Are Children Learning

Overtesting concerns could derail bill's proposal for civics exam (updated)

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

The question of whether Indiana high school graduates should pass a civics test is running up against an emerging concern that Hoosier children are simply taking too many state tests.

A worry that Indiana’s high school graduates don’t have enough civics knowledge has led to an unexpectedly lively debate already in the Indiana statehouse this year. Senate Education Committee Chairman Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, last month promised a Senate bill to require Indiana high school students pass the same citizenship test that immigrants must pass for naturalization.

This morning the House Education Committee heard House Bill 1296, a similar bill with the same goal put forward by Rep. Timothy Wesco, R-Osceola.

“This bill is a signal of what’s important to us,” Wesco said.

While schools focus on giving students the skills they need to succeed in life, he said, they should also ensure graduates an understanding of government and civic responsibilities.

“What about the success of our nation?” Wesco said. “Shouldn’t that be important to us?”

Wesco said there was ample evidence that recent high school graduates were woefully uninformed about civic affairs. He pointed to disinterest in voting — Indiana just saw the lowest voter turnout of any state in last November’s election — and surveys that have shown young adults had trouble answering basic questions about government, such as naming the vice president of the United States.

The problem is so grave, Wesco said, television programs have made a regular comedic feature of asking people on the street to answer simple civics questions because their wrong answers are so laughable. The Tonight Show is one example.

But is a new test requirement the answer?

Political leaders, especially Republicans, have pushed hard over the last two decades in Indiana to create a test-based accountability system designed to ensure students learn the skills and information the state requires at each grade. While the state only requires high school students pass two tests — in Algebra and 10th grade English — to graduate, students are also tested on science and social studies at lower grades.

As the current system of tests was put in place in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Democrats most often raised the loudest concerns. They criticized a system as tilted so heavily toward tests that it diminished broader learning in favor of rote test preparation.

Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, made that case during today’s discussion. Smith, who trains teachers as a professor at Indiana University Northwest, said requiring a 100-question exam is not the best way to encourage young people to care about civic issues and government. That comes from richer class discussions about the meaning of citizenship, he said.

“A rote memorization test is not the answer,” Smith said. “It’s questions like why is it important to be active in your government?”

But over the past two years, Republicans who control the Indiana legislature with strong majorities also have begun asking if Indiana has too much testing.

“I don’t want to add another test,” said the committee’s chairman, Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis.

Instead, Behning suggested the state might find a way to add citizenship questions to tests students already take, such as the social studies exam given at seventh grade or even to ISTEP, the state’s primary English and math test given in grades 3 to 8.

To administer the same test given nationally to those seeking U.S. citizenship would cost an estimated $2.3 million the first year and about $464,000 annually after that, according to a fiscal note that accompanies the bill. But Sally Sloan, a lobbyist for the Indiana Federation of Teachers, said she worried the bill could create more costs.

Sloan said the bill allows students to take the test as many times as they need until they pass it, but could result in charging fees after the first try. Schools could also face expenses for materials and teaching time to help those students who struggle to pass, she said.

John Barnes, who lobbies for state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, said he favored an emphasis on civics as a retired social studies teacher, but opposed the bill.

He said the Indiana State Board of Education just passed new social studies standards last March emphasizing citizenship in fifth grade, eighth grade and high school. Those standards require most of the content that would be covered on the civics test, Barnes said.

“We already have too many tests in place,” he said.

The committee held off on a vote on House Bill 1296 to allow further discussion. A vote could come Thursday or next week.

Other bills considered by the House Education Committee today were:

Student disabilities and teacher licensing, House Bill 1437. The bill,  which would require teachers demonstrate knowledge of teaching strategies for helping disabled children, was similar to House Bill 1108, requiring teachers to know how to teach children with dyslexia, which the committee discussed last week.

Behning said the House Bill 1437 was probably too broad and needed work, holding off on a vote for now. Among the questions from the committee were specifically what training would be required for teachers and if they would have to demonstrate that knowledge on a test.

Adult charter high schools, House Bill 1438. Representatives from the Excel Center adult charter schools pushed for this bill, which they said would clear up confusion created last year when the legislature made changes to charter school funding.

The Excel centers serve high school dropouts ranging from teenagers to adults. The legislature last year created a separate fund to pay for dropout high schools, which previously had been part of the same funding formula as other types of schools.

Excel, along with representatives from Gov. Mike Pence’s office and Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office, asked for clarity on two issues.

