Testing Testing

Indiana students will take two state tests in 2014-15

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Frustrations with repeated problems with ISTEP have lawmakers looking for solutions.

Indiana students will take at least two online, state-run standardized tests in 2014-15, and some state board members raised concerns today about a proposal to add a third test.

No matter what the Indiana State Board of Education decides, only one test will matter for state accountability decisions, including the A to F grades schools earn.

The state is scrambling a bit because it needs to begin transitioning to a new state test to replace ISTEP in 2015-16, even though the standards it will be testing aren’t ready yet. The new test must be matched to new state standards the board hopes to approve on April 28. But state officials had hoped to administer a pilot test in May.

Indiana Department of Education officials today asked the state board to approve a third test for September, replacing the May pilot, as a way of giving students practice on the new test format and try questions based on the news standards.

Led by Brad Oliver, several board members questioned whether that was too many tests for 2014-15.

“I feel like I have to advocate for the students,” Oliver said. “If we’re going to take the time away from class, I’m wrestling with what is the return on investment of that time?”

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz said she didn’t want to give extra tests but felt students needed to see the new format. During her 2012 election campaign, Ritz said the state was doing too much standardized testing. But the need to transition to a new test has put her in the awkward position of advocating, in the short term, for more tests rather than fewer tests.

Even so, Ritz said she believed the state’s proposed plan was manageable for students and teachers.

“We’re not going to over-tax students,” she said. “You’re talking to the person here, in the state superintendent, who wants less testing. But I also know, as a teacher, that you have to be exposed to the types of questions you have to answer.”

Indiana’s hesitation about Common Core, which ultimately led the state to pull out of the shared standards that 45 states initially signed on to follow, has thrown its testing plan off track.

After the state adopted Common Core in 2010, it began working toward replacing ISTEP with a Common Core-linked test. Common Core was designed to assure high school graduates were ready for college and careers, but Indiana critics say it cedes too much control over what children learn to the U.S. Department of Education, which did not create Common Core but has endorsed and promoted it.

In Indiana’s case, the state’s plan to use Common Core satisfied the federal government’s requirement that it institute “college and career ready” standards under an agreement to release the state from some of the sanctions of the 2002 federal No Child Left Behind law.

The U.S. Department of Education had leverage in those talks because it provides millions of dollars to support education in every Indiana school district, much of it focused on helping schools meet the needs of poor and disabled children. Plus, NCLB sanctions could have caused hundreds of schools to take actions like firing their principals or changing their curriculum for not reaching the law’s ever-increasing expectations for test score gain.

In 2012, following its adoption of Common Core, Indiana was working toward adopting a Common Core-linked test to replace ISTEP in 2015-16, with plans for a pilot test in 2014-15 to get ready.

But then the Common Core backlash began.

In 2013, lawmakers “paused” implementation of Common Core and then this year they went further, passing a bill last month to void Indiana’s adoption of Common Core.

That meant Indiana needed new standards quickly.

In February, committees of educators that were reviewing standards began a process to create new ones. They are working to revise draft standards for state board consideration on April 28.

Changing standards knocked the testing plan off schedule.

Instead of a Common Core pilot test in May, state officials instead asked CTB-McGraw Hill, the company that created ISTEP, for enough test questions to create a smaller test, which the state has called CoreLink, for students to take before the end of the 2013-14 school year as a first look at what the new state test will be like.

While the new standards aren’t ready yet and the new test, therefore, can’t be built, the state knows it plans to use new types of online test questions that students haven’t seen before. The state board today saw sample questions in which students would be required to supplement multiple choice answers by highlighting sections of text they referred to and entering the formula they calculated to solve a math word problem.

Because the new standards aren’t ready yet, Ritz’s team proposed pushing to September the small CoreLink test, which they said was an hour-long exam with 10 questions each on English and math.

Board members questioned whether that made sense.

“I’d rather pilot the test in 2015 and not take CoreLink and spend my time in the classroom,” said board member Cari Whicker, a middle school teacher in Huntington.

Tony Walker, a board member from Gary, agreed.

“My vote would be to never administer CoreLink,” he said. “It seems unfair to the students after just two or three weeks under the standards.”

Following a recommendation from board member Sarah O’Brien, a teacher in Avon, Ritz withdrew the plan to offer CoreLink in September, for now. Instead, the board’s testing committee will review its options for how to pilot test questions for the future state test in the upcoming school year.

Board member Andrea Neal, a Common Core opponent, cautioned that CoreLink, built from questions designed for future Common Core-linked tests, might not be the best choice to serve as examples for Indiana’s future state test.

“I see lots of signs that for our assessments to be deemed ‘college and career ready’ that assessments will have to be compatible and fully aligned with Common Core assessments,” she said. “It’s extremely important we figure out our standards, then our curriculum and then do testing at the end.”

Ritz, who noted state officials would modify CoreLink questions to fit Indiana standards, said that would not be a problem.

“Our assessments will be aligned to our standards and will be college and career ready,” she said.

TNReady snag

Tennessee’s ill-timed score delivery undercuts work to rebuild trust in tests

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
The Tennessee Department of Education worked with local districts and schools to prepare students for TNReady, the state's standardized test that debuted in 2016.

After last year’s online testing failure, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen pledged to rebuild trust in Tennessee’s new TNReady assessment, a lynchpin of the state’s system of school accountability.

A year later, frustration over TNReady has re-emerged, even after a mostly uneventful spring testing period that McQueen declared a success just weeks ago.

