Testing Testing

Indiana dumps CTB-McGraw Hill, picks Pearson to create future ISTEP

PHOTO: Shannan Muskopf via Flickr
State officials are closing as many 38 Michigan schools with low rankings due to test scores but they might have trouble finding higher scoring schools nearby

Indiana appears ready to ditch the company that creates ISTEP after years of testing problems, but the cost of delivering Indiana’s state tests could go way up if it does.

British-owned Pearson, another giant testing company, won the state’s bid for a $38 million two-year contract to give the ISTEP test starting next spring over CTB-McGraw Hill, according to awards released today by the Indiana Department of Administration. California-based CTB-McGraw Hill has created ISTEP since the test’s inception in 2009. The company had a four-year, $95 million contract to create ISTEP that expired last year.

But state lawmakers are already casting doubts on whether they will approve the big spike in spending the contracts would require. So it’s not yet a done deal.

Awards to five other companies would push the price tag for Indiana’s testing system to $133.8 million for the next two years. CTB-McGraw Hill, which has been under fire for repeated testing problems over the past four years, was awarded $68 million to continue creating practice tests school districts use to prepare for state exams.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz slammed the cost of the bids in a statement, which she said her department did not control.

“When I ran for this office, I ran on a platform that included less testing for our students,” Ritz said in a statement. “However, Indiana’s procurement process is modeled to comply with state and federal mandates that require a continuation of assessments that we have been administering to our students.  The Department of Education learned of the awards and the astronomical costs of the assessments after this process had been completed.”

Shelley Triol, a spokeswoman for the department of administration, said her department monitors and carries out the contract proposal process on behalf of the education department and state board of education, but it isn’t involved in budget negotiations. The contracts are not yet final, she said, and budget issues have to be hashed out between the test companies and the department of education.

“For (requests for proposal) conducted or administered by IDOA on behalf of other agencies, IDOA has no part in the budgetary process,” Triol said in an email. “All budgetary issues are dealt with directly by the agency that will ultimately enter into the contract(s) that may result from the (proposal) process.”

Lawmakers, including state Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, have been asking if Indiana should scrap ISTEP altogether in favor of a national “off-the-shelf” test like one from the Northwest Evaluation Association or a well-known exam like the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. Senate Bill 566, which Kenley authored, would do just that. The bill passed the Senate 46-3 last month and is expected to be considered by the House soon.

The current state budget proposal, passed last month by the House, does not include the extra money needed to pay for the contracts that were awarded. It allocates the same amount of money for testing as the state is spending now. The Senate began to debate the budget this week.

Kenley, who heads the budget-making Senate Appropriations Committee, said he thinks this creates the perfect opportunity for Ritz, the education department, lawmakers and the Indiana State Board of Education to continue discussions about his bill and creating a more streamlined, cheaper test that’s better for students and teachers.

“I think that getting the results of the (requests for proposals) and looking at the price tags is a helpful step in motivating everybody … to try to sit down and work on this thing, to get a resolution out that everybody gets comfortable with what we think will be beneficial for the students and for the teachers in the state,” Kenley said.

The education department, he said, is scheduled to present its budget proposal to the Senate Appropriations Committee on March 19. If the cost for testing remains as high as it is, Kenley said he’s not inclined to move the department’s proposal forward. The State Budget Committee, which will meet separately later on this year, must also review the test contracts.

That could throw the state’s entire plan to convert to a new state exam next year off course and raise several hard questions about whether a cheaper test could still meet all the requirements of state and federal law that the bidding companies were asked to meet.

Ritz was not available for interviews, but in her statement she seemed to endorse the idea that cost-saving alternatives should be explored.

“I strongly believe that Indiana needs a streamlined system of assessments that come at a reasonable cost to taxpayers,” she said in the statement. “I look forward to working with Indiana’s policymakers toward that outcome.”

Last month, news of a potentially 12-hour long ISTEP test sent policymakers into a panic. Part of the reason the test was projected to be so lengthy was because the department needed to add questions that did not count this year but that were being tried out for the 2015-16 test.

After a week of heated back-and-forth between Ritz’s department and Gov. Mike Pence’s office, a deal was struck to fast-track a bill that shortened the test by three hours.

Indiana State Board of Education member Sarah O’Brien said in a statement the board also wants more discussion about what the future state testing system should look like.

“The State Board of Education will take a very close look in the coming months at the proposed testing contracts in terms of overall scope and cost,” the statement said. “Hoosier taxpayers and parents can be assured the Board will not authorize any assessment that results in excessive testing time for our children or spends more tax dollars than is necessary to meet state and federal education requirements.”

CTB-McGraw Hill spokesman Brian Belardi said the company declined to comment. A representative from Pearson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Since 2011 CTB-McGraw Hill has had repeated problems with ISTEP.

The biggest incident came in April of 2013, about 78,000 Indiana students taking ISTEP experienced interruptions over the course of several days, or about 16 percent of all test takers online. It was the third consecutive year that online ISTEP had such troubles. In 2011, about 10,000 students had problem and in 2012, it was 9,000 students with online trouble.

Last August CTB-McGraw Hill reached a $3 million settlement with the state over problems on the 2013 exam. The company has had similar problems in other states including Oklahoma, which canceled its contract last July.

Here is a complete list of companies that were awarded potential two-year contracts to create test for Indiana:

  • Pearson would create ISTEP for just over $38 million and IREAD-3, Indiana’s third-grade reading test, for almost $7 million.
  • Questar Assessment would create the high school end-of-course exams for about $7.5 million and the alternate assessment for students with special needs for about $5 million.
  • College Board, which writes the SAT and Advanced Placement tests, would create a graduation exam for $10.7 million and an exam that would determine whether students are ready for college or jobs for $624,381.
  • Amplify, a New York City-based company, would write practice English tests for Kindergarten through second grade for a little more than $3 million.
  • Strategic Measurement and Evaluation, an Indiana-based company affiliated with Questar, would create practice math tests for Kindergarteners through second-graders for about $900,000.
  • McGraw-Hill would create practice tests in science, for kindergarten to second grade, for about $7 million; practice tests in social studies, for kindergarten to second grade, for about $7 million; practice English tests, grades 3 to 10, for almost $13 million; practice math tests, grades 3 to 10, for a little more than $11 million; practice science tests, grades 3 to 10, for a little more than $11 million; and practice social studies tests, grades 3 to 10, for a little more than $11 million.

 

Making the grade

TNReady scores are about to go out to Tennessee districts, but not all will make student report cards

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Photo Illustration

The State Department of Education will start Monday to distribute the test score data that goes into students’ final report cards, but it won’t arrive in time for every district across the state.

That’s because some districts already have ended their school years, some won’t have time to incorporate TNReady grades before dismissing their students, and some missed the state’s first deadline for turning in testing materials.

“Our timelines for sharing TNReady scores are on track,” spokeswoman Sara Gast said Friday, noting that the schedule was announced last fall. “We have said publicly that districts will receive raw score data back in late May.”

Shelby County Schools is waiting to see when their scores arrive before making a decision. A spokeswoman said Tennessee’s largest district met all testing deadlines, and needs the scores by Monday to tabulate them into final grades. The district’s last day of school is next Friday.

School leaders in Nashville and Kingsport already have chosen to exclude the data from final grades, while Williamson County Schools is delaying their report cards.

A 2015 state law lets districts opt to exclude the data if scores aren’t received at least five instructional days before the end of the school year.

TNReady scores are supposed to count for 10 percent of this year’s final grades. As part of the transition to TNReady, the weight gradually will rise to between 15 and 25 percent (districts have flexibility) as students and teachers become more familiar with the new test.

The first wave of scores are being sent just weeks after Education Commissioner Candice McQueen declared this year’s testing a “success,” both on paper and online for the 24 districts that opted to test high school students online this year. Last year, Tennessee had a string of TNReady challenges in the test’s inaugural year. After the online platform failed and numerous delivery delays of printed testing materials, McQueen canceled testing in grades 3-8 and fired its previous test maker, Measurement Inc.

Tennessee test scores have been tied to student grades since 2011, but this is the first year that the state used a three-week testing window instead of two. Gast said the added time was to give districts more flexibility to administer their tests. But even with the added week, this year’s timeline was consistent with past years, she said.

