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.”

more tweaks

For third straight year, TNReady prompts Tennessee to adjust teacher evaluation formula

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced last April that she was suspending TNReady testing for grades 3-8 for the 2015-16 school year. Now, her department is asking lawmakers to make more adjustments to the weight of student test scores in Tennessee's teacher evaluation formula.

First, Tennessee asked lawmakers to make temporary changes to its teacher evaluations in anticipation of switching to a new test, called TNReady.

Then, TNReady’s online platform failed, and the state asked lawmakers to tweak the formula once more.

Now, the State Department of Education is asking for another change in response to last year’s test cancellation, which occurred shortly after the legislative session concluded.

Under a proposal scheduled for consideration next Monday by the full House, student growth from TNReady would count for only 10 percent of teachers’ evaluation scores and 20 percent next school year. That’s compared to the 35 to 50 percent, depending on the subject, that test scores counted in 2014-15 before the state switched to its more rigorous test.

The bill, carried by Rep. Eddie Smith of Knoxville, is meant to address teachers’ concerns about being evaluated by a brand new test.

Because testing was cancelled for grades 3-8 last spring, many students are taking the new test this year for the first time.

“If we didn’t have this phase-in … there wouldn’t be a relief period for teachers,” said Elizabeth Fiveash, assistant commissioner of policy. “We are trying to acknowledge that we’re moving to a new assessment and a new type of assessment.”

The proposal also mandates that TNReady scores count for only 10 percent of student grades this year, and for 15 to 25 percent by 2018-19.

The Tennessee Education Association has advocated to scrap student test scores from teacher evaluations altogether, but its lobbyist, Jim Wrye, told lawmakers on Tuesday that the organization appreciates slowing the process yet again.

“We think that limiting it to 10 percent this year is a wise policy,” he said.

To incorporate test scores into teacher evaluations, Tennessee uses TVAAS, a formula that’s supposed to show how much teachers contributed to individual student growth. TVAAS, which is short for the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, was designed to be based on three years of testing. Last year’s testing cancellation, though, means many teachers will be scored on only two years of data, a sore point for the TEA.

“Now we have a missing link in that data,” Wrye said. “We are very keenly interested in seeing what kind of TVAAS scores that are generated from this remarkable experience.”

Although TVAAS, in theory, measures a student’s growth, it really measures how a student does relative to his or her peers. The state examines how students who have scored at the same levels on prior assessments perform on the latest test. Students are expected to perform about as well on TNReady as their peers with comparable prior achievement in previous years. If they perform better, they will positively impact their teacher’s score.

Using test scores to measure teachers’ growth has been the source of other debates around evaluations.

Historically, teachers of non-tested subjects such as physical education or art have been graded in part by schoolwide test scores. The House recently passed a bill that would require the state to develop other ways to measure growth for those teachers, and it is now awaiting passage by the Senate.

 

deja vu

Last year, Ritz’s computer-based testing plan was largely dismissed. Today, McCormick adopted part of it as her own.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Glenda Ritz and Jennifer McCormick debated in Fort Wayne during the 2016 campaign this past fall.

Although she wasn’t on board with former-state Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s entire testing plan during last year’s campaign, current Indiana schools chief Jennifer McCormick today expressed support for a computer-based test format Ritz lobbied hard for during her last year in office.

These “computer-adaptive” exams adjust the difficulty-level of questions as kids get right or wrong answers. McCormick explained the format to lawmakers today when she testified on the “ILEARN” proposal that could replace the state’s unpopular ISTEP exam if it becomes law.

Computer-adaptive technology, she said, allows tests to be more tailored around the student. Test experts who spoke to Indiana policymakers this past summer have said the tests also generally take less time than “fixed-form” tests like the current ISTEP and could result in quicker turnaround of results.

During the summer, members of a state commission charged with figuring out what Indiana’s new testing system could look like largely argued against this testing format, including the bill’s author, Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis. At the time, he said he was concerned about investing in a technology-heavy plan when much of the state struggles to get reliable internet and computer access. Today, Behning didn’t speak against the concept.

Overall, McCormick was supportive of House Bill 1003, but she pointed out a few areas that she’d like to see altered. More than anything, she seemed adamant that Indiana get out of the test-writing business, which has caused Hoosiers years of ISTEP-related headaches.

Read: Getting rid of Indiana’s ISTEP test: What might come next and at what cost

“Indiana has had many years to prove we are not good test-builders,” McCormick told the Senate Education Committee today. “To continue down that path, I feel, is not very responsible.”

The proposed testing system comes primarily from the recommendations of the state commission. The biggest changes would be structural: The bill would have the test given in one block of time at the end of year rather than in the winter and spring. The state would go back to requiring end-of-course assessments in high school English, Algebra I and science.

The bill doesn’t spell out if the test must be Indiana-specific or off-the-shelf, and McCormick suggested the state buy questions from existing vendors for the computer-adaptive test for grades 3-8, which would have to be aligned with state standards.

For high school, McCormick reiterated her support for using the SAT and suggested making the proposal’s end-of-course assessments optional.

The ILEARN plan, if passed into law, would be given for the first time in 2019.

“Spring of 2019 is a more realistic timeline no matter how painful it is for all of us.” McCormick said. “We could do it for (2018), but it might not be pretty. We tried that before as a state, and we couldn’t get it right.”

You can find all of Chalkbeat’s testing coverage here.