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.

 

year two

Tennessee high schoolers post higher test scores, but some subjects remain a struggle

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen presents 2017 high school test scores to the State Board of Education.

High school students in Tennessee saw their state test scores rise in 2017, the second year that a new test aligned to the Common Core standards were given in the state.

The increases were modest on average, but sharp for some of the students who have historically struggled most. Just one in five poor students scored at the lowest-level on the ninth-grade English exam, for example, compared to one in three last year.

But in most courses, especially in math, students continued to fall far below the state’s expectations. Even as the state estimates that 11,000 more students met the English proficiency bar this year, two thirds of students still fell below it. And in two advanced math courses, scores actually declined slightly.

The upward trajectory across most subjects puts Tennessee in line with other states that have seen their scores plummet in the first year of new exams, but then rise incrementally afterwards as students and teachers adjust to tougher standards.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen touted the results Thursday during a brief presentation to the State Board of Education in Nashville.

“These results are encouraging because they show that we’re on the right track,” McQueen said. “As we have moved our standards forward, our teachers and students are meeting those expectations.”

She singled out improvements with historically underserved groups, particularly students with disabilities, and a reduction in the percentage of students performing at the lowest achievement level.

“This positive movement is showing we are taking seriously the work we’re doing with all of our student groups,” McQueen said.

High schoolers scored best on their science exams, which was expected since Tennessee has not yet switched to more rigorous science standards. Those standards will reach classrooms in the fall of 2018.

The statewide scores are the first batch to be released. District- and school-level high school scores come next in August, while results for students in grades 3-8 are due out this fall. Grades 3-8 took TNReady for the first time last school year after their 2016 exams were scuttled amid technical failures.

 

previewing TNReady

Why Tennessee’s high school test scores, out this week, matter more — and less — than usual

PHOTO: Nic Garcia

When scores dropped last year for most Tennessee high school students under a new state test, leaders spoke of “setting a new baseline” under a harder assessment aligned to more rigorous standards.

This week, Tennesseans will see if last year’s scores — in which nearly three-quarters of high schoolers performed below grade level — was in fact just a reset moment.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has scheduled a press conference for Thursday morning to release the highly anticipated second year of high school scores under TNReady, which replaced the state’s TCAP tests in 2015-16. (Students in grades 3-8 will get TNReady scores for the first time this fall; last year, their tests were canceled because of a series of testing failures.)

Here’s what you need to know about this week’s data dump, which will focus on statewide scores.

1. Last year’s low scores weren’t a big surprise.

Not only was it the first time Tennessee students took TNReady, it also was the first time that they were being tested on new academic standards in math and language arts known as the Common Core, which reached Tennessee classrooms in 2012.

Other states that switched to Common Core-aligned exams also saw their scores plummet. In New York, for example, the proportion of students who scored proficient or higher in reading dropped precipitously in 2013 during the first year of a new test for grades 3-8.

McQueen sought last year to prepare Tennessee for the same experience. After all, she said, the state was moving away from a multiple-choice test to one that challenges students’ higher-order thinking skills. Plus, while Tennessee students had been posting strong scores on the state’s own exam, they had struggled on national tests such as the ACT, raising questions about whether the previous state test was a good measure of students’ skills.

“We expected scores to be lower in the first year of a more rigorous assessment,” McQueen said after only 21 percent of high school students scored on or above grade level in math, while 30 percent tested ready in English and reading.

2. It’s expected that this year’s scores will rise … and it will be a bad sign if they don’t.

Over and over, state officials assured Tennesseans that 2016 was just the start.

“[We] expect that scores will rebound over time as all students grow to meet these higher expectations — just as we have seen in the past,” McQueen said.

She was referring to the state’s shift to Diploma Standards in 2009, when passing rates on end-of-course tests dropped by almost half. But in subsequent years, those scores rose steadily in a “sawtooth pattern” that has been documented over and over when states adopt new assessments and students and teachers grow accustomed to them.

That includes New York, where after the worrisome results in 2013, the percentage of students passing started inching up the following year, especially in math.

In Tennessee, this year’s high school scores will provide the first significant data point in establishing whether the state is on the same track. Higher scores would put the state on an upward trajectory, and suggest that students are increasingly proficient in the skills that the test is measuring. Scores that remain flat or go down would raise questions about whether teachers and students are adjusting to more rigorous standards.

3. There’s lots more scores to come.

This week’s statewide high school scores will kick off a cascade of other TNReady results that will be released in the weeks and months ahead.

Next comes district- and school-level high school scores, which will be shared first with school systems before being released to the public. That’s likely to happen in August.

In the fall, Tennessee will release its scores for students in grades 3-8, who took TNReady for the first time this year after the 2016 testing debacle. While testing went better this year, the state’s new testing company needed extra time to score the exams, because additional work goes into setting “cut scores” each time a new test is given.

A group of educators just concluded the process of reviewing the test data to recommend what scores should fall into the state’s four new categories for measuring performance: below grade level, approaching grade level, on grade level, or mastered. The State Board of Education will review and vote on those recommendations next month.

4. This year’s scores are lower stakes than usual, but that probably won’t last.

For years, Tennessee has been a leader in using test scores to judge students, teachers, and schools. Like most states, it uses the data to determine which schools are so low-performing that they should be closed or otherwise overhauled. It also crunches scores through a complicated “value-added” algorithm designed to assess how much learning that teachers contribute to their students — an approach that it has mostly stuck with as value-added measures have fallen out of favor across the nation. And unusually, the state exam scores are also supposed to factor into final student grades, this year counting for 10 percent.

But the rocky road to the new tests has temporarily diminished how much the scores count. Because preliminary scores arrived late this spring, most districts opted to grade students on the basis of their schoolwork alone.

And because of the testing transition, the scores won’t be given as much weight in this year’s teacher evaluations — an adjustment that lawmakers made to alleviate anxiety about the changes. Test scores will contribute only 10 percent to teachers’ ratings. Depending on the subject, that proportion is supposed to rise to between 15 and 25 percent by 2018-19.