Are Children Learning

ISTEP rescore plans reduced after lawmakers consider high costs, expert advice

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Rep. Bob Behning, chairman of the House Education Committee, authored HB 1384, in which voucher language was added late last week.

Republican lawmakers have scaled back their ambitious plans to rescore the 2015 ISTEP test.

Although legislation introduced earlier this month originally suggested a full rescore of the controversial exam — meaning hundreds of thousands of tests would be re-opened and millions of student answers would be re-examined — the bill’s author now says that proposal would be too expensive, coming in at roughly $8 million to $10 million.

The author, Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, announced during a House Education Committee meeting today that his bill — House Bill 1395 — now calls for just a partial rescore of a smaller sample of exams.
The smaller effort could boost public trust in the exam without breaking the budget, he said.

“(A rescore would) at least try to restore confidence in the assessment as we move forward,” Behning said.

The bill comes in response to heavy criticism of last year’s exam, which was plagued with scoring, test design and technical problems that accompanied new, more challenging standards and a brand-new test.

The tougher standards led to a major drop in scores. The statewide rate of students passing both the math and reading sections of the exam dropped by 22 percentage points to 53.5 percent. All but four of state’s 1,500 public schools saw their scores go down.

Behning’s bill would require the Indiana Department of Education to hire an outside company to rescore short-answer questions on the 2015 ISTEP. If the scores change, the bill would allow the state to use the new results as the baseline for calculating whether a school’s test scores improve or decline in future years. Improvement is a major factor in the state’s new A-F school grading system.

Even as his bill makes its way through the legislature, Behning says he’s still working on some of the details, seeking guidance from test experts and state officials that could lead to amendments.

Ed Roeber, a test expert from Michigan who has consulted on ISTEP for the Indiana State Board of Education, has told the legislature that a sample of 5,000 tests could be enough to verify the exam’s validity as long as the sample includes tests from urban, rural and suburban schools in all parts of the state.

“While this plan involves more steps than simply rescoring all responses to every prompt, it has the potential to answer the questions about the accuracy of hand-scoring without attendant expense of scoring all responses,” Roeber wrote in a letter to the Indiana General Assembly. “Thus, I believe you will be able to achieve your objective of checking on the accuracy of the scoring at lower cost.”

Indiana Deputy Superintendent Danielle Shockey told the committee today that a rescore isn’t necessary because the Department of Education has already conducted numerous reviews of exam, many of which were led by the very test experts Behning is consulting, including Roeber. So far, Shockey said, the state has not found any evidence of test flaws that would have affected student scores.

“The department would like to wait for data to support the need for a costly, very time-consuming rescore,” Shockey said.

It’s also not clear who would pay for the rescore. Behning, whose bill does not specify which state agency would be on the hook for the expense, raised the possibility that the company that made the test, CTB, could be asked to contribute.

“Obviously someone is going to have to pay for it,” Behning said. “We might have to … provide some additional flexibility so money could be moved from the general fund.”

Daniel Altman, a spokesman for Indiana state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, said the Department of Education has talked with the state Attorney General’s office about filing suit against CTB to recover damages for delays in scoring.

If Behning’s bill becomes law, the rescore would not be the first review of the troubled 2015 test. A panel of testing experts already conducted one review after concerns were raised in October over differences in difficulty between the paper version of the exam and the online version.

In December, the Indianapolis Star reported another scoring glitch that could have led to thousands of mis-scored tests. The state then convened a second panel to examine the data and found that the glitch did not affect student scores.

The state also allows parents to ask for a rescore of their child’s test each year. In 2015, more than 61,000 tests were rescored, Shockey said, about three times more than are usually requested. In about 11 percent of rescored exams, scores were changed by a point or more but only a fraction of rescores — 1.76 percent — led to a student moving to a different level, such as from “fail” to “pass.”

Rescores can only lead to a student’s score going up, not down, said Michele Walker, the education department’s test director.

Behning’s bill, which is up for a committee vote later this week, would also create a panel to review Indiana’s current A-F accountability system. The system might need to be adjusted to comply with the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which will replace the No Child Left Behind Act in the 2017-18 school year. The new law will still require Indiana to give most students a pass-fail test every year but will allow for some more flexibility.

The 20-person testing and accountability panel would include policymakers, educators and lawmakers appointed by Republican legislative leaders, Gov. Mike Pence and Ritz. Behning said he was open to adding Ritz, a Democrat, as a co-leader of the group.

“I think it’s appropriate that we spend time as policymakers talking to the brightest and best educators … and looking at what our next options are in terms of performance, standards and accountability metrics,” Behning said.

Shockey said the committee could help Indiana move on from the testing problems it’s seen over the past year. It would align with Ritz’s plan to review the state’s testing program.

