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.

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.

PHOTO: TN.gov
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.