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.

TNReady snag

Tennessee’s ill-timed score delivery undercuts work to rebuild trust in tests

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
The Tennessee Department of Education worked with local districts and schools to prepare students for TNReady, the state's standardized test that debuted in 2016.

After last year’s online testing failure, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen pledged to rebuild trust in Tennessee’s new TNReady assessment, a lynchpin of the state’s system of school accountability.

A year later, frustration over TNReady has re-emerged, even after a mostly uneventful spring testing period that McQueen declared a success just weeks ago.

Preliminary TNReady scores are supposed to count for 10 percent of students’ final grades. But as many districts end the school year this week, the state’s data is arriving too late. One by one, school systems have opted to exclude the scores, while some plan to issue their report cards late.

The flurry of end-of-school adjustments has left local administrators to explain the changes to parents, educators and students who are already wary of state testing. And the issue has put Tennessee education officials back on the defensive as the state works to regain its footing on testing after last year’s high-profile setbacks.

“We just need to get more crisp as a state,” said Superintendent Dorsey Hopson after Shelby County Schools joined the growing list of districts opting to leave out the scores. “If we know that we want to use (TNReady scores), if the state says use them on the report card, then we got to get them back.”

The confusion represents one step back for TNReady, even after the state took two steps forward this spring with a mostly smooth second year of testing under Questar, its new test maker. Last year, McQueen canceled testing for grades 3-8 and fired Measurement Inc. after Tennessee’s online platform failed and a string of logistical problems ensued.

Why TNReady’s failed rollout leaves Tennessee with challenges for years to come

But the reason this year’s testing went more smoothly may also be the reason why the scores haven’t arrived early enough for many districts.

TNReady was mostly administered on paper this time around, which meant materials had to be processed, shipped and scored before the early data could be shared with districts. About 600,000 students took the assessment statewide.

After testing ended on May 5, districts had five days to get their materials to Questar to go to the front of the line for return of preliminary scores. Not all districts succeeded, and some had problems with shipping. Through it all, the State Department of Education has maintained that its timelines are “on track.”

McQueen said Wednesday that districts have authority under a 2015 state law to exclude the scores from students’ final grades if the data doesn’t arrive a week before school lets out. And with 146 districts that set their own calendars, “the flexibility provided under this law is very important.”

Next year will be better, she says, as Tennessee moves more students to online testing, beginning with high school students.

Candice McQueen

“We lose seven to 10 days for potential scoring time just due to shipping and delivery,” she said of paper tests. “Online, those challenges are eliminated because the materials can be uploaded immediately and transferred much much quicker.”

The commissioner emphasized that the data that matters most is not the preliminary data but the final score reports, which are scheduled for release in July for high schools and the fall for grades 3-8. Those scores are factored into teachers’ evaluations and are also used to measure the effectiveness of schools and districts. 

“Not until you get the score report will you have the full context of a student’s performance level and strengths and weaknesses in relation to the standards,” she said.

The early data matters to districts, though, since Tennessee has tied the scores to student grades since 2011.

“Historically, we know that students don’t try as hard when the tests don’t count,” said Jennifer Johnson, a spokeswoman for Wilson County Schools, a district outside of Nashville that opted to issue report cards late. “We’re trying to get our students into the mindset that tests do matter, that this means business.”

Regardless, this year’s handling of early scores has left many parents and educators confused, some even exasperated.

“There’s so much time and stress on students, and here again it’s not ready,” said Tikeila Rucker, a Memphis teacher who is president of the United Education Association of Shelby County.

“The expectation is that we would have the scores back,” Hopson agreed.

But Hopson, who heads Tennessee’s largest district in Memphis, also is taking the long view.

“It’s a new test and a new process and I’m sure the state is trying to figure it all out,” he said. “Obviously the process was better this year than last year.”

Laura Faith Kebede and Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.

Not Ready

Memphis students won’t see TNReady scores reflected in their final report cards

PHOTO: Creative Commons / timlewisnm

Shelby County Schools has joined the growing list of Tennessee districts that won’t factor preliminary state test scores into students’ final grades this year.

The state’s largest school district didn’t receive raw score data in time, a district spokeswoman said Tuesday.

The State Department of Education began sharing the preliminary scores this week, too late in the school year for many districts letting out in the same week. That includes Shelby County Schools, which dismisses students on Friday.

While a state spokeswoman said the timelines are “on track,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the timing was unfortunate.

“There’s a lot of discussion about too many tests, and I think anytime you have a situation where you advertise the tests are going to be used for one thing and then we don’t get the data back, it becomes frustrating for students and families. But that’s not in our control,” he said Tuesday night.

Hopson added that the preliminary scores will still get used eventually, but just not in students’ final grades. “As we get the data and as we think about our strategy, we’ll just make adjustments and try to use them appropriately,” he said.

The decision means that all four of Tennessee’s urban districts in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga won’t include TNReady in all of their students’ final grades. Other school systems, such as in Williamson and Wilson counties, plan to make allowances by issuing report cards late, and Knox County will do the same for its high school students.

Under a 2015 state law, districts can leave out standardized test scores if the information doesn’t arrive five instructional days before the end of the school year. This year, TNReady is supposed to count for 10 percent of final grades.

Also known as “quick scores,” the data is different from the final test scores that will be part of teachers’ evaluation scores. The state expects to release final scores for high schoolers in July and for grades 3-8 in the fall.

The Department of Education has been working with testing company Questar to gather and score TNReady since the state’s testing window ended on May 5. About 600,000 students took the assessment statewide in grades 3-11.

State officials could not provide a district-by-district listing of when districts will receive their scores.

“Scores will continue to come out on a rolling basis, with new data released every day, and districts will receive scores based on their timely return of testing materials and their completion of the data entry process,” spokeswoman Sara Gast told Chalkbeat on Monday. “Based on district feedback, we have prioritized returning end-of-course data to districts first.”

Caroline Bauman and Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.