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.”

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.

 

deja vu

Last year, Ritz’s computer-based testing plan was largely dismissed. Today, McCormick adopted part of it as her own.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Glenda Ritz and Jennifer McCormick debated in Fort Wayne during the 2016 campaign this past fall.

Although she wasn’t on board with former-state Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s entire testing plan during last year’s campaign, current Indiana schools chief Jennifer McCormick today expressed support for a computer-based test format Ritz lobbied hard for during her last year in office.

These “computer-adaptive” exams adjust the difficulty-level of questions as kids get right or wrong answers. McCormick explained the format to lawmakers today when she testified on the “ILEARN” proposal that could replace the state’s unpopular ISTEP exam if it becomes law.

Computer-adaptive technology, she said, allows tests to be more tailored around the student. Test experts who spoke to Indiana policymakers this past summer have said the tests also generally take less time than “fixed-form” tests like the current ISTEP and could result in quicker turnaround of results.

During the summer, members of a state commission charged with figuring out what Indiana’s new testing system could look like largely argued against this testing format, including the bill’s author, Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis. At the time, he said he was concerned about investing in a technology-heavy plan when much of the state struggles to get reliable internet and computer access. Today, Behning didn’t speak against the concept.

Overall, McCormick was supportive of House Bill 1003, but she pointed out a few areas that she’d like to see altered. More than anything, she seemed adamant that Indiana get out of the test-writing business, which has caused Hoosiers years of ISTEP-related headaches.

Read: Getting rid of Indiana’s ISTEP test: What might come next and at what cost

“Indiana has had many years to prove we are not good test-builders,” McCormick told the Senate Education Committee today. “To continue down that path, I feel, is not very responsible.”

The proposed testing system comes primarily from the recommendations of the state commission. The biggest changes would be structural: The bill would have the test given in one block of time at the end of year rather than in the winter and spring. The state would go back to requiring end-of-course assessments in high school English, Algebra I and science.

The bill doesn’t spell out if the test must be Indiana-specific or off-the-shelf, and McCormick suggested the state buy questions from existing vendors for the computer-adaptive test for grades 3-8, which would have to be aligned with state standards.

For high school, McCormick reiterated her support for using the SAT and suggested making the proposal’s end-of-course assessments optional.

The ILEARN plan, if passed into law, would be given for the first time in 2019.

“Spring of 2019 is a more realistic timeline no matter how painful it is for all of us.” McCormick said. “We could do it for (2018), but it might not be pretty. We tried that before as a state, and we couldn’t get it right.”

You can find all of Chalkbeat’s testing coverage here.