Ritz has said that the state should consider a testing program that doesn’t rely so heavily on a single, end-of-year exam. She suggested a series of tests that would focus more on how students improve throughout the year.

“Indiana could be a leader in creating a more streamlined, student-centered assessment system,” Shockey said.

double take

Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Students work on assignments at Indianapolis Public Schools Center For Inquiry at School 27.

Imagine a scenario where Indiana schools get not just one A-F grade each year, but two.

One grade would determine whether a school can be taken over by the state. The other would comply with federal law asking states to track student test progress and how federal aid is spent. Both would count, but each would reflect different measures of achievement and bring different consequences.

This could be Indiana’s future if a state board-approved plan moves ahead at the same time the state is working on a conflicting plan to comply with a new federal law.

If it sounds complicated, that’s because it probably would be, said state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. Originally, A-F grades were intended to be an easy way for parents and community members to understand how their school is doing.

“It’s extremely confusing to have multiple accountability systems with multiple consequences,” McCormick told board members last week. “All along our message has been to get as much alignment as we can.”

Indiana would not be the first state to consider dual accountability systems — Colorado operated separate systems for years under No Child Left Behind and is now doing so again. Virginia, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have also had two models in years past. But this move would be a big departure from Indiana’s efforts over the past several years to simplify accountability, and education officials warn it could create more problems than it would solve.

Dale Chu, an education consultant who previously worked in Indiana under state Superintendent Tony Bennett, said it’s actually not common for states to have multiple systems, and doing so for political reasons, rather than what helps students and families, is concerning.

“We all know how confusing accountability systems can be when you just have one,” Chu said. “To create a bifurcated system, I don’t see how you gain additional clarity … I would certainly hope that if that’s the direction the state is going to move in, they are very thoughtful and intentional about it.”

The changes come as Indiana works to create a plan to comply with a new federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. McCormick’s education department has been working to align the federal system with Indiana’s grading system, and is struggling to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, most notably in the area of graduation requirements and diplomas.

At the same time the Indiana State Board of Education is negotiating this alignment, it is also revamping the A-F grade system.

A new grading proposal approved by the state board last week would put more emphasis on student test scores than the A-F system that now unifies state and federal requirements. Those new rules would include extra categories for grading schools, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan.

While that proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

Officials were already expecting to issue two sets of A-F grades to schools in 2018 — one state grade, and one federal — as the state continued to work all of Indiana’s unresolved education issues into the new federal plan. Figuring out how to ensure state graduation rates don’t plummet because of other federal rule changes dictating  which diplomas count and incorporating the new high school graduation requirements, for example, will take time — and legislation — to fix.

Read: Indiana has a curious plan to sidestep federal rules — give schools two A-F grades next year.

But ultimately, officials said, if some of the state board-approved changes make it into final policy, and Indiana’s federal plan doesn’t change to accommodate it, the state and federal accountability systems could remain at odds with each other — meaning schools would continue to get two grades after 2018.

The original intent was to have all Indiana’s state grading system line up with federal requirements before the plan was sent to federal officials in September. Then, once the federal government gave feedback, the state A-F revamp could continue.

But just this past fall, after the federal plan had been submitted, some members of the state board began adding in additional measures, some of which reflect their personal interests in how schools should be rated.

Those measures were added after board members had multiple chances to discuss the federal plan with the education department, conversations that were held in an attempt to ward off such changes this late in the game. Yet even last week at the state board’s monthly meeting, where the new grading changes were approved, some board members didn’t seem to realize until after the vote that the A-F systems would not match up.

David Freitas, a state board member, said he didn’t see the conflicting A-F grade rules as a problem. The board can make Indiana’s state A-F system whatever it wants, he said, and there will be plenty of time to iron out specifics as the rulemaking process unfolds over the next several months.

“We’re not banned from having two different systems,” Freitas said. “But we need to consider the implications and consequences of that.”

Read more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.

No time to play

Will recess cuts boost learning? One struggling Colorado district wants to find out.

A suburban Denver school district on a state-mandated improvement plan has cut recess time for elementary students in a bid to devote more time to instruction.

On a good day, elementary children in the Adams 14 district get about 15 minutes of recess at lunch time, but sometimes it’s as little as seven, according to teachers who’ve spoken out about the issue.

The change, instituted at the beginning of the school year, has angered both parents and teachers who say the lack of outside playtime is stressful and unhealthy for students and has led to more behavior problems in the classroom.

The reduction in recess is one of a series of controversial decisions this year in the 7,400-student district, where almost half the students are English language learners and 86 percent qualify for subsidized meals. Also contentious this year were decisions to end parent-teacher conferences and scale back a biliteracy program once envisioned as a model for other districts.

