Are Children Learning

Experts to Indiana: Worry less about the length of ISTEP

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence was deeply critical of State Superintendent Glenda Ritz and the Indiana Department of Education earlier this year for creating a new ISTEP test that he felt was too long.

But experts on Tuesday spoke to a legislative study committee looking at potential changes to Indiana’s state testing system and had this advice for the state: don’t worry about the length of the test.

“If you put it in context, it is a small fraction of the investment you make in students every year,” said Michael Cohen, president of the nonprofit Achieve Inc. “And you generally rely on it pretty heavily to drive improvement in the state.”

Pence was so angry to learn just weeks before students were to take ISTEP in February that the test length had grown to as much as 12-and-a-half hours at some grade levels, he issued executive orders demanding it be reduced. Ultimately a bill was rushed through the legislature with Ritz’s support to cut the testing time by three hours.

Even at Tuesday’s meeting, lawmakers worried that testing was too much and the stakes were too high.

The tests can have big consequences for students, who can be held back or prevented from graduating if they fail. Teachers also now are evaluated based in part on the test scores their students post. They can be fired or lose out on raises if they get poor evaluation scores. Schools with persistently low scores can be taken over by the state.

“It causes lots of pressure on an already high-stakes test,” said Sen. Mark Stoops, D-Bloomington. “What else can teacher and school grades be based on?”

Greg Cizek, a researcher who studies testing at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, said there could be other strategies that work better for some types of accountability.

“Legislatures, by and large, took the cheap and easy way out of fixing educator personnel evaluations by using student test data,” he said. “It was an existing mechanism you could layer a purpose onto, that you could use it for accountability. It didn’t cost much more, and you could do it in one term of office.”

Even so, there aren’t many good alternatives, Cizek said. Indiana’s teacher evaluation model, which allows each district to choose exactly how much to factor in student test scores in teacher evaluations, has pretty big weaknesses, he said.

“It creates some inequities,” Cizek said. “No state has really figured out a way to do fair, incorruptible ways of doing personnel evaluations. All I would say is we’re at the beginning of that time period.”

It’s not just teachers who worry that too much focus and time is spent on testing. It’s a concern for everyone, including policymakers and parents. But legislators were told some of those fears might be overblown.

Representatives from Teach Plus, a non-profit advocacy group that works to get teachers more involved in policymaking, said data from a study it conducted in 2014 suggests test length, across the nation, is just a small fraction of what kids do in school all year.

Teach Plus found kids spend a little less than 2 percent of their total school time on testing per year, with suburban districts at 1.3 percent and urban districts at 1.7 percent. Federal and state tests, the report said, also took up less time than tests districts chose to give.

In a breakdown of the 32 districts surveyed, Indianapolis ranked within the top half when it came to test time.

“A review of student achievement results as reported on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows no clear relationship between the time spent on testing and student test results,” the report said. “Debating time-on-testing, then, without a discussion of the test type and content misses the point.”

Other studies, however, have raised bigger concerns about testing time, such as one from the American Federation of Teachers, which brought up questions about whether the money and time spent on testing was worthwhile. The Teach Plus study also was revised after critics pointed out errors in the data.

Measure of Success

State ratings identify 163 Colorado schools in need of improvement

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Students in kindergarten on the first day of school at McGlone Academy.

More than 160 Colorado schools received one of the state’s two lowest ratings, making them eligible for additional assistance but also vulnerable to intervention if they don’t improve student performance.

The watch list comprises 9 percent of Colorado’s 1,800 schools and educate roughly 74,000 students, or 8.5 percent or the state’s almost 900,000 students. That means the vast majority of students in the state attend a school with one of the two higher rankings on the four-point scale.

The State Board of Education finalized the ratings Wednesday. The state gives separate district-wide ratings, which were finalized last month.

“The state’s accountability system is built on the premise that all students should receive a high quality education and graduate ready for college or careers,” Katy Anthes, Colorado’s education commissioner, said in a statement. “Our goal is to give all students a chance to excel. These designations allow us to identify struggling schools that may need more support to help students achieve their highest aspirations. And they also highlight successful schools so that other schools can learn from them.”

All public schools receive a state rating, known as the School Performance Framework report, each year. It’s based largely on student scores on the state’s English and math tests. Student growth, or how much students learn year-to-year compared to peers with similar results on state tests, carries most weight. High school graduation and dropout rates are also factored in.

