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.

Test tweaks

Tennessee will halve science and social studies tests for its youngest students

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Wednesday plans to slim down science and social studies assessments for third- and fourth-graders as she seeks to respond to complaints of over-testing in Tennessee.

McQueen has been mulling over that option since meeting last summer with her testing task force. The State Department of Education received more public feedback on testing during the last eight months while developing the state’s new plan for its schools in response to a new federal education law.

Tennessee already has eliminated a state test for eighth- and tenth-graders, as well as shortened TNReady, the state’s end-of-year tests for math and reading.

It’s uncertain just how significant the latest reductions are, since McQueen also said that some “components” would be added to English tests in those grades.  

And the trimming, while significant, falls short of a suggestion to eliminate the tests altogether. Federal law does not require tests in science and social studies for those grades, like it does for math and English.

Parents and educators have become increasingly vocal about the amount of testing students are undergoing. The average Tennessee third-grader, for instance, currently spends more than 11 hours taking end-of-course tests in math, English, social studies and science. That doesn’t include practice tests and screeners through the state’s 3-year-old intervention program.

McQueen noted that more changes could be on the horizon. Her testing task force has also considered eliminating or reducing TNReady for 11th-graders because they already are required to take the ACT college-entrance exam. “We will continue to evaluate all of our options for streamlining assessments in the coming years, including in the 11th grade,” she wrote in a blog post.

McQueen also announced that the state is tweaking its schools plan to reduce the role that chronic absenteeism will play in school evaluation scores.

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to evaluate schools based off of a measure that’s not directly tied to test scores. Tennessee officials have selected chronic absenteeism, which is defined as missing 10 percent of school days for any reason, including absences or suspension. McQueen said the measure will be changed to count for 10 percent of a school’s final grade, down from 20 percent for K-8 schools and 15 percent for high schools.

Some local district officials had raised concerns that absenteeism was out of the control of schools.

early adopters

Here are the 25 districts committing to taking TNReady online this spring

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

One year after Tennessee’s first attempt at online testing fizzled, 25 out of 140 Tennessee school districts have signed up to try again.

About 130 districts were eligible to test online this year.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Thursday the number is what she expected as districts prepare to administer the state’s TNReady assessment in April.

Although all districts will make the switch to online testing by 2019 for middle and high school students, they had the option to forge ahead this year with their oldest students.

The Department of Education is staggering its transition to online testing — a lesson learned last year when most of the state tried to do it all at once and the online platform buckled on the first day. As a result, the department fired its testing company, derailing the state’s assessment program, and later hired  Questar as its new test maker.

Districts piloted Questar’s online platform last fall, and had until Wednesday to decide whether to forge ahead with online testing for their high school students this spring or opt for paper-and-pencil tests.

McQueen announced the state’s new game plan for TNReady testing in January and said she is confident that the new platform will work.

While this year was optional for high schools, all high schools will participate in 2018. Middle and elementary schools will make the switch in 2019, though districts will have the option of administering the test on paper to its youngest students.

Districts opting in this spring are:

  • Alvin C. York Institute
  • Bedford County
  • Bledsoe County
  • Blount County
  • Bristol City
  • Campbell County
  • Cannon County
  • Cheatham County
  • Clay County
  • Cocke County
  • Coffee County
  • Cumberland County
  • Grundy County
  • Hamilton County
  • Hancock County
  • Knox County
  • Jackson-Madison County
  • Moore County
  • Morgan County
  • Putnam County
  • Scott County
  • Sullivan County
  • Trousdale County
  • Washington County
  • Williamson County