Last year’s changes, they said, allowed only the State Charter Board to sponsor new dropout charter schools in the future. Ballard, who sponsors several such schools, asked to be permitted to continue to do so for new schools. Also charter school networks last year were permitted to manage their funds collectively, rather than keep separate funds in different accounts for each school, but that flexibility did not extend to adult high schools. House Bill 1438 would allow that.

The bill passed the committee 12-0 and will move next to the full House for a vote.

(NOTE: This story has been updated to correct estimated cost figures for the proposed civics test.)

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

Indiana’s plan to measure high schools with a college prep test is on hold for two years

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Thanks to last-minute legislative wrangling, it’s unclear what test Indiana high schoolers will take for the next two years to measure what they have learned in school.

Lawmakers were expected to approve a House bill proposing Indiana use a college entrance exam starting in 2019 as yearly testing for high schoolers, at the same time state works to replace its overall testing system, ISTEP. But the start date for using the SAT or ACT was pushed back from 2019 to 2021, meaning it’s unclear how high schoolers will be judged for the next two years.

This is the latest upheaval in testing as the state works to replace ISTEP in favor of the new ILEARN testing system, a response to years of technical glitches and scoring problems. While a company has already proposed drafting exams for measuring the performance of Indiana students, officials now need to come up with a solution for the high school situation. ILEARN exams for grades 3-8 are still set to begin in 2019.

“Our next steps are to work with (the state board) to help inform them as they decide the plan for the next several years,” said Adam Baker, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education. “We take concerns seriously and we will continue doing all we can to support schools to manage the transition well.”

The delay in switching from the 10th grade ISTEP to college entrance exams for measuring high school students was proposed Wednesday night as lawmakers wrapped up the 2018 legislative session. Rep. Bob Behning, the bill’s author, said the change came out of a desire to align the testing plan with recommendations on high school tests from a state committee charged with rewriting Indiana’s graduation requirements.

It’s just the latest road bump since the legislature voted last year to scrap ISTEP and replace it with ILEARN, a plan that originally included a computer-adaptive test for grades 3-8 and end-of-course exams for high-schoolers in English, algebra and biology. Indiana is required by the federal government to test students each year in English and math, and periodically, in science.

The Indiana Department of Education started carrying out the plan to move to ILEARN over the summer and eventually selected the American Institutes for Research to write the test, a company that helped create the Common-Core affiliated Smarter balanced test. AIR’s proposal said they were prepared to create tests for elementary, middle and high school students.

Then, the “graduation pathways” committee, which includes Behning and Sen. Dennis Kruse, the Senate Education Committee chairman, upended the plan by suggesting the state instead use the SAT or ACT to test high schoolers. The committee said the change would result in a yearly test that has more value to students and is something they can use if they plan to attend college. Under their proposal, the change would have come during the 2021-22 school year.

When lawmakers began the 2018 session, they proposed House Bill 1426, which had a 2019 start. This bill passed out of both chambers and the timeline was unchanged until Wednesday.

In the meantime, the Indiana Department of Education and the Indiana State Board of Education must decide what test high schoolers will take in 2019 and 2020 and how the state as a whole will transition from an Indiana-specific 10th grade ISTEP exam to a college entrance exam.

It’s not clear what approach state education officials will take, but one option is to go forward with AIR’s plan to create high school end-of-course exams. The state will already need a U.S. Government exam, which lawmakers made an option for districts last year, and likely will need one for science because college entrance exams include little to no science content. It could make sense to move ahead with English and math as well, though it will ultimately be up to the state board.

Some educators and national education advocates have raised concerns about whether an exam like the SAT or ACT is appropriate for measuring schools, though 14 states already do.

Jeff Butts, superintendent of Wayne Township, told state board members last week that using the college entrance exams seemed to contradict the state’s focus on students who go straight into the workforce and don’t plan to attend college. And a report from Achieve, a national nonprofit that helps states work on academic standards and tests, cautioned states against using the exams for state accountability because they weren’t designed to measure how well students have mastered state standards.

“The danger in using admissions tests as accountability tests for high school is that many high school teachers will be driven to devote scarce course time to middle school topics, water down the high school content they are supposed to teach in mathematics, or too narrowly focus on a limited range of skills in (English),” the report stated.

House Bill 1426 would also combine Indiana’s four diplomas into a single diploma with four “designations” that mirror current diploma tracks. In addition, it would change rules for getting a graduation waiver and create an “alternate diploma” for students with severe special needs.The bill would also allow the Indiana State Board of Education to consider alternatives to Algebra 2 as a graduation requirement and eliminates the requirement that schools give the Accuplacer remediation test.

