Are Children Learning

House moves to shorten ISTEP, broaden state board's testing role

PHOTO: Shannan Muskopf via Flickr
State officials are closing as many 38 Michigan schools with low rankings due to test scores but they might have trouble finding higher scoring schools nearby

An accelerated bill that would overhaul ISTEP to shorten the test got rolling quickly today, but the Indiana House isn’t stopping there.

If all the changes proposed so far this week for ISTEP were approved by lawmakers, the result could literally be a different test entirely with a more involved Indiana State Board of Education overseeing the system.

The House Education Committee jumped straight to considering a Senate bill this morning — a move that normally would wait until it completes its work on House bills over the next two weeks — to rewrite Senate Bill 62 to fix ISTEP. The goal is to speed a bill to Gov. Mike Pence’s desk to cut ISTEP testing time before the exam is given starting Feb. 25.

“Hoosier families deserve to know we are all working together to shorten this test and were going to get it done,” Pence said, hailing the bill in a press conference this afternoon. “It will give the Department of Education the ability to significantly reduce time for the test.”

Last week Pence and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz sparred over ISTEP’s length: it could take some students 12-and-a-half hours to complete, or about twice as long as last year. By Friday, both sides had agreed to a plan to cut test time by at least three hours.

But changing the test requires exceptions to state law. An amendment to Senate Bill 62 would provide three big ones.

It would waive a one-year a requirement that the state release essay and short-answer questions as it does each summer, allow the Indiana Department of Education to instead reuse some of those questions next year and waive a requirement that fifth- and seventh-graders take the state social studies exam.

That would cut test time by at least three hours for all students. Dropping social studies would cut more test time for fifth and seventh grades, but department officials said they are considering making the exam optional, so some students might still take it.

On ISTEP, Ritz’s spokesman John Barnes hailed the committee’s quick and unanimous support to shorten the test.

“We know this is an urgent situation,” Barnes said. “At a time like this, it is possible to turn things around very quickly but there is an awful lot of moving parts.”

The Indiana House and Senate this afternoon both passed concurrent resolutions designed to give assurance to educators that it intends to pass Senate Bill 62 to shorten ISTEP.

“It’s a little bit of an unusual move,” House Speaker Brian Bosma said. “I don’t recall seeing it before.”

Bosma said the House hopes to pass Senate Bill 62 on Monday and he hoped the Senate would concur as soon as that same day. Then it would move to Pence for his signature.

State Board could play a bigger role in testing

The cooperative spirit around using Senate Bill 62 to shorten ISTEP didn’t continue for the rest of the House Education Committee’s agenda.

Michele Walker, the education department’s testing chief, was less complimentary of another bill aimed at expanding the state board’s role in the processes for creating the state tests, hiring companies to make them and setting expectations for how much student test score gains should count for teachers’ evaluations.

House Bill 1072, which previously focused on private colleges, was also completely changed by an amendment. Author Jeff Thompson, R-Lizton, said the reshaped bill would not shift authority from Ritz to the state board, it just would simply require collaboration.

But a series of changes the amendment lays out would address state board concerns over recent months. It requires the department to share data with the state board and consult with its members on testing contracts. House Bill 1072 also would let the board set minimum requirements for student test score gains. That’s a decision local schools get to make under current law.

Thompson and other Republicans on the committee said the bill would not shift any authority from Ritz to the state board. Democrats weren’t buying that the changes would have no influence.

Walker said she found the new rules in House Bill 1072 baffling. The department already consults with the state board, she said, and the bill would only require a duplication of efforts.

“It’s that they don’t trust you,” Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, suggested.

On testing, Walker said state board member advice has not been especially helpful.

“Their oversight in the weeds of this process seems to me to be more micromanaging,” she said.

But Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, argued more coordination was needed.

“They don’t have the authority to collaborate with you and make sure, in the process, you are working at the same rate they are and going in the same direction,” he said.

House Bill 1072 passed the committee 9-4.

Both bills could be voted on by the full House later this week, but there’s a much bigger bill — containing the state budget — that could make some of the debate over ISTEP irrelevant.

Could the state budget kill ISTEP?

While discussing House Bill 1001 on Monday, a key Republican leader revealed that the budget proposal does not include extra money for a more expensive testing contract that Ritz and the department have said is necessary for an overhaul of ISTEP in 2016.

