Testing Testing

Senate panel restores ISTEP replacement plan by killing 'Freedom to teach' bill

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

The Senate Appropriations Committee today revived a plan to replace ISTEP with an “off-the-shelf” test by dismantling another bill central to Gov. Mike Pence’s legislative agenda.

Committee chairman Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, amended House Bill 1009 by removing all its current provisions and adding in his original language from Senate Bill 566, which would derail current plans to create an Indiana-specific state test and instead adopt one used in other states, such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills or one by the Northwest Evaluation Association.

This gives Kenley one more shot to get his bill considered by the House. Senate Bill 566 was overhauled in the House Education Committee earlier this week, when lawmakers voted to send discussions about replacing ISTEP to a summer committee to study it further and added language that union leaders said could diminish their influence and ability to serve their members.

House Bill 1009, known as the “Freedom to Teach” bill, would create special schools, school districts or zones of schools so educators can try new teaching strategies. As Pence outlined in a December speech, the idea would be to reward high-performing teachers for using innovative techniques that might raise test scores. Discussions about those concepts can continue when the House and Senate meet later in the session to iron out issues in bills, Kenley said.

The ideas in the House’s bill about teacher compensation and local freedom for teachers were good ones, Kenley said, and they aligned with provisions in the original Senate Bill 566.

“The thought occurred to me that 566 is aimed at the same objectives, and was a little more direct and a little more clear in its objectives,” Kenley said. “We didn’t feel we had time to fairly go through 1009 and edit it to be a better bill.”

This session has seen intense debates about the state’s testing program, with the Indiana State Board of Education, lawmakers and the Indiana Department of Education all weighing in.

State board member Andrea Neal urged the board Tuesday to take action to stop the state’s test-writing process based on allegations that British-based Pearson, awarded a bid by the state to write next year’s test, broke state law when it pursued the contract. But Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, said this legislature had no place interfering in contract bids — that’s up the Indiana Department of Administration, which is under the authority of the governor.

The state board voted last week to pass a resolution outlining what next year’s ISTEP could look like over protests from state Superintendent Glenda Ritz and Neal. Ritz’s proposed test looked different from what the board put forward, getting rid of the state’s third-grade reading test and adding in ISTEP tests for ninth-graders. Neal recommended the board wait to make decisions until they knew what testing legislation would be passed.

The amendment to House Bill 1009 passed the committee 12-0. No other bills currently being considered by the legislature have similar language.

The committee voted on two other education bills today, which will next be heard by the full Senate.

  • Dual language immersion. House Bill 1635 would create a pilot to establish programs that would allow students to learn half the day in a foreign language, such as Chinese, Spanish or French. It passed committee 10-0.
  • State takeover timeline. House Bill 1638, amended earlier this month to remove references to “transformation zones” as an alternative to state takeover, would change the timeline for the state to intervene in failing schools from six years to four years. It passed committee 12-0.

First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.

a failure of accountability

High-stakes testing may push struggling teachers to younger grades, hurting students

PHOTO: Justin Weiner

Kindergarten, first grade, and second grade are often free of the high-stakes testing common in later grades — but those years are still high-stakes for students’ learning and development.

That means it’s a big problem when schools encourage their least effective teachers to work with their youngest students. And a new study says that the pressure of school accountability systems may be encouraging exactly that.

“Evidence on the importance of early-grades learning for later life outcomes suggests that a system that pushes schools to concentrate ineffective teachers in the earliest grades could have serious unintended consequences,” write study authors Jason Grissom of Vanderbilt and Demetra Kalogrides and Susanna Loeb of Stanford.

The research comes at an opportune time. All 50 states are in the middle of crafting new systems designed to hold schools accountable for student learning. And this is just the latest study to point out just how much those systems matter — for good and for ill.

The study, published earlier this month in the peer-reviewed American Educational Research Journal, focuses on Miami-Dade County schools, the fourth-largest district in the country, from 2003 to 2014. Florida had strict accountability rules during that period, including performance-based letter grades for schools. (Those policies have been promoted as a national model by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and his national education reform outfit, where Education Secretary Betsy DeVos previously served on the board.)

The trio of researchers hypothesized that because Florida focuses on the performance of students in certain grades and subjects — generally third through 10th grade math and English — less-effective teachers would get shunted to other assignments, like early elementary grades or social studies.

That’s exactly what they found.

In particular, elementary teachers effective at raising test scores tended to end up teaching grades 3-6, while lower-performing ones moved toward early grades.

While that may have helped schools look better, it didn’t help students. Indeed, the study finds that being assigned a teacher in early elementary school who switched from a higher grade led to reduced academic achievement, effects that persisted through at least third grade.

The impact was modest in size, akin to being assigned a novice teacher as opposed to a more experienced one.

The study is limited in that it focuses on just a single district, albeit a very large one — a point the authors acknowledge. Still, the results are consistent with past research in North Carolina and Florida as a whole, and district leaders elsewhere have acknowledged responding to test pressure in the same way.

“There was once upon a time that, when the test was only grades 3 through 12, we put the least effective teachers in K-2,” schools chief Sharon Griffin of Shelby County schools in Memphis said earlier this year. “We can’t do that anymore. We’re killing third grade and then we have students who get in third grade whose challenges are so great, they never ever catch up.”

While the Florida study can’t definitively link the migration of teachers to the state’s accountability system, evidence suggests that it was a contributing factor.

For one, the pattern is more pronounced in F-rated schools, which face the greatest pressure to raise test scores. The pattern is also stronger when principals have more control over staffing decisions — consistent with the idea that school leaders are moving teachers around with accountability systems in mind.

Previous research of policies like No Child Left Behind that threaten to sanction schools with low test scores have found both benefits and downsides. On the positive side, accountability can lead to higher achievement on low-stakes exams and improved instruction; studies of Florida’s system, in particular, have found a number of positive effects. On the negative side, high-stakes testing has caused cheating, teaching to the test, and suspensions of students unlikely to test well.

So how can districts avoid the unintended consequences for young students documented by the Miami-Dade study?

One idea is to emphasize student proficiency in third grade, a proxy for how well schools have taught kids in kindergarten, first and second grades.

Scholars generally say that focusing on progress from year to year is a better gauge of school effectiveness than student proficiency. But a heavily growth-based system could actually give schools an incentive to lower student achievement in early grades.

“These results do make an argument for weighting [proficiency] in those early tests to essentially guard against totally ignoring those early grades,” said Grissom, who also noted that states could make more efforts to directly measure performance of the youngest students.

But Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor at the University of Southern California, was more skeptical of this approach.

“It’s not as if states are going to add grades K-2 testing, so schools and districts will always have this incentive (or think they do),” he told Chalkbeat in an email. “I think measurement is always going to be an issue in those early grades.”