Are Children Learning

Indiana dumps CTB-McGraw Hill, picks Pearson to create future ISTEP

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

Indiana appears ready to ditch the company that creates ISTEP after years of testing problems, but the cost of delivering Indiana’s state tests could go way up if it does.

British-owned Pearson, another giant testing company, won the state’s bid for a $38 million two-year contract to give the ISTEP test starting next spring over CTB-McGraw Hill, according to awards released today by the Indiana Department of Administration. California-based CTB-McGraw Hill has created ISTEP since the test’s inception in 2009. The company had a four-year, $95 million contract to create ISTEP that expired last year.

But state lawmakers are already casting doubts on whether they will approve the big spike in spending the contracts would require. So it’s not yet a done deal.

Awards to five other companies would push the price tag for Indiana’s testing system to $133.8 million for the next two years. CTB-McGraw Hill, which has been under fire for repeated testing problems over the past four years, was awarded $68 million to continue creating practice tests school districts use to prepare for state exams.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz slammed the cost of the bids in a statement, which she said her department did not control.

“When I ran for this office, I ran on a platform that included less testing for our students,” Ritz said in a statement. “However, Indiana’s procurement process is modeled to comply with state and federal mandates that require a continuation of assessments that we have been administering to our students.  The Department of Education learned of the awards and the astronomical costs of the assessments after this process had been completed.”

Shelley Triol, a spokeswoman for the department of administration, said her department monitors and carries out the contract proposal process on behalf of the education department and state board of education, but it isn’t involved in budget negotiations. The contracts are not yet final, she said, and budget issues have to be hashed out between the test companies and the department of education.

“For (requests for proposal) conducted or administered by IDOA on behalf of other agencies, IDOA has no part in the budgetary process,” Triol said in an email. “All budgetary issues are dealt with directly by the agency that will ultimately enter into the contract(s) that may result from the (proposal) process.”

Lawmakers, including state Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, have been asking if Indiana should scrap ISTEP altogether in favor of a national “off-the-shelf” test like one from the Northwest Evaluation Association or a well-known exam like the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. Senate Bill 566, which Kenley authored, would do just that. The bill passed the Senate 46-3 last month and is expected to be considered by the House soon.

The current state budget proposal, passed last month by the House, does not include the extra money needed to pay for the contracts that were awarded. It allocates the same amount of money for testing as the state is spending now. The Senate began to debate the budget this week.

Kenley, who heads the budget-making Senate Appropriations Committee, said he thinks this creates the perfect opportunity for Ritz, the education department, lawmakers and the Indiana State Board of Education to continue discussions about his bill and creating a more streamlined, cheaper test that’s better for students and teachers.

“I think that getting the results of the (requests for proposals) and looking at the price tags is a helpful step in motivating everybody … to try to sit down and work on this thing, to get a resolution out that everybody gets comfortable with what we think will be beneficial for the students and for the teachers in the state,” Kenley said.

The education department, he said, is scheduled to present its budget proposal to the Senate Appropriations Committee on March 19. If the cost for testing remains as high as it is, Kenley said he’s not inclined to move the department’s proposal forward. The State Budget Committee, which will meet separately later on this year, must also review the test contracts.

That could throw the state’s entire plan to convert to a new state exam next year off course and raise several hard questions about whether a cheaper test could still meet all the requirements of state and federal law that the bidding companies were asked to meet.

Ritz was not available for interviews, but in her statement she seemed to endorse the idea that cost-saving alternatives should be explored.

“I strongly believe that Indiana needs a streamlined system of assessments that come at a reasonable cost to taxpayers,” she said in the statement. “I look forward to working with Indiana’s policymakers toward that outcome.”

Last month, news of a potentially 12-hour long ISTEP test sent policymakers into a panic. Part of the reason the test was projected to be so lengthy was because the department needed to add questions that did not count this year but that were being tried out for the 2015-16 test.

After a week of heated back-and-forth between Ritz’s department and Gov. Mike Pence’s office, a deal was struck to fast-track a bill that shortened the test by three hours.

