Testing Testing

Junking Indiana’s ISTEP test: What might come next and at what cost?

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

Indiana lawmakers officially have it out for ISTEP.

Decades after kids started taking the statewide standardized exam, calls to eliminate it have gained traction among legislators and policymakers.

After a disastrous year that saw the ISTEP plagued by technical glitches, scoring delays, and questions about accuracy, the Indiana House voted overwhelmingly last week to support a bill that would force the state to dump the test by the summer of 2017. Democrats, Republicans, reformers and traditionalists all seem united around the idea that the test needs at least a dramatic overhaul.

But what would replace the traditional exam — and whether it would be any different — remains unclear. The state can’t unilaterally decide to abolish standardized tests altogether, so a replacement must be found.

The next steps will be fraught with partisan politics, tough decisions about the high cost of state tests and confusion around new federal testing rules.

“I think what we need is a panel of experts to say either, the unlikely scenario, ‘ISTEP is great, let’s keep it,’” said Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma. “Or that another test has a better likelihood of accurately measuring success for students and giving the state adequate measures on student achievement.”

When pressed for details about what a post-ISTEP exam might look like, lawmakers and even the state’s top education official offer relatively vague explanations. They point mostly to new “flexibility” allowed by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the federal government’s new education law set to take effect in 2017.

When ESSA officially replaces the No Child Left Behind Act next year, states that were required to give certain kinds of tests every year — and were measured by how students performed — will have new powers to test kids in different ways.

But while it’s not yet clear what this new “flexibility” will allow, educators and state officials say they’re determined to find a better option.

“I just know people are very unhappy with the pass/fail approach that we have now,” said state Superintendent Glenda Ritz. “And I think that’s pretty universal.”

THE OPTIONS

Options on the table for a new test include changing the frequency of the exam — possibly replacing the single high-stakes, end-of-year assessment with several smaller tests throughout the year. Other options include joining a national testing consortium, using tests created for other states, or paying a premium to create an Indiana exam that somehow delivers valid information about student skills without the technical and scoring problems experienced by ISTEP.

Many states joined testing consortia several years ago when they realized they would have to change their exams to respond to the new Common Core standards. Indiana was initially part of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) consortium but Gov. Mike Pence ordered the state to pull out in 2013 over concerns that the Common Core was an overreach by the federal government.The state ditched the Common Core itself in 2014 in favor of Indiana-specific standards.

The battles over Common Core were, in many ways, a precursor to the current political fight brewing over ISTEP. For the last several years, Indiana lawmakers have had a tendency to make big education changes in fairly short amounts of time. That has sometimes led to new complications. In this case, the state abandoned a controversial national test in favor of what became a problem-plagued local one. Now, lawmakers are fixing for another fight over how to deal with the fallout from their last decision.

“What we’re dealing with right now is a little bit of a self-inflicted wound,” said Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry. “We’re now having to react to some of the problems, the unintended consequences that have come about based on those decisions.”

The testing decisions made in the coming year will have serious implications for children across the state, but the debate is likely to occur against a backdrop of partisan bickering and finger-pointing over who’s at fault for the turmoil of last year’s exam — Ritz, the testing company, or lawmakers who put the whole system in place to begin with.

Educators and policymakers interested in seeing a new kind of test fall into several different camps.

In one corner are those who want to eliminate standardized tests and accountability systems in favor of a system with fewer stakes. That group, which mostly consists of educators and Democratic lawmakers, is unlikely to triumph in the coming testing battles because, even under the new ESSA, the federal government will still require annual tests attached to larger school accountability systems.

Plus, Pence and his allies in the GOP-controlled General Assembly have long records of supporting tough test-based accountability for schools, students and teachers. They’re not likely to go along with a lower-stakes test.

Another faction in the upcoming fight are those who see some merit in the current exam but want changes to the way it’s administered.

Some in this faction are critical of the testing conglomerates that have created recent exams, including CTB, which made last year’s test, and Pearson, which has a contract for the 2016 and 2017 exams.

Others are critical of Ritz and her leadership of the Department of Education. Ritz, a Democrat, has frequently clashed with GOP leaders and now faces a Republican challenger for re-election in November. Some Republicans have tried to tie her to the unpopular test.

“The biggest problem I personally saw with ISTEP was implementation,” said Republican House Education Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Behning.

A third group is calling for a more measured response to recent testing problems. That group acknowledges that there’s room for improvement in the way the test is administered but cautions that the current ISTEP is still valid and important.

“It concerns me that we’re considering throwing out the baby with the bathwater,” said Hendry, who is in the third camp. “I don’t think just overreacting and just throwing (ISTEP) away and starting over is … the most prudent decision to make.”

THE RULES

No matter what lawmakers decide this year, Indiana still has hard-and-fast requirements for its testing system.

