Are Children Learning

ISTEP pass rates are below 10 percent at six IPS schools

Like nearly all schools across the state, Indianapolis Public Schools saw ISTEP scores take a steep drop in 2015, but at the schools at the lowest rung of the district’s results the scores were especially bleak.

Among the state’s lowest scoring schools are six from IPS that saw the percentage of students who passed both the math and English sections of ISTEP drop to the single digits.

Last year just three schools in the state scored that poorly.

Indiana knew there would be a dramatic dip in ISTEP scores in 2015, following the introduction of new standards in 2014 and a more difficult test to match. For IPS, the district-wide passing rate fell 22 percentage points, which mirrored exactly the decline across the state. But many IPS schools already were among the worst performing in Indiana — in both 2014 and 2015 only four other Indiana school districts had lower passing rates on ISTEP.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said he didn’t put much stock in looking solely at ISTEP scores as a measure of success. He said the district’s staff will look closely at the schools that saw the greatest drops in scores and at those with long records of poor performance but wouldn’t dwell on the state test’s grim verdict.

“We don’t really think these results are reflective of the work of our students and staff,” he said.

Within IPS, there was wide variation in ISTEP scores among schools.

Four of the state’s 20 lowest scoring schools were in the district, but it also has the top performing public school. At Merle Sidener Gifted Academy, a selective magnet school, 95.5 percent of students passed the test.

That’s more than 30 times the passing rate for middle school students at John Marshall High School, where just 3 percent passed. In other words, about 10 students out of the 340 middle school students at Marshall passed ISTEP.

Marshall has the lowest pass rate in IPS, but it still faired better than seven other schools in the state. The middle school scores at Marshall have been the worst in the district for three years running. In 2014, 15 percent of Marshall students passed ISTEP. That number fell by 12 percentage points in 2015.

There were surprises at a few schools in the district, where scores dropped dramatically. For example, at School 56, a magnet Montessori school, the passing percentage sank by 55 percentage points — the worst drop in the state. In 2014, School 56 was one of the top 10 schools in IPS, winning accolades for a big turnaround from low scores in the past.

The second biggest drop in IPS was at Cold Spring School, another magnet school and one with a record of strong performance on tests. Passing rates at the school declined by 48 percentage points, and just 28 percent of students passed in 2015. Cold Spring is looking to convert to an innovation school, which would have significantly more independence from the district.

Even so, IPS had some success stories. School 107, for example, was in very exclusive company. It was one of just four schools in the state that actually saw its ISTEP passing percentage improve. The school saw a big dip in scores in 2014, so the improvement was something of a rebound.

IPS declined repeated requests to interview school principals or district administrators about the results. Ferebee answered questions after attending a summit meeting with Mayor Joe Hogsett this morning after IPS said nobody was available to discuss ISTEP.

Schools that have repeatedly struggled with low scores have already been targeted for changes, Ferebee said. For example, four of the schools where fewer than 10 percent of students passed the test are combined middle and high schools like Marshall.

Middle school students also had some of the lowest test scores in IPS in 2014, and the IPS board has pledged to remove middle school students from high schools as a way of improving test scores.

The other two schools with the lowest passing rates in IPS also have long records of poor test scores. School 103, which received failing grades from the state for four years running, was converted into the district’s first innovation school this year. The school is now run by the Phalen Leadership Academy charter school network under a contract with IPS.

The other elementary school with a single-digit pass rate is School 44, a long-struggling school. District leaders will decide whether to make changes at School 44 and other persistently low-scoring schools in the coming weeks, Ferebee said.

“We wouldn’t use this one snapshot in time to determine whether or not we’re making progress or which schools are struggling,” he said. “(But) we continue to be worried about particularly our schools that have been historically low performing.”

The 2015 ISTEP has been plagued by problems and controversy, most recently the revelation from the Indianapolis Star that thousands of tests may have been misscored due to a computer malfunction.

Test scores are typically tied to several accountability measures, from teacher pay to school letter grades. But a senate bill that would suspend those repercussions for the most recent test is winning bipartisan support.

Surprising report

EXCLUSIVE: Did online snafus skew Tennessee test scores? Analysts say not much

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen will release the results of Tennessee's 2017-18 standardized test this week, but the reliability of those TNReady scores has been in question since this spring's problem-plagued administration of the online exam.

An independent analysis of technical problems that disrupted Tennessee’s online testing program this spring is challenging popular opinion that student scores were significantly tainted as a result.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Wednesday that the disruptions to computerized testing had “small to no impact” on scores, based on a monthlong analysis by the Human Resources Research Organization, or HumRRO. The Virginia-based technical group has expertise in psychometrics, the science behind educational assessments.

“We do believe these are valid, reliable scores,” McQueen told Chalkbeat on the eve of releasing state- and district-level scores for TNReady, the state’s standardized test in its third year.


Here are five things to know as Tennessee prepares to release TNReady scores


The state hired the research group to scrutinize several issues, including whether frequent online testing snafus made this year’s results unreliable. For instance, during at least seven days out of the three-week testing window, students statewide reported problems logging in, staying online, and submitting their tests — issues that eventually prompted the Legislature to roll back the importance of scores in students’ final grades, teacher evaluations, and school accountability systems.