“I think it means we will have a discussion of what testing should be,” said Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, chairman of the budget-making House Ways and Means Committee.

Ritz raised alarms with Republicans crafting the budget when she told a committee in December that the cost of ISTEP would grow by 45 percent to $65 million for next year’s exam.

That’s because ISTEP must be overhauled to fit new Indiana academic standards with higher expectations for what students should know and would include new testing techniques. The goal of the standards is for students to graduate high school ready for college and careers, and the new test would include several new features that are more costly.

In response, key legislators proposed a different approach: junk ISTEP altogether and instead use a cheaper national test used by other states. Senate Bill 566 would do just that by halting efforts to create a new ISTEP.

The bill’s authors, including the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, and Sen Ryan Mishler, R-Bremen, suggested Indiana had options for what it could adopt as its state test, such as an exam from the Northwest Evaluation Association that many schools already use to prepare for ISTEP. It could be modified slightly and replace ISTEP, high school end-of-course exams and the third-grade reading exam all in one, depending on whether the test is given to grades 3 to 8 or 3 to 10, they said.

The proposed budget, at least for now, appears to assume the state would follow the path laid out by Senate Bill 566 and end ISTEP in favor of a national test.

At least that’s all the funding the proposed budget is offering to pay for.

“We came in at the same level as last year,” Brown said. “I don’t know if it means an off-the-shelf test or not.”

 

measuring up

After criticism, Denver will change the way it rates elementary schools

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Eva Severance, a first-grader, concentrates on a reading lesson at Lincoln Elementary in Denver.

Facing criticism that its school ratings overstated young students’ reading abilities, the Denver school district announced it will change the way elementary schools are rated next year.

The district will increase the number of students in kindergarten, first, second, and third grade who must score at grade-level on early literacy tests for a school to earn points on the district’s rating scale, and decrease how many points those scores will be worth, officials said.

The changes will lessen the impact of early literacy scores on a school’s overall rating, while also raising the bar on how many students must ace the tests for a school to be considered good. Denver rates schools on a color-coded scale from blue (the highest) to red (the lowest).

“We want to see more students making more progress,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said.

Local civil rights groups, elected officials, educators, and education advocates criticized Denver Public Schools this year for misleading students and families with what they characterized as inflated school ratings based partly on overstated early literacy gains.

“At a time when this country is at war on truth, we have an obligation to Denver families to give them a true picture of their schools’ performance,” state Sen. Angela Williams, a Denver Democrat, told Boasberg and the school board at a meeting in December.

The groups had asked the district to revise this year’s ratings, which were issued in October. Boasberg refused, saying, “If you’re going to change the rules of the game, it’s certainly advisable to change them before the game starts.” That’s what the district is doing for next year.

The state requires students in kindergarten through third grade to take the early literacy tests as a way to identify for extra help students who are struggling the most to learn to read. Research shows third graders who don’t read proficiently are four times as likely to fail out of high school. In Denver, most schools administer an early literacy test called iStation.

The state also requires students in third through ninth grade to take a literacy test called PARCC, which is more rigorous. Third-graders are the only students who take both tests.

The issue is that many third-graders who scored well on iStation did not score well on PARCC. At Castro Elementary in southwest Denver, for example, 73 percent of third-graders scored at grade-level or above on iStation, but just 17 percent did on PARCC.

Denver’s school ratings system, called the School Performance Framework, or SPF, has always relied heavily on state test scores. But this year, the weight given to the early literacy scores increased from 10 percent to 34 percent of the overall rating because the district added points for how well certain groups, such as students from low-income families, did on the tests.

That added weight, plus the discrepancy between how third-graders scored on PARCC and how they scored on iStation, raised concerns about the validity of the ratings.

At a school board work session earlier this week, Boasberg called those concerns “understandable.” He laid out the district’s two-pronged approach to addressing them, noting that the changes planned for next year are a stop-gap measure until the district can make a more significant change in 2019 that will hopefully minimize the discrepancy between the tests.

Next year, the district will increase the percentage of students who must score at grade-level on the early literacy tests. Currently, fewer than half of an elementary school’s students must score that way for a school to earn points, said Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova. The district hasn’t yet settled on what the number will be for next year, but it will likely be more than 70 percent, she said. The more points a school earns, the higher its color rating.