It next heads to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desk to be signed into law.

Keep Out

What’s wrong with auditing all of Colorado’s education programs? Everything, lawmakers said.

Students at DSST: College View Middle School work on a reading assignment during an English Language Development class (Photo By Andy Cross / The Denver Post).

State Rep. Jon Becker pitched the idea as basic good governance. The state auditor’s office examines all sorts of state programs, but it never looks at education, the second largest expenditure in Colorado’s budget and a sector that touches the lives of hundreds of thousands of children. So let the auditor take a good, long look and report back to the legislature on which programs are working and which aren’t.

The State Board of Education hated this idea. So did Democrats. And Republicans. The House Education Committee voted 12-0 this week to reject Becker’s bill, which would have required a systematic review of all educational programs enacted by the legislature and in place for at least six years. Even an amendment that would have put the state board in the driver’s seat couldn’t save it.

As he made his case, Becker, a Republican from Fort Morgan in northeastern Colorado, was careful not to name any specific law he would like to see changed.

“I don’t want people to say, ‘Oh, he’s coming after my ox,’” he told the House Education Committee this week. “I know how this works. And that’s not the intent of this bill. It’s to look at all programs.”

But members of the committee weren’t buying it.

State Rep. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, pressed school board members who testified in favor of the bill to name a law or program they were particularly excited to “shed some light on.” If there’s a law that’s a problem, he asked, wouldn’t it make more sense to drill down just on that law?

They tried to demur.

“I feel like you’re trying to get us to say, we really want you to go after 191 or we really want you to go after charter schools,” said Cathy Kipp, a school board member in the Poudre School District who also serves on the board of the Colorado Association of School Boards. “That’s not what this is about.”

Kipp said committee members seemed to be “scared that if their pet programs get looked at, they’ll be eliminated. Why be scared? Shouldn’t we want these programs to be looked at?”

But proponents’ own testimony seemed to suggest some potential targets, including Senate Bill 191, Colorado’s landmark teacher effectiveness law.

As Carrie Warren-Gully, president of the school boards association, argued for the benefits of an independent evaluation of education programs, she offered up an example: The schedules of administrators who have to evaluate dozens of teachers under the law are more complicated than “a flight plan at DIA,” and districts have to hire additional administrators just to manage evaluations, cutting into the resources available for students, she said.

The debate reflected ongoing tensions between the state and school districts over Colorado’s complex system for evaluating schools and teachers and holding them accountable for student achievement. The systematic review bill was supported by the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Colorado Association of School Executives, and the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance.

Lawmakers repeatedly told school officials that if they have problems with particular parts of existing legislation, they should come to them for help and will surely find allies.

Exasperated school officials responded by pointing to the past failure of legislation that would have tweaked aspects of evaluations or assessments — but the frustration was mutual.

“Just because people don’t agree with one specific approach doesn’t mean people aren’t willing to come to the table,” said committee chair Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat.

There were other concerns, including the possibility that this type of expansive evaluation would prove expensive and create yet another bureaucracy.

“When have we ever grown government to shrink it?” asked state Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican. “There’s a paradox here.”

And state Rep. James Wilson, a Salida Republican who is also a former teacher and school superintendent, questioned whether the auditor’s office has the expertise to review education programs. He also asked what standard would be applied to evaluate programs that are implemented differently in more than 170 school districts across the state.

“If it’s effective more often than not, will they keep it?” Wilson asked. “If it doesn’t work in a third of them, it’s gone?”

State Board of Education members had similar questions when they decided earlier this year that this bill was a bad idea. Many of Colorado’s education laws don’t have clear measures of success against which their performance can be evaluated.

The READ Act, for example, stresses the importance of every child learning to read well in early elementary school and outlines the steps that schools have to take to measure reading ability and provide interventions to help students who are falling behind their peers.

But how many children need to improve their reading and by how much for the READ Act to be deemed effective or efficient? That’s not outlined in the legislation.

Proponents of the bill said outside evaluators could identify best practices and spread them to other districts, but state board members said they already monitor all of these programs on an ongoing basis and already produce thousands of pages of reports on each of these programs that go to the legislature every year. In short, they say they’re on the case.

“The state board, I can assure you, are very devoted and intent to make sure that we follow, monitor, and watch the progress of any programs that go through our department and make sure they’re enacted in the best way possible within the schools,” board member Jane Goff said.