asked Ritz if any standardized tests could be cut from the list of those currently given and what other measures could be taken to reduce testing costs. Kenley said perhaps a national standardized test that isn’t necessarily owned by and written expressly for Indiana might be cheaper.

“I’m trying to figure out if the General Assembly will have time to weigh in on this,” Kenley said. “I’m a little worried about that.”

For the 2015-16 school year, Ritz said, a completely new group of state accountability tests will be written. She said there are plans for a test for grades 3 through 10, high school English and Algebra 1 tests and an end-of-high school test. Ritz said the state is in the process of receiving bids from new vendors to write those tests, which must be presented to the budget committee for review before the State Board of Education can officially approve them.

Kenley asked Ritz during their exchange whether she was in favor of more or less testing.

“Well we always need less tests is my perspective,” Ritz replied. “But we want to be sure that we have an assessment system that actually informs learning and teaching.”

During the presentation, Ritz also asked that the committee consider adding the State Board of Education budget back into the budget for the Department of Education, given Gov. Mike Pence’s recent dissolution of his Center for Education and Career Innovation.

She told Kenley the department wouldn’t need the entire $2.9 million currently being spent to run the board.

“Historically it’s always been there, and it would amount to increased accountability and efficiency in running the State Board of Education operations,” Ritz said. “I really feel that that budget should come back to the Department of Education.”

Ritz has also called for a 3 percent increase over the next two years for school operation costs, such as hiring teachers and buying classroom materials. Ritz said the additional funding would address shortfalls in districts that struggle to support growing numbers of poor students.

“We are at 22 percent poverty with our children,” Ritz said. “Our children have basic needs that are not being met when they come to our schools.”

Detroit Story Booth

Why one woman thinks special education reform can’t happen in isolation

PHOTO: Colin Maloney
Sharon Kelso, student advocate from Detroit

When Sharon Kelso’s kids and grandkids were still in school, they’d come home and hear the same question from her almost every day: “How was your day in school?” One day, a little over a decade ago, Kelso’s grandson gave a troubling answer. He felt violated when security guards at his school conducted a mass search of students’ personal belongings.

Kelso, a Cass Tech grad, felt compelled to act. Eventually, she became the plaintiff in two cases which outlawed unreasonable mass searches of students in Detroit’s main district.

Fast forward to August, when her three great-nephews lost both their mother and father in the space of a week and Kelso became their guardian. Today, she asks them the same question she has asked two generations of Detroit students: “How was your day in school?”

The answers she receives still deeply inform her advocacy work.

Watch the full video here:

– Colin Maloney

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.