Testing Testing

Ritz tells budget makers new state tests could cost much more

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
State Superintendent Glenda Ritz presents budget requests to the State Budget Committee on Thursday.

Indiana’s move to create new state test to connect to its new academic standards — rather than follow Common Core standards and cheaper tests developed by other states to go with them — could be costly.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz told a state budget committee today that her estimate for the annual cost of the new state tests being developed for 2015-16 is $65 million, a nearly 45 percent jump from annual cost in the last state budget.

That raised alarm for Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, the chairman of the budget-making Senate Finance Committee.

“I keep wondering if we keep making it too hard and too expensive on ourselves,” he said.

The Indiana Department of Education won’t know the exact cost of the new tests until it finishes processing proposals from testing companies and selects one of them to create the new exam. The new tests will be more challenging than the current ISTEP, with more advanced material and computer-aided questions that require students to demonstrate how they got their answers using online tools.

Before 2014, Indiana was on track to use Common Core standards along with 45 other states. Two consortia of those states also developed tests to evaluate students based on Common Core standards. But earlier a Republican-led effort blocked further implementation of Common Core and a bill passed by the legislature ordered the creation of new Indiana-specific standards instead.

Kenley was among Republican leaders who voted against Common Core. Under the state’s prior contract with CTB/McGraw-Hill, ISTEP cost about $45 million annually.

“We are developing our own questions in the state of Indiana as we have always done,” said Ritz, the only Democrat holding statewide office in Indiana. “What we’re going through now is the (request for proposal) process, and so vendors clearly understand that they are aligning Indiana college- and career-ready standards to an assessment.”

Kenley and Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, asked Ritz if any standardized tests could be cut from the list of those currently given and what other measures could be taken to reduce testing costs. Kenley said perhaps a national standardized test that isn’t necessarily owned by and written expressly for Indiana might be cheaper.

“I’m trying to figure out if the General Assembly will have time to weigh in on this,” Kenley said. “I’m a little worried about that.”

For the 2015-16 school year, Ritz said, a completely new group of state accountability tests will be written. She said there are plans for a test for grades 3 through 10, high school English and Algebra 1 tests and an end-of-high school test. Ritz said the state is in the process of receiving bids from new vendors to write those tests, which must be presented to the budget committee for review before the State Board of Education can officially approve them.

Kenley asked Ritz during their exchange whether she was in favor of more or less testing.

“Well we always need less tests is my perspective,” Ritz replied. “But we want to be sure that we have an assessment system that actually informs learning and teaching.”

During the presentation, Ritz also asked that the committee consider adding the State Board of Education budget back into the budget for the Department of Education, given Gov. Mike Pence’s recent dissolution of his Center for Education and Career Innovation.

She told Kenley the department wouldn’t need the entire $2.9 million currently being spent to run the board.

“Historically it’s always been there, and it would amount to increased accountability and efficiency in running the State Board of Education operations,” Ritz said. “I really feel that that budget should come back to the Department of Education.”

Ritz has also called for a 3 percent increase over the next two years for school operation costs, such as hiring teachers and buying classroom materials. Ritz said the additional funding would address shortfalls in districts that struggle to support growing numbers of poor students.

“We are at 22 percent poverty with our children,” Ritz said. “Our children have basic needs that are not being met when they come to our schools.”

test prep

To test or not to test? That’s the question families face as students head into state exams next week

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Starting next week, thousands of New York City students in grades 3-8 will sit for the state’s controversial standardized tests — a gauge of student progress that has become an educational lightning rod in recent years.

Across the state, parents have been opting their students out of the tests in record numbers to protest what they say is an educational culture too focused on test preparation. Statewide, the percentage of students opting out was 21 percent last year, while the city’s rate was much lower at less than 3 percent refusing to sit for exams, an uptick from the year before.

Testing protests contributed to a larger sea change in education policy, including the state’s decision to revise the Common Core learning standards and stop using grades 3-8 math and English test scores in teacher evaluations. Officials also made some changes to the tests last year, including shortening them and providing students with unlimited time.

So what’s new this year? State Education Department officials announced this November they would not make significant changes to exams this year in order to allow for stable year-over-year comparisons.

Some supporters of opt-out, including the chair of the City Council’s education committee, Daniel Dromm, are pushing for families to know their rights about refusing the test. The state education commissioner has said parents need to make their own choices on the matter.

“It’s up to parents to decide if their children should take the tests,” State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said in a statement. “We want them to have the all the facts so they can make an informed decision.”

Here’s what you need to know as students start taking English exams on Tuesday.

How much do state tests matter — and what are they used for?

  • They matter less than they once did, but Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has cited test scores as one of many factors the city uses to determine whether a school should close.
  • State policymakers have decided that grades 3-8 math and English exam scores will no longer count in teacher evaluations.
  • Meanwhile, the city has reduced the tests’ influence on school ratings and decisions about whether students move on to the next grade.
  • The state is is currently deciding how test scores will be used to judge schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act, a new federal education law. There is no official plan yet, but early signs indicate policymakers want to use much more than just state test scores.

