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.

some irony here

Three years after exiting PAARC, Tennessee leans on consortium for testing prep

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
The Tennessee Department of Education visited several cities to give teachers more information about its new test TNReady.

As Tennessee seeks to prepare students for its final year of tests aligned with Common Core standards, the state is directing its educators to use practice questions from the same testing consortium that it once distanced itself from.

In 2014, Tennessee joined other states that pulled out of a multistate consortium known as PAARC due to the growing political backlash over Common Core — the standards on which the consortium is based. That exit led Tennessee to work with a private test maker to develop its own assessment called TNReady.

But at a TNReady training session last week in Memphis, educators seeking practice questions for their students were directed to PARCC and another Common Core-aligned consortium called Smarter Balanced, as well as the state’s internal online platform called EdTools.

Nakia Towns, assistant state education commissioner for data and research, told teachers and administrators to make sure they pull questions that are “aligned to our standards.”

“But in terms of the rigor of those items and the development process for those two consortiums, I would say definitely those are high-quality items,” she told the group.

Towns’ comments serve as a reminder that Tennessee still uses Common Core as its guide for teaching and testing, even though state officials formally dropped using the controversial name in recent years.

Officially, this will be Tennessee’s final year to administer Common Core-aligned tests for math and English language arts. Next school year, the state switches to teaching and testing to its Tennessee Academic Standards, developed after 18 months of review and revisions that began with an order from Gov. Bill Haslam.

And when the testing window opens on April 17 for grades 3-11, this will be the first year of administering TNReady under Questar Assessments Inc., the state’s new testing company. The State Department of Education hired the Minneapolis-based firm last summer after firing North Carolina-based Measurement Inc. only a few months earlier. The switch came after the botched online debut of TNReady led to the test’s cancellation last year for grades 3-8.

Why the failed debut of TNReady leaves Tennessee with challenges for years to come

Representatives of Questar were among those fielding questions from teachers last week in Memphis. Marty Mineck, a Questar vice president, said TNReady is a homegrown test that won’t look like the company’s assessments in other states.

“This is not a Questar assessment. This is not a Questar test. The reason we are here is to build a TNReady that is literally for the students of Tennessee,” he told the group.

Unlike last year, most students will take TNReady by pen and paper. After the statewide attempt at online testing failed in 2016, the Department of Education adopted a new game plan that includes gradually transitioning most schools to online testing by 2019. Only 25 out of 130 eligible districts have signed up for online testing this spring for their high school students.

Six TNReady trainings across the state were hosted by State Collaborative on Reforming Education, or SCORE, a nonpartisan education advocacy group founded by former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist. The other meetings were held in Chattanooga, Kingsport, Knoxville, Jackson, and Nashville with about 500 teachers attending altogether.


legislative update

Senators kill two education proposals, but plan to replace ISTEP moves ahead with a new high school test

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
The Senate Education Committee had its last 2017 meeting today.

The plan to replace Indiana’s unpopular ISTEP exam took another step forward Wednesday as the Senate Education Committee finished up its work for the year.

The committee killed two bills and passed four, including an amended version of the bill to overhaul the state testing system. The bill passed 7-4, but some lawmakers still weren’t happy with the plan — especially because the bill continues to tie teacher evaluations to state test results and removes a requirement for students to take end-of-course exams that many principals and educators had supported.

The amended bill would:

  • Require high school students to take a national college entrance exam, such as the SAT or ACT, rather than end-of-course exams. The Indiana State Board of Education would choose the specific test and set a passing score needed for graduation.
  • Create tests that would allow Indiana students to be compared with peers nationally.
  • Allow the state to create its own test questions only if the option saves Indiana money or would be necessary to ensure the test complies with Indiana academic standards.
  • Require schools to give state tests on computers or using “digital technology” unless they receive a waiver from the education department.
  • Create a legislative panel to study Indiana’s teacher evaluation laws and draft a final report by Nov. 1.

Some of the changes in the amendment came from state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. Earlier this month, she outlined some of those ideas for the committee, which were similar to ones pushed by former schools chief Glenda Ritz. But that still didn’t make it especially popular with the committee today.

“I’m still not comfortable with where we are,” said Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Merrillville.

Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, and Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg, also expressed concerns about the bill, although Leising voted “yes” because the state is still required to have a test, she said.

“I’m very disappointed we can’t move away from ISTEP more quickly,” Leising said. “I’m most disappointed that we’re still going to evaluate teachers based on ISTEP results which nobody believes in currently.”

Here are the rest of the bills that passed the committee today. All of them still must face debate by the full Senate, and likely further discussions by the House:

Charter school renewal and closure: House Bill 1382 would make changes to how the Indiana State Board of Education handles authorizers who want to renew charters for schools that have failed for four years in a row. This proposal, as well as other changes, could benefit Indiana’s struggling virtual charter schools — particularly Hoosier Academies.

The bill was amended today to give the state board of education more control over what education and experience charter school teachers need in order to be allowed to teach.

High school graduation rate and student mobility: House Bill 1384 would require the Indiana State Board of Education to consider a school’s rate of student turnover from year to year when it assigns A-F accountability grades.

But it was amended today to change previous language that would have given schools two A-F grades — one reflecting state test results from students who move around frequently, and one based on students who have been at the school for at least a year. The amendment removes the two grades and instead would instruct the state board to consider student mobility in the existing A-F system, and “whether any high school should be rewarded for enrolling credit deficient students or penalized for transferring out credit deficient students.”

This bill, too, has implications for Indiana virtual schools, which have struggled to show success educating a wide range of students. The schools have complained that they often accept students who are far behind their peers and are using the school as a last-ditch chance to graduate.

The bill also includes two proposals regarding private schools and vouchers.

Teacher induction program: House Bill 1449, offered by Rep. Dale DeVon, R-Mishawaka, would create a program to support new teachers, principals and superintendents that would be considered a pilot until 2027.

And here are the bills that died, both authored by House Education Committee Chairman Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis:

Elementary school teacher licenses: House Bill 1383 would encourage the state board of education to establish content-area-specific licenses, including math and science, for elementary teachers. It was defeated by the committee 6-5

Competency-based learning: House Bill 1386 would provide grants for five schools or districts that create a “competency-based” program, which means teachers allow students to move on to more difficult subject matter once they can show they have mastered previous concepts or skills, regardless of pace (Learn more about Warren Township’s competency-based program here). It was defeated by the committee 8-3.