It’s not uncommon for students in high-poverty schools like the ones in Adams 14 to get less recess compared to their more affluent peers.

A 2006 report from the National Center for Education Statistics found that the students in the highest poverty elementary schools got 17 to 21 minutes of recess a day while those at schools with relatively few students from poor families got 28 to 32 minutes a day.

District spokeswoman Janelle Asmus said the recess changes came out of feedback from state education officials and a contractor charged with helping the district improve. They urged district leaders to use school time more effectively.

“We’re a district that’s on turnaround … and the state has told us, ‘We expect dramatic improvements from you,’” Asmus said. “What we keep hearing (is), ‘You’re not using every single minute to the maximum amount.’”

Last year, district elementary schools generally had around 45 minutes of recess a day, Asmus said. While there was some variation between schools and some of that time was spent donning jackets, lining up, and filing out of the building, most had a 15-minute morning recess, 15-minute afternoon recess, and a 30-minute midday break split between lunch and recess, she said.

This year, students have only the 30-minute lunch/recess break. At a school board meeting held a week into the school year, a string of parents and teachers complained about the lack of both recess time and eating time, and a few were moved nearly to tears as they described the consequences.

Some children were throwing most of their meals away because they didn’t have enough time to eat. Others, particularly special education students who required extra help going through the cafeteria line and feeding themselves, were getting little to no recess with their peers.

While Colorado law requires elementary schools to provide students with an average of 30 minutes of physical activity a day, many observers consider it a weak law because it allows so much flexibility in what counts as physical activity and no minimum minutes for any particular type of physical activity.

Critics of the recess cut in Adams 14 say it flies in the face of research showing that physical activity improves focus and helps students better absorb information.

But Asmus said district officials agree with the research and are simply integrating physical activity into the elementary school day outside of recess. This approach entails lessons that incorporate movement or “brain breaks” — short periods of exercise in the classroom.

But teachers like Derene Armelin have their doubts.

A first grade teacher at Dupont Elementary, she said this week that some children sit out during movement breaks because they’re embarrassed to follow the choreographed moves that popular brain break videos rely on — dance moves or pretend wall-climbing, for example.

Plus, she said, there’s no replacement for getting fresh air outside.

Asmus said ensuring kids get time outdoors is up to teachers.

“This is where we rely on our teachers’ professional judgement,” she said. “How are they using their lessons to address all the needs of the student?”

Asmus said teachers can take kids outside as part of lessons, say for a butterfly hunt or to count flowers in a garden.

Armelin sees signs that the daily schedule is hard on youngsters. Some act tired. Others ask repeatedly for bathroom breaks just to get up and move.

“They’re walking down the hallway. They’re getting a drink of water,” she said. “They’re doing whatever form of exercise they can come up with.”

Parent Elizabeth Vitela said her first-grade son and fourth-grade daughter mention the lack of recess almost every day.
“They say it’s too little,” she said. “It’s not a good amount.”

Vitela, whose children attend Dupont Elementary, said she’s upset that no one ever explained the recess cuts or the discontinuation of parent-teacher conferences to parents.

Parent Carolina Rosales, who has a kindergartner and third-grader at Hanson Elementary, said her 5-year-old son sometimes misses recess altogether because he prefers to use the allotted 30 minutes to eat. Her 9-year-old daughter is the opposite, often gulping down just fruit and milk before dashing outside.

Recess practices vary in Colorado districts, including those that face the same kinds of academic hurdles as Adams 14. In nearby Westminster Public Schools, which is also on a state-required improvement plan, most elementary students get a 10-minute morning recess, a 10-minute afternoon recess and 10 to 20 minutes during the lunch/recess period, said district spokesman Stephen Saunders.

In Pueblo City Schools, which improved just enough in 2016 to avoid a state improvement plan, elementary students get a 35-minute lunch/recess break plus 10 to 15 minutes of additional recess during other times of the day, said district spokesman R. Dalton Sprouse.

While the recess cuts in Adams 14, like other recent changes there, are intended to boost learning and raise test scores, some district teachers believe the plan will backfire.

“I honestly think it’s going to bring scores down,” said Hanson Elementary teacher Jodi Connelly, who teaches fourth- and fifth-graders.

“To tell them you’re going to have to sit in a chair all day long … and have things put in your head,” she said. “That’s not how they’re wired.”

Connelly, who is currently on a health-related leave of absence, said before she went on leave in late fall she was seeing more student conflicts and disruptions. One boy, who had gradually shed his previously defiant behavior, was regressing. He’d become mouthy and rude again, habits that were landing him in detention.

“We spend more time dealing with behaviors as a result of not having the time for kids to get out there and be kids,” she said.