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.”

 

To Do

Tennessee’s new ed chief says troubleshooting testing is first priority

PHOTO: (Caiaimage/Robert Daly)

Penny Schwinn knows that ensuring a smooth testing experience for Tennessee students this spring will be her first order of business as the state’s new education chief.

Even before Gov.-elect Bill Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, she was poring over a recent report by the state’s chief investigator about what went wrong with TNReady testing last spring and figuring out her strategy for a different outcome.

“My first days will be spent talking with educators and superintendents in the field to really understand the scenario here in Tennessee,” said Schwinn, who’s been chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas since 2016.

“I’ll approach this problem with a healthy mixture of listening and learning,” she added.

Schwinn’s experience with state assessment programs in Texas and in Delaware — where she was assistant secretary of education — is one of the strengths cited by Lee in selecting her for one of his most critical cabinet posts.

The Republican governor-elect has said that getting TNReady right is a must after three straight years of missteps in administration and scoring in Tennessee’s transition to online testing. Last year, technical disruptions interrupted so many testing days that state lawmakers passed emergency legislation ordering that poor scores couldn’t be used to penalize students, teachers, schools, or districts.

Schwinn, 36, recalls dealing with testing headaches during her first days on the job in Texas.

“We had testing disruptions. We had test booklets mailed to the wrong schools. We had answer documents in testing booklets. We had online administration failures,” she told Chalkbeat. “From that, we brought together teachers, superintendents, and experts to figure out solutions, and we had a near-perfect administration of our assessment the next year.”

What she learned in the process: the importance of tight vendor management, including setting clear expectations of what’s expected.

She plans to use the same approach in Tennessee, working closely with people in her new department and Questar Assessment, the state’s current vendor.

“Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

The test itself has gotten good reviews in Tennessee; it’s the online miscues that have many teachers and parents questioning the switch from paper-and-pencil exams. Schwinn sees no choice but to forge ahead online and is quick to list the benefits.

“If you think about how children learn and access information today, many are getting that information from hand-held devices and computers,” she said, “so reflecting that natural experience in our classrooms is incredibly important.”

Schwinn said computerized testing also holds promise for accommodating students with disabilities and provides for a more engaging experience for all students.

“When you look at the multiple-choice tests that we took in school and compare that to an online platform where students can watch videos, perform science experiments, do drag-and-drop and other features, students are just more engaged in the content,” she said.

“It’s a more authentic experience,” she added, “and therefore a better measure of learning.”

Schwinn plans to examine Tennessee’s overall state testing program to look for ways to reduce the number of minutes dedicated to assessment and also to elevate transparency.

She also will oversee the transition when one or more companies take over the state’s testing program beginning next school year. Former Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered a new request for proposals from vendors to provide paper testing for younger students and online testing for older ones. State officials have said they hope to award the contract by spring.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee plan to provide another layer of oversight.

Spring testing in Tennessee is scheduled to begin on April 15. You can learn more about TNReady on the state education department’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about problems with the handling of two education contracts in Texas. 

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

Districts here: