Testing Testing

CTB: More ISTEP problems will delay results for months

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Frustrations with repeated problems with ISTEP have lawmakers looking for solutions.

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: ISTEP scoring problems will cause what could end up being a months-long delay for the release of scores and assigning of school A-to-F grades.

For the fourth time since 2011, Indiana faces problems with the administration of its state exam, overseen by California-based CTB, formerly CTB/McGraw-Hill. Past problems were a major factor in the state’s decision to switch to British-based Pearson starting next year.

Indiana will cut ties with CTB at the end of its four-year, $95 million contract once it delivers this year’s results. But company president Ellen Haley told the Indiana State Board of Education today that won’t come as soon as expected.

Haley, who has made regular appearances over the years to publicly apologize to Indiana officials for test problems, this time blamed the complications on new computer-enhanced questions the state asked to be included on ISTEP that allow students to manipulate the information on screen in ways that were impossible on prior tests.

Steve Yager, a board member and former superintendent of Northwest Allen County Schools in Fort Wayne, was scathing in his response to Haley’s explanation of the scoring problems. He said he has little faith the company can actually make good on it’s promises.

“You stand here and say you’ll deliver this, but I’ll believe it when I see it,” Yager said. “What’s happening is girls and boys are just being damaged, and teachers are being damaged, by the ineffective practices of your company.”

Company blames Indiana’s new standards

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz said she also is frustrated by the delays, which could mean letter grades aren’t finalized until early next year, but said there was little the state could do other than wait for the company to re-score the test questions to ensure the results are correct.

“I also want to make sure that kids are getting credit for everything on their test,” Ritz said. “And since it is the first time for technology-enhanced items, we just have to make sure we have it absolutely right.”

Haley blamed the problems on Indiana’s decision to institute new academic standards last year and then quickly adapt its exams to match up with them. As a result, she said, the state could not try out test questions on students before the test was given this past spring, which normally would have been the process.

“This is the nature of switching so dramatically,” Haley said. “It’s a good thing — new standards, and a new test — but there’s nothing leftover from the previous test. You’re starting all over again.”

Cari Whicker, a board member and teacher from Huntington, had little sympathy for the testing company.

“I’m sorry it’s more work for you,” Whicker said. “But you know what? It’s been a lot more work for people in the field.”

Other board members argued the problem could have been avoided. Instead, another year of problems only erodes further the shaking confidence that test results can be trusted, they said.

“Many of our teachers and principals and parents and students aren’t having confidence because of all the complications from last spring,” board member Lee Ann Kwiatkowski said. “And now with having another timeline being pushed back further, we’re going to once again reduce the confidence they currently have when they get results.”

Re-scoring to hold up ISTEP scores, school letter grades

Technology and student creativity are what made grading the new test questions so difficult, Haley said, arguing the company isn’t to blame for the delays.

New test questions were given for the first time when students took the test in March, Haley said, and the guidelines the company created for scoring didn’t recognize all of the possible correct answers students gave for the new technology-enhanced questions. In the past there was just one path to a correct answer. Now students can get questions right in different ways, such as by manipulating graphs or writing equations.

“They came up with the correct answer, but they responded differently,” Haley said. “If we don’t pause and change rubric, the student doesn’t get credit for that answer.”

Board member Vince Bertram, a former Evansville superintendent and executive director of Project Lead The Way, said a company that does so much testing work across the country should have anticipated all possible answers. Bertram’s company offers schools project-based curriculum in science, technology, math and engineering fields.

“How could we miss this?” Bertram said. “Don’t we know how a fifth-grader is going to answer a math question?”

Testing director Michele Walker estimated that when time to re-score is factored in, school letter grades might not be released until January or February, at the latest. Schools would still get students’ ISTEP grades by the end of this year.

Company has history of problems in Indiana

This is the fourth year out of five for which ISTEP issues can be traced back to problems at CTB.

In April of 2013, 16 percent of all Indiana students taking ISTEP, about 78,000 kids, experienced interruptions during their tests. That year, letter grades weren’t released until December.

In 2011 and 2012, about 10,000 and 9,000 students respectively had online testing issues. Because of the interruptions in 2013, the state and CTB/McGraw-Hill came to a settlement for $3 million.

Haley said repeatedly during the meeting that delays are part of the process when tests and standards change, especially if those tests involve new technology. Other states are dealing with the same issues, she said.

But other CTB customers, such as Oklahoma, have also suspended their work with work with the company.

Test tweaks

Tennessee will halve science and social studies tests for its youngest students

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Wednesday plans to slim down science and social studies assessments for third- and fourth-graders as she seeks to respond to complaints of over-testing in Tennessee.

McQueen has been mulling over that option since meeting last summer with her testing task force. The State Department of Education received more public feedback on testing during the last eight months while developing the state’s new plan for its schools in response to a new federal education law.

Tennessee already has eliminated a state test for eighth- and tenth-graders, as well as shortened TNReady, the state’s end-of-year tests for math and reading.

It’s uncertain just how significant the latest reductions are, since McQueen also said that some “components” would be added to English tests in those grades.  

And the trimming, while significant, falls short of a suggestion to eliminate the tests altogether. Federal law does not require tests in science and social studies for those grades, like it does for math and English.

Parents and educators have become increasingly vocal about the amount of testing students are undergoing. The average Tennessee third-grader, for instance, currently spends more than 11 hours taking end-of-course tests in math, English, social studies and science. That doesn’t include practice tests and screeners through the state’s 3-year-old intervention program.

McQueen noted that more changes could be on the horizon. Her testing task force has also considered eliminating or reducing TNReady for 11th-graders because they already are required to take the ACT college-entrance exam. “We will continue to evaluate all of our options for streamlining assessments in the coming years, including in the 11th grade,” she wrote in a blog post.

McQueen also announced that the state is tweaking its schools plan to reduce the role that chronic absenteeism will play in school evaluation scores.

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to evaluate schools based off of a measure that’s not directly tied to test scores. Tennessee officials have selected chronic absenteeism, which is defined as missing 10 percent of school days for any reason, including absences or suspension. McQueen said the measure will be changed to count for 10 percent of a school’s final grade, down from 20 percent for K-8 schools and 15 percent for high schools.

Some local district officials had raised concerns that absenteeism was out of the control of schools.

early adopters

Here are the 25 districts committing to taking TNReady online this spring

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

One year after Tennessee’s first attempt at online testing fizzled, 25 out of 140 Tennessee school districts have signed up to try again.

About 130 districts were eligible to test online this year.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Thursday the number is what she expected as districts prepare to administer the state’s TNReady assessment in April.

Although all districts will make the switch to online testing by 2019 for middle and high school students, they had the option to forge ahead this year with their oldest students.

The Department of Education is staggering its transition to online testing — a lesson learned last year when most of the state tried to do it all at once and the online platform buckled on the first day. As a result, the department fired its testing company, derailing the state’s assessment program, and later hired  Questar as its new test maker.

Districts piloted Questar’s online platform last fall, and had until Wednesday to decide whether to forge ahead with online testing for their high school students this spring or opt for paper-and-pencil tests.

McQueen announced the state’s new game plan for TNReady testing in January and said she is confident that the new platform will work.

While this year was optional for high schools, all high schools will participate in 2018. Middle and elementary schools will make the switch in 2019, though districts will have the option of administering the test on paper to its youngest students.

Districts opting in this spring are:

  • Alvin C. York Institute
  • Bedford County
  • Bledsoe County
  • Blount County
  • Bristol City
  • Campbell County
  • Cannon County
  • Cheatham County
  • Clay County
  • Cocke County
  • Coffee County
  • Cumberland County
  • Grundy County
  • Hamilton County
  • Hancock County
  • Knox County
  • Jackson-Madison County
  • Moore County
  • Morgan County
  • Putnam County
  • Scott County
  • Sullivan County
  • Trousdale County
  • Washington County
  • Williamson County