The district will also reduce the impact the early literacy test scores have on the ratings by cutting in half the number of points schools can earn related to the tests, Cordova said. This makes the stakes a little lower, even as the district sets a higher bar.

The number of points will go back up in 2019 when the district makes a more significant change, officials said. The change has to do with how the tests are scored.

For the past several years, the district has used the “cut points” set by the test vendors to determine which students are reading at grade-level and which are not. But the discrepancy between the third-grade iStation and PARCC reading scores – and the public outcry it sparked – has caused officials to conclude the vendor cut points are too low.

District officials said they have asked the vendors and the state education department to raise the cut points. But even if they agree, that isn’t a simple or quick fix. In the meantime, the district has developed a set of targets it calls “aimlines” that show how high a student must score on the early literacy tests to be on track to score at grade-level on PARCC, which district officials consider the gold standard measure of what students should know.

The aimlines are essentially higher expectations. A student could be judged to be reading at grade-level according to iStation but considered off-track according to the aimlines.

In 2019, the district will use those aimlines instead of the vendor cut points for the purpose of rating schools. Part of the reason the district is waiting until 2019 is to gather another year of test score data to make sure the aimlines are truly predictive, officials said.

However, the district is encouraging schools to start looking at the aimlines this year. It is also telling families how their students are doing when measured against them. Schools sent letters home to families this past week, a step district critics previously said was a good start.

Van Schoales, CEO of the advocacy group A Plus Colorado, has been among the most persistent critics of this year’s elementary school ratings. He said he’s thrilled the district listened to community concerns and is making changes for next year, though he said it still has work to do to make the ratings easier to understand and more helpful to families.

“We know it’s complicated,” he said. “There is no perfect SPF. We just think we can get to a more perfect SPF with conversations between the district and community folks.”

The district announced other changes to the School Performance Framework next year that will affect all schools, not just elementary schools. They include:

  • Not rating schools on measures for which there is only one year of data available.

Denver’s ratings have always been based on two years of data: for instance, how many students of color met expectations on state math tests in 2016 and how many met expectations in 2017.

But if a school doesn’t have data for the most current year, it will no longer be rated on that measure. One way that could happen is if a school has 20 students of color one year but only 12 the next. Schools must have at least 16 students in a category for their scores to count.

The goal, officials said, is to be more fair and accurate. Some schools complained that judging them based on just one year of data wasn’t fully capturing their performance or progress.

  • Applying the “academic gaps indicator” to all schools without exception.

This year, the district applied a new rule that schools with big gaps between less privileged and more privileged students couldn’t earn its two highest color ratings, blue and green. Schools had to be blue or green on a new “academic gaps indicator” to be blue or green overall.

But district officials made an exception for three schools where nearly all students were from low-income families, reasoning it was difficult to measure gaps when there were so few wealthier students. However, Boasberg said that after soliciting feedback from educators, parents, and advocates, “the overwhelming sentiment was that it should apply to all schools,” in part because it was difficult to find a “natural demographic break point” for exceptions.

Correction: Feb. 20, 2018: This story has been updated to more accurately describe how the district will rate schools on measures for which there is only one year of data available.

Contract review

Here’s what a deeper probe of grade changing at Memphis schools will cost

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The board of education for Shelby County Schools is reviewing another contract with a Memphis firm hired last year to look into allegations of grade tampering at Trezevant High School. Board members will discuss the new contract Feb. 20 and vote on it Feb. 27.

A proposed contract with the accounting firm hired to examine Memphis schools with high instances of grade changes contains new details on the scope of the investigation already underway in Shelby County Schools.

The school board is reviewing a $145,000 contract with Dixon Hughes Goodman, the Memphis firm that last year identified nine high schools as having 199 or more grade changes between July 2012 and October 2016. Seven of those are part of the deeper probe, since two others are now outside of the Memphis district’s control.

The investigation includes:

  • Interviewing teachers and administrators;
  • Comparing paper grade books to electronic ones and accompanying grade change forms;
  • Inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades

In December, the firm recommended “further investigation” into schools with high instances of grade changes. At that time, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson emphasized that not all changes of grades from failing to passing are malicious, but said the district needs to ensure that any changes are proper.

Based on the firm’s hourly rate, a deeper probe could take from 300 to 900 hours. The initial review lasted four months before the firm submitted its report to Shelby County Schools.

The school board is scheduled to vote on the contract Feb. 27.

You can read the full agreement below: