Testing Testing

Gates Foundation exec: Give students, teachers time on tests

Indiana state Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s argument that it is unfair to connect teacher evaluation to student test results during a transition to new state standards and tests is getting a boost from an unlikely source: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

A senior executive of the foundation dialed back its position on how standardized testing should be used in high stakes decisions for teachers and students on Tuesday. She was not speaking specifically about Indiana but the case she made mirrored some of what Ritz has said about ISTEP.

“The Gates Foundation agrees with those who’ve decided that assessment results should not be taken into account in high-stakes decisions on teacher evaluation or student promotion for the next two years,” Vicki Phillips wrote in a letter posted on the foundation’s website.

In the letter titled “Let’s Give Students and Teachers Time,” Phillips wrote, “A rushed effort to apply the assessments could punish teachers as they’re trying new things, and any hiccups in the assessments could be seen as flaws in the standards.”

Phillips is director of College Ready, a foundation initiative that seeks to increase the number of U.S. students ready for college or work by the time they leave high school.

The Gates Foundation has been at the epicenter of the debate over the Common Core Standards and over coming multistate tests. (For exhaustive details on that, see this recent Washington Post story, “How Bill Gates pulled off the swift Common Core revolution.”)

The letter hasn’t seemed to have drawn much attention yet, although American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten put out a news release applauding Phillips’ comments, repeating the view that “we have to de-link the high-stakes consequences of the tests from the standards’ implementation for now.”

Last week, Ritz proposed that the Indiana State Board of Education consider delaying accountability sanctions based on state test results for a year. She followed with a newspaper op-ed in which she said penalizing schools and teachers based on new tests and unfamiliar standards, and knowing the first year test scores under the new standards will likely go down from prior years, was unfair.

“I always have been a proponent for strong teacher and school accountability,” she wrote. “However, as we have seen historically in Indiana and across the nation, it is typical for student scores on standardized tests to dip as a result of new and more rigorous expectations, giving the appearance of a decline in achievement. In order for an accountability system to be strong and meaningful to parents and educators, it must also be fair and equitable. That is why we need to look at ways we can minimize the effect of a likely expected drop in performance.”
Ritz said her department is research how Indiana could delay accountability sanctions for a year and still comply with state law. At the same time she must convince officials of the U.S. Department of Education, who are pushing Indiana to move faster to implement the new standards and tests.

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