Testing Testing

Could Indiana junk ISTEP for a national test?

PHOTO: Shannan Muskopf via Flickr

Indiana lawmakers and educators Wednesday praised the idea of replacing ISTEP with a national “off-the-shelf” test in the Senate Education Committee.

Senate Bill 566, authored by Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, and Sen. Ryan Mishler, R-Bremen, would halt an effort to create a new ISTEP, instead directing the state to use a national test beginning in the 2016-17 school year. It also would eliminate high school end-of-course exams, starting in 2015-16, and the state’s third-grade reading test, IREAD. Under the bill, the state’s new testing program would be called BEST — benchmarking excellence student testing.

Kenley said the idea to scrap an effort underway at the Indiana Department of Education to forge a contract for a testing company to create a new generation of state tests raised cost concerns when state Superintendent Glenda Ritz presented her budget to the State Budget Committee in December. The proposal said writing new state tests could cost roughly $65 million — about $30 million more than it has in recent years.

“Do we have to give so many tests and does it have to cost this much?” Kenley said. “And instead of having one special test, the Indiana test, can’t we take some off-the-rack test and just give it to everybody, and wouldn’t it cost less money?”

The department is awaiting testing company proposals to make Indiana’s new 2015-16 tests. The rewrite of the tests is intended to more strongly connect the exams to the state’s new more rigorous academic standards. ISTEP is a currently created by California-based CTB/McGraw-Hill.

Indiana had been on a plan to adopt Common Core standards, which were shared by 45 other states, and use a exam created by some of those states designed to determine if students had learned the content covered by Common Core as Indiana’s state test.

But after a backlash against Common Core, viewed by some critics as giving too much control over the state’s education system to policymakers outside of Indiana, the state backed out of both the standards and the idea of sharing a test with other states.

Gov. Mike Pence ordered Indiana to withdraw from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, which was crafting the shared test. Then last year, a Republican-led effort, supported by Kenley, voided Indiana’s adopton of Common Core standards, leading to a fast-tracked creation and adoption of new academic standards that went into effect last summer.

But on Wednesday, Kenley said he favors using a national test now, perhaps even one originally designed for Common Core. Everyone needs to use some common sense in this situation, he said.

“We’re trying to streamline the testing systems, and we’re trying to reduce the time of testing,” Kenley said. “If you have the testing program that works the way you want it to, then you should be willing to go back and have your standards fit what you think is an appropriate test.”

Mishler said one option Indiana would have is a test by the Northwest Evaluation Association that many schools already use to gather information about student progress in preparation for ISTEP. It could be modified slightly and could replace ISTEP, end-of-course exams and IREAD all in one, depending on whether the test is given to grades 3-8 or 3-10, Kenley said.

John Barnes, a spokesman for Ritz and the education department, backed the bill.

“It could very well be that we could adapt already existing tests,” Barnes said. “The big issue has been that since the legislation that was passed here said we needed to come up with an Indiana-specific, Indiana-designed to test to meet our Indiana-specific standards, that became our challenge. The idea here might very well be to adopt something that is more off-the-shelf and come up with a way to make that work for us.”

The bill is scheduled to go before the committee for a vote next week.

test prep

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

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Starting this 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.