Indiana State Board of Education member Sarah O’Brien said in a statement the board also wants more discussion about what the future state testing system should look like.

“The State Board of Education will take a very close look in the coming months at the proposed testing contracts in terms of overall scope and cost,” the statement said. “Hoosier taxpayers and parents can be assured the Board will not authorize any assessment that results in excessive testing time for our children or spends more tax dollars than is necessary to meet state and federal education requirements.”

CTB-McGraw Hill spokesman Brian Belardi said the company declined to comment. A representative from Pearson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Since 2011 CTB-McGraw Hill has had repeated problems with ISTEP.

The biggest incident came in April of 2013, about 78,000 Indiana students taking ISTEP experienced interruptions over the course of several days, or about 16 percent of all test takers online. It was the third consecutive year that online ISTEP had such troubles. In 2011, about 10,000 students had problem and in 2012, it was 9,000 students with online trouble.

Last August CTB-McGraw Hill reached a $3 million settlement with the state over problems on the 2013 exam. The company has had similar problems in other states including Oklahoma, which canceled its contract last July.

Here is a complete list of companies that were awarded potential two-year contracts to create test for Indiana:

  • Pearson would create ISTEP for just over $38 million and IREAD-3, Indiana’s third-grade reading test, for almost $7 million.
  • Questar Assessment would create the high school end-of-course exams for about $7.5 million and the alternate assessment for students with special needs for about $5 million.
  • College Board, which writes the SAT and Advanced Placement tests, would create a graduation exam for $10.7 million and an exam that would determine whether students are ready for college or jobs for $624,381.
  • Amplify, a New York City-based company, would write practice English tests for Kindergarten through second grade for a little more than $3 million.
  • Strategic Measurement and Evaluation, an Indiana-based company affiliated with Questar, would create practice math tests for Kindergarteners through second-graders for about $900,000.
  • McGraw-Hill would create practice tests in science, for kindergarten to second grade, for about $7 million; practice tests in social studies, for kindergarten to second grade, for about $7 million; practice English tests, grades 3 to 10, for almost $13 million; practice math tests, grades 3 to 10, for a little more than $11 million; practice science tests, grades 3 to 10, for a little more than $11 million; and practice social studies tests, grades 3 to 10, for a little more than $11 million.

 

Sharing Stories

Tell us your stories about children with special needs in Detroit

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Parents of students with special needs face difficult challenges when trying to get services for their children. Understanding their children’s rights, getting them evaluated and properly diagnosed, and creating an educational plan are among the many issues families face.

Chalkbeat Detroit wants to hear more about those issues to help inform our coverage. We are kicking off a series of conversations called a “listening tour” to discuss your concerns, and our first meeting will focus on children with special needs and disabilities. We’re partnering with the Detroit Parent Network as they look for solutions and better ways to support parents.

Our listening tour, combined with similar events in other communities Chalkbeat serves, will continue throughout this year on a variety of topics. In these meetings, we’ll look to readers, parents, educators, and students to help us know what questions we should ask, and we’ll publish stories from people who feel comfortable having their stories told. We hope you’ll share your stories and explore solutions to the challenges parents face.

Our special education listening tour discussion will take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m., Tuesday July 24, at the Detroit Parent Network headquarters, 726 Lothrop St., Detroit.

As our series continues, we’ll meet at locations around the city to hear stories and experiences parents have while navigating the complexities of getting children the education and services they deserve.

Next week’s event includes a panel discussion with parents of children with special needs, responses from parent advocates, and an open discussion with audience members.

Those who are uncomfortable sharing stories publicly will have a chance to tell a personal story on an audio recorder in a private room, or will be interviewed by a Chalkbeat Detroit reporter privately.

The event is free and open to anyone who wants to attend, but reservations are required because space is limited. To register, call 313-309-8100 or email frontdesk@detroitparentnetwork.org.

If you can’t make our event, but have a story to share, send an email to tips.detroit@chalkbeat.org, or call or send a text message to 313-404-0692.

Stayed tuned for more information about listening tour stops, topics and locations.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.