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.”

 

New research

From an ‘F’ to an ‘A’, Tennessee now sets high expectations for students, says Harvard study

PHOTO: Lisegagne/Getty Images

Criticized for setting low expectations for students just a decade ago, Tennessee has dramatically raised the bar for standards that now rank among the top in the nation, according to a new analysis from Harvard University.

The state earned an “A” for its 2017 proficiency standards in a study released Tuesday by the same researchers who gave Tennessee an “F” in that category in 2009.

The researchers have been tracking state proficiency standards since 2006. Their latest analysis focused on changes since 2009 when, like Tennessee, most states began adopting Common Core academic standards, then began retreating one by one from the nationally endorsed benchmarks.

Did the exodus from a consistent set of standards cause states to lower expectations for students? The researchers say no.

“Our research shows that most all the states have actually improved their standards, and Tennessee has probably improved the most because its standards were so low in the past,” said Paul Peterson, who co-authored the analysis with Daniel Hamlin.

The grades are based on the difference between the percentages of students deemed proficient on state tests and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, the exam administered by the U.S. Department of Education to measure what students know in math and English language arts. The narrower the proficiency gap between those tests, the higher the grade a state received.

Tennessee’s 2009 proficiency gap was 63 percent, an amount that Peterson called “ridiculous” and “the worst in the country” compared to 37 percent nationally.

In 2017, Tennessee’s gap narrowed to less than 3 percent, compared to 9 percent nationally, under revised standards that reached classrooms last fall after the state exited the Common Core brand.

“It’s a dramatic improvement,” Peterson said of Tennessee’s work to align its standards with national expectations.

Interestingly, in other states, the study found virtually no relationship between rising proficiency standards and test score growth — a finding that the researchers called “disheartening.”

“The one exception was Tennessee,” Peterson said of the state’s academic gains on NAEP since 2011. “It has not only raised its standards dramatically, it saw some student gains over the same period.”

Since 2010, higher academic standards has been an integral part of Tennessee’s long-term plan for improving public education. The other two components are an aligned state assessment and across-the-board accountability systems for students, teachers and schools, including a controversial policy to include student growth from standardized test scores in teacher evaluations.

Tennessee poured millions of federal dollars from its 2010 Race to the Top award into training teachers on its new standards. The process began in 2012 with large-scale Common Core trainings and shifted last year to regional trainings aimed at equipping local educators to prepare their peers back home for Tennessee’s revised standards.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Karyn Bailey (left), a facilitator from Williamson County Schools, coaches elementary school teachers during a 2017 exercise on Tennessee’s revised standards for English language arts as part of a two-day training at La Vergne High School, one of 11 training sites across the state.

Implementation really matters. You can’t just make the shift on paper,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, who will take part in a panel discussion on the study’s findings Tuesday in Washington, D.C. “You have to do the hard work to implement it on the ground. And that is a long game.”

The Harvard study comes on the heels of a separate but related report by pro-Common Core group Achieve that says Tennessee is essentially being more honest in how its students are doing academically. The state was called out in 2007 by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce because Tennessee tests showed students doing well, while national tests reported otherwise.

Both analyses come as Tennessee tries to regroup after a problem-plagued return to statewide online testing this spring.

While supporters of Tennessee’s current policy agenda fear that headaches with the state’s standardized test could undo the policies it may be getting right, Peterson said a study like Harvard’s can provide a birds-eye view.

“What happens over a period of years is a better way to look at how a state is doing,” he said, “because things can fluctuate from one year to the next.”

The Harvard research is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. (Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news organization and also receives funding from both foundations. You can find the list of our supporters here and learn more about Chalkbeat here.)

Regrouping

After another bumpy testing year, Tennessee likely will slow its switch to online exams

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Members of Tennessee's testing task force listen to a presentation by Mary Batilwalla, deputy commissioner over assessment for Tennessee's Department of Education. The group offered feedback on options for transitioning to online testing after more problems occurred this year.

Tennessee education leaders are rethinking their timeline for adopting computerized testing after a parade of technical problems bedeviled students taking the state’s TNReady exam for a third straight year.

Most students are scheduled to test online next school year under a three-year transition plan. But since keyboard testing had significant challenges this year with half that number of students, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen is backing off from that timetable.

And while there’s disagreement over exactly how to move ahead, there’s consensus about one thing.

“We have a credibility issue,” said state Rep. John Forgety, “and we need to get it right one time.”

McQueen floated three options for the 2018-19 school year to members of her testing task force during its Wednesday meeting in Nashville:

  •     Returning to paper testing across all grades for one year;
  •     Computer testing for high school students; paper testing for grades 3-8;
  •     Computer testing for grade 6 through high school; paper testing for grades 3-5

Off the table, however, is the option that districts had this year to give computer tests to more grades than required by the state.

The state ordered that all high school students take the test by computer this year, but about 40 percent of districts also chose to go digital for at least some of their students in grades 5-8.

The early thinking had been that letting districts test more students than required would expedite Tennessee’s online switch if local leaders felt ready. But state officials now believe the piecemeal approach only complicated the process.

“We feel very strongly” about this decision, Deputy Education Commissioner Mary Batilwalla told the task force. “The complexity is really too great for us to overcome in ensuring that we have a seamless delivery.”

The 30-member task force of educators and advocates has been McQueen’s sounding board on TNReady and other testing issues, and she sought the group’s feedback one week after the state’s messy testing season ended.

“We don’t want to introduce any additional complexity. We want to eliminate complexity, eliminate risk,” said McQueen, who also is turning to superintendents and upcoming focus groups for advice about how to improve their TNReady experience.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks at a 2017 event as Gov. Bill Haslam looks on.

McQueen will decide about digital vs. paper — and for which grades — by late June. She is leaning toward keeping high schools online and putting all lower grades on paper tests, but it’s not a done deal, she told Chalkbeat.

“The feedback we’re getting is for more to go online than not, and that’s very meaningful to hear,” she said.

Her boss, Gov. Bill Haslam, has made it clear that Tennessee is committed to eventually adopting computerized testing.

“It’s not just that’s where the world is going; that’s where the world is,” Haslam said earlier in the week.

About 300,000 students took TNReady online this year — the most ever since a wholesale switch to computers failed in 2016 under Measurement Inc. McQueen fired that testing company, hired Questar as its successor, and unveiled a new game plan to gradually wade back in. That approach worked well last year for the 24 districts that did a trial run for high schools, although later scoring errors detracted from Questar’s debut.

This year marked the return to statewide online assessments, beginning with Tennessee’s oldest students. But challenges included a cyber attack and lousy internet service when a dump truck cut a main fiber optic cable — examples that demonstrate the risks of computerized testing.

There are benefits, too, however. Digital exams are quicker to score, offer more flexibility in the types of questions asked, and ultimately cost less. Returning to all paper testing would cost an extra $11 million in printing and shipping costs.

One big advantage of paper-and-pencil testing is a shorter testing period. Three weeks were allotted to TNReady this spring because schools had to rotate their students in and out of testing labs to use a limited number of computers. That requires a lot of coordination and time.

Task force members agreed that reverting to paper would be a step backward, especially with the state’s focus on the technical skills needed for college and careers and the significant investments made by school districts to prepare for online testing.

But they were adamant that Tennessee needs a win next time around to rebuild trust in a test that many consider broken.

“There has been a serious erosion in confidence in state testing, whether it’s online or on paper,” said Shawn Kimble, director of schools in Lauderdale County. “If we fail again, where does that leave us as a state?”