But the analysis did not reveal a dramatic impact.

“For students who experienced the disruption, the analysis did not find any systematic effect on test scores that resulted from lapses in time between signing in and submitting their tests,” McQueen told Chalkbeat.

There was, however, a “small but consistent effect” if a student had to log on multiple times in order to complete the test, she said.

“When I say small, we’re talking about an impact that would be a handful of scale score points out of, say, a possible 200 or 250 points,” McQueen said.

Analysts found some differences in test score averages between 2017 and 2018 but concluded they were not due to the technical disruptions.

“Plausible explanations could be the students just didn’t know the (academic) standards as well and just didn’t do as well on the test,” McQueen said. “Or perhaps they were less motivated after learning that their scores would not count in their final grades after the legislation passed. … The motivation of our students is an unknown we just can’t quantify. We can’t get in their minds on motivation.”

About half of the 600,000 students who took TNReady this year tested with computers, and the other half used paper materials in the state’s transition to online exams. Those testing online included all high school students.

Out of about 502,000 end-of-course tests administered to high schoolers, educators filed about 7,600 irregularity reports – about 1.4 percent – related to problems with test administration, which automatically invalidated those results.

The state asked the analysts specifically to look at the irregularity reports for patterns that could be cause for concern, such as demographic shifts or excessive use of invalidations. They found none.

TNReady headaches started on April 16 – the first day of testing – when students struggled to log on. More problems emerged during the weeks that followed until technicians finally traced the issues to a combination of “bugs in the software” and the slowness of a computerized tool that helps students in need of audible instructions. At one point, officials with testing company Questar blamed a possible cyberattack for shutting down its online platform, but state investigators later dismissed that theory.

While this year’s scores officially are mostly inconsequential, McQueen emphasized Wednesday that the results are still valuable for understanding student performance and growth and analyzing the effectiveness of classroom instruction across Tennessee.

“TNReady scores should be looked at just like any data point in the scheme of multiple data points,” she said. “That’s how we talk about this every year. But it’s an important data point.”

heads up

Tennessee will release TNReady test scores on Thursday. Here are five things to know.

PHOTO: Getty Images/Kali9

When Tennessee unveils its latest standardized test scores on Thursday, the results won’t count for much.

Technical problems marred the return to statewide online testing this spring, prompting the passage of several emergency state laws that rendered this year’s TNReady scores mostly inconsequential. As a result, poor results can’t be used to hold students, educators, or schools accountable — for instance, firing a teacher or taking over a struggling school through the state’s Achievement School District.

But good or bad, the scores still can be useful, say teachers like Josh Rutherford, whose 11th-grade students were among those who experienced frequent online testing interruptions in April.

“There are things we can learn from the data,” said Rutherford, who teaches English at Houston County High School. “I think it would be unprofessional to simply dismiss this year’s scores.”

Heading into this week’s data dump, here are five things to know:

1. This will be the biggest single-day release of state scores since the TNReady era began three years ago.

Anyone with internet access will be able to view state- and district-level scores for math, English, and science for grades 3-12. And more scores will come later. School-by-school data will be released publicly in a few weeks. In addition, Tennessee will unveil the results of its new social studies test this fall after setting the thresholds for what constitutes passing scores at each grade level.

2. Still, this year’s results are anticlimactic.

There are two major reasons. First, many educators and parents question the scores’ reliability due to days of online testing headaches. They also worry that high school students stopped trying after legislators stepped in to say the scores don’t necessarily have to count in final grades. Second, because the scores won’t carry their intended weight, the stakes are lower this year. For instance, teachers have the option of nullifying their evaluation scores. And the state also won’t give each school an A-F grade this fall as originally planned. TNReady scores were supposed to be incorporated into both of those accountability measures.

3. The state is looking into the reliability of the online test scores.

In addition to an internal review by the Education Department, the state commissioned an independent analysis by the Human Resources Research Organization. Researchers for the Virginia-based technical group studied the impact of Tennessee’s online interruptions by looking into testing irregularity reports filed in schools and by scrutinizing variances from year to year and school to school, among other things.

4. The reliability of paper-and-pencil test scores are not in question.

Only about half of Tennessee’s 600,000 students who took TNReady this year tested on computers. The other half — in grades 3-5 and many students in grades 6-8 — took the exams the old-fashioned way. Though there were some complaints related to paper testing too, state officials say they’re confident about those results. Even so, the Legislature made no distinction between the online and paper administrations of TNReady when they ordered that scores only count if they benefit students, teachers, and schools.

5. Ultimately, districts and school communities will decide how to use this year’s data.

Even within the same district, it wasn’t uncommon for one school to experience online problems and another to enjoy a much smoother testing experience. “Every district was impacted differently,” said Dale Lynch, executive director of the state superintendents organization. “It’s up to the local district to look at the data and make decisions based on those local experiences.”

District leaders have been reviewing the embargoed scores for several weeks, and they’ll share them with teachers in the days and weeks ahead. As for families, parents can ask to see their students’ individual score reports so they can learn from this year’s results, too. Districts distribute those reports in different ways, but they’re fair game beginning Thursday. You can learn more here.