Once testing ended on May 5, school districts had five days to meet the first deadline, which was on May 10, to return those materials over to Questar, the state’s new Minneapolis-based testing company.

School officials in Nashville said that wasn’t enough time.

“Due to the volume of test documents and test booklets that we have to account for and process before return for scoring, our materials could not be picked up before May 12,” the district said in a statement on Thursday.

Because districts turned in their testing materials at different times, the release of raw scores, will also be staggered across the next three weeks, Gast said.  

School Politics

Colorado schools were a hot topic at the state Capitol this year. Here’s what lawmakers did.

A teacher reads to her students at the Cole Arts and Science Academy in Denver. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado lawmakers this week are celebrating major education-related policy wins, including finding more money for public schools.

This year’s legislative session, which ended Wednesday, was marked by big compromises on issues that have befuddled policy makers for years: charter school funding, ninth-grade standardized testing and measuring the reading skills of the state’s youngest bilingual students.

With so many thorny debates behind them, lawmakers and Capitol observers are now looking toward other major policy questions they’ve put off for years, including reforming how the state pays for its public schools and making changes to Colorado’s school accountability laws and teacher licensure policies.

“The hope is now that the K-12 community can come together to focus on the big issues,” said Jen Walmer, Colorado state director of Democrats for Education Reform.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s look back at the last 120 days:

Lawmakers found more money for schools than anyone could have imagined.

Before the legislative session began, school districts were preparing for the worst. Despite the state’s booming economy, constraints on how much the state could spend meant schools could have gone without much of a funding increase.

State Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Republican from Sterling, on the first day of the legislative session.

The forecast became even more dire midway through the session when lawmakers learned the local tax base that generates about a third of all state spending on schools was going to shrink drastically. The worst predictions had the state’s education funding shortfall growing to more than $1 billion.

State officials found a technical workaround, and lawmakers were able to send more money to schools. On average, schools will see about $242 more per student next year.

However, leaders in both parties are aware that the state’s problematic constitutional constraints, tax policies and school funding formula still exist. That’s why a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers led a successful effort to create a committee to study and propose changes to the way the state funds it schools.

“We have more work to do. We need to continue with what we’ve done this session: have tough conversations,” said Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat.

“How do we make sure that students, regardless of race, income, regardless of whether they have a disability, that they have the opportunity to succeed?” she said. “There is no doubt that we have structural decisions we have to make when it comes to our budget.”

Republican leaders said they’re also anxious to see the committee get to work. But they’re less likely to support an influx of cash to the state’s schools.

“If we’re going to look at real overhauls to the system and funding, we need to look at all the options — not just throwing more money at the system — a system that by many’s accounting is not working well or efficiently,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Canon City Republican.

He and other Republicans are encouraging the committee to look at how other states have focused their funding formulas on students rather than on a school’s size or geographic location, and used funding to expand school choice.

Lawmakers already have one option on the table: A proposal to set a statewide property tax rate, which was born out of the legislature’s budget office and floated early in the session. While there was a lot of talk behind the scenes, it failed to gain traction. Expect to hear a lot more about the idea.

The charter school funding compromise, which some called “historic,” was just one of many longstanding issues that were resolved this year.

The 2017 legislative session will likely be remembered as the most productive in a decade because of several big compromises.

State Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, sits alone on the House of Representatives floor as members of her own party filibustered her compromise on charter school funding. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Lawmakers grinned Thursday as they ticked off a long list of accomplishments to reporters, including one that could send more local money to charter schools. In return, charter schools will be required to post on their official websites more tax documents and will no longer receive two specific financial waivers.

The last-minute charter school funding bill — sponsored by a bipartisan group of lawmakers that included state Reps. Brittany Pettersen and Lang Sias and state Sens. Owen Hill and Angela Williams — was the compromise no one saw coming.

“Anything is possible,” Pettersen said after the session.

Lawmakers had wrestled with the question of requiring the state’s school districts to share their locally approved tax increases with charter schools for two years. Despite vocal objections from several school superintendents, the legislature overwhelmingly supported the bill.