Colorado Department of Education

There are four ratings: performance (the highest), improvement, priority improvement and turnaround (the lowest).

Schools and districts that have one of the lower two ratings are placed on a watch list and have five years to improve before facing state intervention. Schools on the list are eligible for grants for leadership training and help from outside consultants, but if change doesn’t come fast enough, the state could hand over control to an external manager, require conversion to a charter, or close schools.

Earlier this fall, the State Board of Education ordered the Adams 14 school district, based in Commerce City, and two schools in Pueblo in southern Colorado to turn over control to external managers after earlier intervention efforts did not produce enough improvement.

Colorado is still figuring out what effective intervention looks like and if outsiders can make a difference for students that existing leadership has not been able to achieve.

Most Colorado schools maintained the same rating they had in 2017, with 15 percent moving down at least one level and 14 percent moving up at least one level. Eighteen schools improved enough to get off the state watch list, which is often known as the “accountability clock,” some after initial state intervention last year.

Six schools are entering their eighth year on the watch list: Aurora Central High School, Adams City High School, Aguilar Junior-Senior High School in the tiny Aguilar district in southern Colorado, Hope Online Learning Academy Elementary School in Douglas County, Heroes Middle School, and Risley International Academy of Innovation, the last two both in Pueblo.

Two are entering year six: Central Elementary School in the Adams 14 district and Minnequa Elementary School in Pueblo.

Another four are entering year five, now the last year to improve before state intervention: Manual High School and Montbello Career and Technical High School in Denver, Mesa Elementary in the Montezuma-Cortez district in southwest Colorado, and EDCSD: Colorado Cyber School in Douglas County.

In the past, some schools received more time to improve because the “clock” was paused for several years as the state changed assessments. But now there are no more extensions beyond year five.

Of the state’s 42 online schools, a little more than half received one of the top two ratings, and 31 percent did not report enough data for the state to grant a rating. Colorado has more stringent regulations of online schools than many states, but there is an ongoing debate about how well these schools serve students.

About 84 percent of the state’s 247 charter schools received one of the top two ratings, compared to 89 percent of all Colorado schools. Twenty-six charter schools, or 10.5 percent, received one of the lowest two ratings.

Look up your school here:

Literacy tutors needed

Detroit enlists volunteer tutors before third-grade reading law takes effect

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

Detroit’s school district is asking the community for help getting students reading at grade level. The superintendent is hoping volunteer literacy tutors will prevent a critical mass of third-graders from being held back under the state’s tough new reading law.

“We need your help,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said, making an appeal for volunteers during a school board meeting Tuesday night. “Our teachers and our principals and our schools alone will not be able to ensure that every student is at third-grade level without your help.”

Which is why the district is working with two community advocacy groups, Keep the Vote/No Takeover and the National Action Network, to launch the Let’s Read program, geared to K-3 students. The program is slated to begin in February — less than a year before the reading law takes effect. Once it does, during the 2019-2020 school year, Michigan third-graders who aren’t reading at grade level will be held back.

In the Detroit district, where proficiency levels on state exams are extremely low, the consequences could be dire. During a community forum last week, Vitti said that the law could hold back as many as 90% of Detroit third-graders, though Michigan’s education department has yet to define what it means for a student to be reading at grade level. At the forum, though, he noted exemptions from the law for such as students with special education needs and those who speak little to no English.

The Let’s Read volunteers will be assigned to individual students based on need. They will read with the children and help them with book selections.

Helen Moore, a longtime community activist who represents the two community organizations behind the volunteer effort, urged people to sign up during the public comment period of the meeting.

“I know our students will succeed, because they’re brilliant,” Moore said. But they and their parents need help, she said.

Vitti said the volunteer cohort is one of many literacy-building efforts underway. In addition, he said that every district school will hold family literacy nights and that its Parent Academy will expand its classes that teach parents how to help their children with reading. A community-wide event to teach Detroiters about the reading law — and what they can do to help — will also be held.

Moore said the word is starting to get out about the Let’s Read program, noting: “The telephone has been ringing like crazy. And now the suburban districts want to be part of it.”

The focus, though, is on Detroit, she said.

Want to volunteer: You can fill out a form here, or call 313-873-7884.