Why are state tests so controversial?

  • When the state adopted new Common Core-aligned standards, the tests became more difficult to pass, just as the stakes for teachers and schools grew.
  • The state began tying teacher evaluations to test scores.
  • Critics argue teachers have been forced to narrow their curriculum to focus on test preparation.
  • Many teachers are frustrated by the continued emphasis on testing. Others see the tests as helpful to gauging student progress.

What has the state changed in recent years?

  • The tests were slightly shorter last year.
  • Students were also allotted unlimited time to complete them last year — a change meant to reduce student stress.
  • State test scores in English leapt after last year’s changes. Elia said that meant the scores could not be compared “apples-to-apples” to the year before, but city officials still celebrated the scores with little mention of the changes.
  • That led some to ask, how should we use the scores? And what does it mean for evaluating struggling schools?
  • Since 2015, a greater number of teachers have been involved in reviewing test questions, state officials said.
  • In November, state officials announced they did not plan to make significant changes to the tests this year. (First, they announced they would keep the tests stable for two years, but then backed off that decision the next day.)

What’s up with the opt-out movement?

  • Last year, opt-out percentages were 21 percent statewide, fairly flat from the year before.
  • Though much smaller, the number of families sitting out of exams in New York City did increase substantially. In 2016, 2.4 percent of city students sat out the English exams — a 71 percent jump over 2015. And 2.76 percent opted out of math, a 53 percent spike.
  • Statewide, opt-out students in 2015 were more likely to be white and less likely to be poor, and liberal areas in Brooklyn and Manhattan saw the city’s highest opt-out numbers.
  • Leaders of the the opt-out movement want to broaden their approach to state politics. Nationally, a recent study found that many members of the movement aren’t parents at all, but teachers and education advocates.
  • Despite the changes enacted last year, opt-out advocates aren’t satisfied. They still want substantially shorter tests with no consequences for schools, teachers or students.
  • A federal mandate says 95 percent of students must take state tests, but New York state officials indicated last year they did not plan to withhold funding for schools or districts that break that rule. Elia reiterated that point to Chalkbeat at a recent Board of Regents meeting, saying she has no desire to do so now or in the future.

more tweaks

For third straight year, TNReady prompts Tennessee to adjust teacher evaluation formula

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced last April that she was suspending TNReady testing for grades 3-8 for the 2015-16 school year. Now, her department is asking lawmakers to make more adjustments to the weight of student test scores in Tennessee's teacher evaluation formula.

First, Tennessee asked lawmakers to make temporary changes to its teacher evaluations in anticipation of switching to a new test, called TNReady.

Then, TNReady’s online platform failed, and the state asked lawmakers to tweak the formula once more.

Now, the State Department of Education is asking for another change in response to last year’s test cancellation, which occurred shortly after the legislative session concluded.

Under a proposal scheduled for consideration next Monday by the full House, student growth from TNReady would count for only 10 percent of teachers’ evaluation scores and 20 percent next school year. That’s compared to the 35 to 50 percent, depending on the subject, that test scores counted in 2014-15 before the state switched to its more rigorous test.

The bill, carried by Rep. Eddie Smith of Knoxville, is meant to address teachers’ concerns about being evaluated by a brand new test.

Because testing was cancelled for grades 3-8 last spring, many students are taking the new test this year for the first time.

“If we didn’t have this phase-in … there wouldn’t be a relief period for teachers,” said Elizabeth Fiveash, assistant commissioner of policy. “We are trying to acknowledge that we’re moving to a new assessment and a new type of assessment.”

The proposal also mandates that TNReady scores count for only 10 percent of student grades this year, and for 15 to 25 percent by 2018-19.

The Tennessee Education Association has advocated to scrap student test scores from teacher evaluations altogether, but its lobbyist, Jim Wrye, told lawmakers on Tuesday that the organization appreciates slowing the process yet again.

“We think that limiting it to 10 percent this year is a wise policy,” he said.

To incorporate test scores into teacher evaluations, Tennessee uses TVAAS, a formula that’s supposed to show how much teachers contributed to individual student growth. TVAAS, which is short for the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, was designed to be based on three years of testing. Last year’s testing cancellation, though, means many teachers will be scored on only two years of data, a sore point for the TEA.

“Now we have a missing link in that data,” Wrye said. “We are very keenly interested in seeing what kind of TVAAS scores that are generated from this remarkable experience.”

Although TVAAS, in theory, measures a student’s growth, it really measures how a student does relative to his or her peers. The state examines how students who have scored at the same levels on prior assessments perform on the latest test. Students are expected to perform about as well on TNReady as their peers with comparable prior achievement in previous years. If they perform better, they will positively impact their teacher’s score.

Using test scores to measure teachers’ growth has been the source of other debates around evaluations.

Historically, teachers of non-tested subjects such as physical education or art have been graded in part by schoolwide test scores. The House recently passed a bill that would require the state to develop other ways to measure growth for those teachers, and it is now awaiting passage by the Senate.