Testing Testing

Nearly all Indiana schools see ISTEP scores plunge

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Shocking drops in ISTEP scores have lawmakers scrambling to protect schools and teachers from sanctions.

Here’s how badly Indiana’s schools did on the new ISTEP: Just four of 1,500 public schools that took the 2015 exam had more kids pass than the year before.

Passing rates sank on nearly every measure after the test was retooled to match tougher standards the state adopted in 2014. In all, 93 percent of public schools that took the test the last two years saw their passing rates drop by at least 10 percentage points. Half of schools saw a drop of 20 percentage points or more.

Almost half of all kids who took the test failed math, English or both. Statewide, the percentage of students who passed both English and math nose-dived by 22 percentage points to 53.5 percent.

Under the prior version of ISTEP, the passing percentage had been going up by a percentage point or two each year for the past three years.

The statewide passing percentage for English tumbled down 13 points in 2015 to 67 percent and math fell 22 points to 61 percent passing. Both were close to the decline the Indiana Department of Education had predicted. The tests are not directly comparable to each other because they are so different, but the data shows the new test is clearly much harder.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s warnings of huge drops to come helped spur a reluctant Gov. Mike Pence and Republican legislative leaders this week to promise to rush a bill that would exempt teachers and schools from consequences for newly low scores.

ISTEP is the backbone of an accountability system that can block teachers from pay raises if their students’ scores don’t rise and sever schools from their school districts under state takeover when they receive years of consecutive F-grades.

But not this year.

A senate bill with broad support would prevent school’s A-F grades from going lower than the grades they received last year and shield teachers from consequences of poor scores earned by their students.

In short, after a long bumpy ride that saw problems with ISTEP’s design, administration and scoring, the state’s schools are getting a mulligan.

That will be a relief to many.

Ritz decried years of changing expectations for students, teachers and schools, but she said they could now build up from this new “benchmark.”

“My top priority is the educational, social and emotional well-being of Hoosier students,” she said in a statement. “That is why I believe that is it time for Indiana to move away from the costly, lengthy, pass/fail ISTEP assessment. The one-size-fits-all high stakes approach of the ISTEP needs to end.”

When it came to the schools that struggled the most with the new ISTEP, many of them were in Marion County.

Four of the 10 schools with the deepest drops in their passing rates were from IPS, and one was from Pike Township.

The passing percentage for IPS School 56, which last year ranked among the best in the district at 82.7 percent, fell a whopping 55 percentage points, the worst in the state. This year just 27.9 percent of its students passed.

Another IPS school, Cold Springs School, wasn’t far behind. At 29.1 percent passing, it fell 48 percentage points from 2014, the second biggest drop in the state.

Pike Township’s Snacks Crossing Elementary School was third worst, down 47 percentage points to 24.8 percent passing, and Harshman Middle School of IPS had the state’s ninth biggest drop, down 43 percentage points to 21 percent passing.

Just four schools in the state saw a greater percentage of students pass ISTEP in 2015 than the prior year — Tindley Renaissance charter school, Eminence High School in Morgan County, IPS School 107 and a juvenile justice center in South Bend. Two of them were helped because they were recovering from big drops in 2014.

IPS School 107, for example, saw a big decline in scores in 2014, with a pass rate 16 percentage points below the prior year. Scores at School 107 rebounded slightly in 2015. Although just 34 percent of students passed, the rate was up 6.7 points over the year before despite the tougher new exam. That was the state’s second biggest gain.

The numbers for the lowest-scoring schools were bleak. In 2015 there were 18 schools had fewer than 10 percent of their students pass ISTEP, including six IPS schools. There were just three such schools statewide in 2014.

Even so, IPS did have the state’s top-scoring school again.

Like last year, Sidener Gifted Academy, a celebrated IPS magnet school for students who are identified as gifted, was the top-rated public school in the state, although its passing rate fell slightly to 95.5 percent passing from 100 percent in 2014.

Sidener wasn’t the only top-scoring school that remained among the state’s highest-scorers even after a dip in its passing rate.

In fact, despite all the changes to ISTEP, many of the usual suspects could be found among the best- and worst-scoring schools.

Including Sidener, six of the top 10 public schools from 2014 were back in the top 10 again. Five of the top 10 were from the wealthy Indianapolis suburbs of Carmel and Zionsville. If anything, those districts were even more dominant on the new ISTEP.

For 2016, ISTEP is set for even more changes. The British-based company Pearson has taken over creating the test after more than a decade with CTB/McGraw-Hill. And the test is supposed to include even more sophisticated technology, creating new ways for students to show how they arrived at their answers.

Pearson’s contract runs through 2017. After that, a growing number of lawmakers have raised the idea of scrapping the exam altogether in favor of a shared national exam that students also take in other states.

 

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.