According to state law, “ISTEP” refers to a program of tests including any state, national or international test that children in grades 3-8, plus high school sophomores, must complete. For that to change, parts of current law would need to be repealed. Behning’s House Bill 1395, which passed the house last week, is an effort to do just that. It includes provisions that aim to kill ISTEP.

The state board is responsible for signing off on plans for ISTEP and reviewing the test to make sure it is statistically valid and reliable, according to state law, and Ritz and her education department are responsible for actually creating, administering and monitoring the test.

Indiana must test students each year from grades 3-8 in English and math, and for certain grades, science and social studies. That lines up with federal requirements, which still require statewide tests that capture student scores at one moment in time, known as a “summative exam,” much like ISTEP does now.

No matter what test the state ends up with, taxpayers will have to foot the bill — and if the state goes with a new state-owned test, that could mean a higher price tag.

The cheapest tests are those that already exist. The PARCC test, for example, which is also administered by Pearson, costs the states that use it about $24 per student, according to the consortium’s website. If Indiana were still in the consortium, taxpayers would have spent about $12 million last year for the 500,000 students who were tested. Instead, the state paid roughly twice that — $24 million — to CTB for its problem-plagued exam.

This year’s Pearson-made ISTEP will be somewhat cheaper — about $16 million per year — but could still cost more than PARCC, especially if districts opt for a paper version of the test.

That’s one reason why the possibility of signing on for a national test is still on the table. State laws approved in 2014 as part of a national backlash against the Common Core prohibit the adoption of standards or tests created solely by the federal government or by a group of states.

That would seem to eliminate the option of using the PARCC test or the test from its counterpart Common Core testing consortium, the Smarter Balanced Assessment.

However, after another change to Indiana law last year, the state is now allowed to use any other assessment, in whole or in part, if it aligns with Indiana standards — which could still leave the door open for a national “off-the-shelf” test.

Going forward, cost will be a factor when the state considers its test options, said Behning, R-Indianapolis, but it might not be the most important factor.

“I don’t think cheapest is necessarily best,” Behning said. “I want to do what’s best for kids, and I want to make sure we really drill down into critical thinking.”

He floated the idea that the state could save some money by not releasing the exam to the public every year. That would keep the questions secret so they could be re-used.

Indiana could also save money by changing course on the question of owning its own test questions, regardless of who wins future testing contracts.

That would allow testmakers to legally re-use questions from the ISTEP on whatever exam replaces it. Owning its questions is one advantage Indiana has over states that are part of national testing consortia. If Indiana has stuck with PARCC, it would not own any of its questions right now.

THE TEST

The U.S. Department of Education will eventually pick up to seven states for an experiment to pioneer the development of new state exams.

Ritz has already said she might be interested in such a program. Behning is often at odds with Ritz on education policy matters, but the two share an interest in seeing Indiana at the forefront of new testing models.

Both Behning and Ritz have pointed to unusual new testing programs in New Hampshire and other states as possible options for Indiana. New Hampshire’s innovative system includes a pilot where students take a national test in certain grades and in the others, a locally designed assessment that shows whether students have mastered specific skills, known as “competency-based” learning. Individual districts determine what skills kids need to master on the local tests.

“There’s a lot of opportunities to look at a lot of different models,” Behning said.

But just because some states have changed their exams doesn’t mean it’s easy for others to follow suit.

It took “tons of work and resources in getting New Hampshire where they are,” Danielle Gonzales, assistant policy director for The Aspen Institute’s education program, told Chalkbeat earlier this year. “Frankly, it’s a significant challenge for other states to take that on.”

Ritz says she’s up for the challenge and has described a major overhaul of the state’s testing program that wouldn’t rely as heavily on one final, year-end test. She envisions a series of shorter tests that would track student progress throughout the year, followed by a final test that would take a “snapshot” of their skills.

“I’d like it to be student-centered and adaptable,” Ritz said. “I’d like to know where children do perform as well as how they grow over the course of the year.”

Behning worries a strategy like Ritz’s could result in even more testing, something educators have told him they definitely don’t want.

“I’m not saying that that’s out of the question, but I think you have to be very clear because these educators were telling me there’s too much testing going on,” Behning said.

Ritz doesn’t see it that way. To her, a series of tests that give faster feedback and measure actual skills would be more useful for teachers.

“I don’t view that as more testing,” Ritz said. “I view that as simplifying the system, making it all make sense.”

Guidance from the U.S. Department of Education for how to put elements from the new ESSA law in place is expected later this year, so lawmakers are still incredibly limited in what they can legislate for now.

If Behning’s bill actually makes it through the legislature and an expert panel is formed to study the test and the state’s accountability system, lawmakers have no obligation to act on any of its recommendations. But Bosma noted that the bill has very clear language setting 2017 as the last year for ISTEP. That sets it apart from earlier efforts, such as one last year that merely established a committee to study new options.

“The kicker on (House Bill 1395) is the repeal of ISTEP,” Bosma said. “The legislature has to come back and deal with the issue.”

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.