Preliminary TNReady scores are supposed to count for 10 percent of students’ final grades. But as many districts end the school year this week, the state’s data is arriving too late. One by one, school systems have opted to exclude the scores, while some plan to issue their report cards late.

The flurry of end-of-school adjustments has left local administrators to explain the changes to parents, educators and students who are already wary of state testing. And the issue has put Tennessee education officials back on the defensive as the state works to regain its footing on testing after last year’s high-profile setbacks.

“We just need to get more crisp as a state,” said Superintendent Dorsey Hopson after Shelby County Schools joined the growing list of districts opting to leave out the scores. “If we know that we want to use (TNReady scores), if the state says use them on the report card, then we got to get them back.”

The confusion represents one step back for TNReady, even after the state took two steps forward this spring with a mostly smooth second year of testing under Questar, its new test maker. Last year, McQueen canceled testing for grades 3-8 and fired Measurement Inc. after Tennessee’s online platform failed and a string of logistical problems ensued.

Why TNReady’s failed rollout leaves Tennessee with challenges for years to come

But the reason this year’s testing went more smoothly may also be the reason why the scores haven’t arrived early enough for many districts.

TNReady was mostly administered on paper this time around, which meant materials had to be processed, shipped and scored before the early data could be shared with districts. About 600,000 students took the assessment statewide.

After testing ended on May 5, districts had five days to get their materials to Questar to go to the front of the line for return of preliminary scores. Not all districts succeeded, and some had problems with shipping. Through it all, the State Department of Education has maintained that its timelines are “on track.”

McQueen said Wednesday that districts have authority under a 2015 state law to exclude the scores from students’ final grades if the data doesn’t arrive a week before school lets out. And with 146 districts that set their own calendars, “the flexibility provided under this law is very important.”

Next year will be better, she says, as Tennessee moves more students to online testing, beginning with high school students.

Candice McQueen

“We lose seven to 10 days for potential scoring time just due to shipping and delivery,” she said of paper tests. “Online, those challenges are eliminated because the materials can be uploaded immediately and transferred much much quicker.”

The commissioner emphasized that the data that matters most is not the preliminary data but the final score reports, which are scheduled for release in July for high schools and the fall for grades 3-8. Those scores are factored into teachers’ evaluations and are also used to measure the effectiveness of schools and districts. 

“Not until you get the score report will you have the full context of a student’s performance level and strengths and weaknesses in relation to the standards,” she said.

The early data matters to districts, though, since Tennessee has tied the scores to student grades since 2011.

“Historically, we know that students don’t try as hard when the tests don’t count,” said Jennifer Johnson, a spokeswoman for Wilson County Schools, a district outside of Nashville that opted to issue report cards late. “We’re trying to get our students into the mindset that tests do matter, that this means business.”

Regardless, this year’s handling of early scores has left many parents and educators confused, some even exasperated.

“There’s so much time and stress on students, and here again it’s not ready,” said Tikeila Rucker, a Memphis teacher who is president of the United Education Association of Shelby County.

“The expectation is that we would have the scores back,” Hopson agreed.

But Hopson, who heads Tennessee’s largest district in Memphis, also is taking the long view.

“It’s a new test and a new process and I’m sure the state is trying to figure it all out,” he said. “Obviously the process was better this year than last year.”

Laura Faith Kebede and Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.

Not Ready

Memphis students won’t see TNReady scores reflected in their final report cards

PHOTO: Creative Commons / timlewisnm

Shelby County Schools has joined the growing list of Tennessee districts that won’t factor preliminary state test scores into students’ final grades this year.

The state’s largest school district didn’t receive raw score data in time, a district spokeswoman said Tuesday.

The State Department of Education began sharing the preliminary scores this week, too late in the school year for many districts letting out in the same week. That includes Shelby County Schools, which dismisses students on Friday.

While a state spokeswoman said the timelines are “on track,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the timing was unfortunate.

“There’s a lot of discussion about too many tests, and I think anytime you have a situation where you advertise the tests are going to be used for one thing and then we don’t get the data back, it becomes frustrating for students and families. But that’s not in our control,” he said Tuesday night.

Hopson added that the preliminary scores will still get used eventually, but just not in students’ final grades. “As we get the data and as we think about our strategy, we’ll just make adjustments and try to use them appropriately,” he said.

The decision means that all four of Tennessee’s urban districts in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga won’t include TNReady in all of their students’ final grades. Other school systems, such as in Williamson and Wilson counties, plan to make allowances by issuing report cards late, and Knox County will do the same for its high school students.

Under a 2015 state law, districts can leave out standardized test scores if the information doesn’t arrive five instructional days before the end of the school year. This year, TNReady is supposed to count for 10 percent of final grades.

Also known as “quick scores,” the data is different from the final test scores that will be part of teachers’ evaluation scores. The state expects to release final scores for high schoolers in July and for grades 3-8 in the fall.

The Department of Education has been working with testing company Questar to gather and score TNReady since the state’s testing window ended on May 5. About 600,000 students took the assessment statewide in grades 3-11.

State officials could not provide a district-by-district listing of when districts will receive their scores.

“Scores will continue to come out on a rolling basis, with new data released every day, and districts will receive scores based on their timely return of testing materials and their completion of the data entry process,” spokeswoman Sara Gast told Chalkbeat on Monday. “Based on district feedback, we have prioritized returning end-of-course data to districts first.”

Caroline Bauman and Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.