Early in the session, lawmakers eager to reduce the number of standardized tests reached another compromise with the governor’s office. High school freshmen will no longer be required to take the controversial PARCC English and math tests. Instead, they’ll take a test that is aligned to the college entrance exam, the SAT.

We kicked the PARCC test out of high schools,” said Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican. “It’s gone!”

Other deals that were reached include the creation of a diploma seal of biliteracy for students who demonstrate proficiency in two languages and new regulations on how to monitor the reading skills of young English language learners.

Colorado schools will also see a financial boost for the next three years after lawmakers passed an omnibus bill that resolved a debate over a hospital fee that helps pay for the state’s health insurance program.

As part of the biggest compromise of the year, the state will raise taxes on recreational marijuana. Those taxes will send $30 million to rural schools next year and $40 million over two years to the state education fund, a sort of savings account for schools.

Rural schools flexed their muscles and blocked a bill to reform the state’s student suspension rules, but they didn’t get everything they wanted.

Not every piece of bipartisan legislation reached the governor’s desk.

Students at Merino Elementary School work during class.

A bill that aimed to reduce the number of preschool and elementary school students who are suspended was killed by a GOP-controlled committee at the request of rural schools, despite having overwhelming support from both Democrats and Republicans.

Rural school leaders said the bill attempted to create a statewide solution for a Front Range problem. A Chalkbeat analysis of suspension data, which rural superintendents refuted, showed otherwise.

Supporters of the legislation vowed to work with opponents this summer and fall and try again next year.

While rural schools were successful in blocking that mandate, they were dealt a setback when a bill that would have allowed them to remedy a teacher shortage by hiring unlicensed teachers was killed by its sponsors.

State Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican, said he couldn’t garner enough support for his effort. At least not this year.

“Like Arnold Schwarzenegger said, ‘I’ll be back,’” Wilson said.

Even though that bill failed, lawmakers did take steps to curb the state’s teacher shortage.

Stanley Teacher Prep resident Lily Wool works with kindergartner Samori McIntosh at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. Wood’s residency program is merging the Boettcher Teacher Residency program. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Prior to the session, education leaders at the Capitol had few if any plans to take on the state’s teacher shortage. But retired teacher and freshman state Rep. Barbara McLachlan pushed to address the issue.

The Durango Democrat partnered with a host of other lawmakers from both parties to sponsor legislation to study the shortage and provide solutions. She also sponsored a bill that would allow rural schools to hire retired teachers without penalizing their pension. Both bills were sent to the governor.

Two other bills, including one to create multiple teacher preparation pilot programs, failed to advance. But with the issue on the legislature’s radar, expect it to come back.

“That’s the most pressing issue, next to funding,” said state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat.

Despite newfound freedom from Washington, lawmakers didn’t make any bold changes to the state’s school accountability system.

Several lawmakers early in the session seemed eager to take advantage of new flexibility from the federal government.

While the state education department was busy putting together a mandated statewide plan to adopt the new Every Student Succeeds Act, lawmakers were debating how they could update the state’s school accountability laws.

But only two bills making minor tweaks advanced.

A HOPE Online student works during the day at an Aurora learning center. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

One requires elementary schools that receive low quality ratings to address the needs of students in preschool through third grade.

The second bill requires the state to measure how well high school students are meeting updated graduation requirements. As part of the new requirements, which go into effect in the year 2021, high schools must adopt a list of options students can use to prove they’re prepared for college or a career.

Those options include the SAT exam, which all Colorado juniors are required to take; passing a concurrent enrollment college-level course; passing a Advanced Placement test; or completing a college thesis-like capstone project demonstrating knowledge of a subject.

“This bill is a really clever way to allow school districts to say, ‘This is what we care about, and this how we’re going to do it,’” said Luke Ragland, president of Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform group.

Some of the most anticipated school-accountability bills of the session never materialized.

One would have provided more clarity on what happens to schools that consistently receive low quality ratings from the state.

“This was a big undertaking, and the bill’s sponsors needed more time,” Ragland said.

It’s another issue Capitol-watchers can expect to see return next year.

As Ragland put it, “The lack of clarity at the end of the state’s accountability clock is bad for everyone.”