Test transitions

They rejected multi-state Common Core exams. Now what?

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Indianapolis Public Schools picked a new model for teacher observations.

When it comes to standardized testing, Indiana has commitment issues.

In just the past five years, it joined a multi-state testing consortium, dumped that consortium, launched its own new test, and now, unhappy with the latest problem-plagued version, is searching for something even newer for 2018.

It’s a similar story in Tennessee, Michigan, and dozens of other states where the backlash against the Common Core led lawmakers to overrule state education officials who had invested years of time and resources in tests aligned with the new standards. The process of leaving consortia that was meant to pacify local protests against Common Core-aligned tests has actually led to chaos and confusion in the classroom, not to mention extra costs to those same states to develop replacements exams.

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

Of 44 states and the District of Columbia that were initially affiliated with one or both multi-state test consortia, just 21 will give the tests in 2016. Three states – including Indiana – have gone even farther and rejected the Common Core itself, choosing instead to adopt new state-specific standards.

But while politicians knew what they didn’t want — Republicans blasted the Common Core and its associated tests as federal overreach while Democrats and teachers unions worried about excessive testing — states such as Indiana are now scrambling to figure out what to do after abandoning those exams

The result is a problem-plagued testing season that’s left teachers, students and parents desperate for some stability and craving a chance to be heard.

“Nobody comes and talks to us,” said Robin Clark, a math teacher at Indianapolis’ Emmerich Manual High School. “We are constantly trying to implement whatever we are being told by people who are not fluent in the field.”

When the Common Core first surfaced in 2009 as a state-led effort to raise standards for schools across the country, the idea was largely free from controversy. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle embraced the Common Core as a tool to create a single measuring stick for student learning across the country.

To make things easier and less expensive for states as they transitioned to the new standards, the federal government encouraged states to collaborate and develop tests together. Forty-four states plus the District of Columbia joined at least one — and sometimes both — testing consortia around 2010 that took up the challenge using $350 million in federal funds.

Indiana joined 25 other states including New York, Tennessee, and Colorado in affiliating with the PARCC Assessment System. Michigan, California and 28 other states went with the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. Trial questions were given to students in the 35 states that became official consortia members, and the first actual tests were scheduled to be administered in 2015.

Then, the political winds shifted. As the Common Core became politically toxic, state legislatures across the country voted to pull out of the testing consortia. Some cited political pressure, others logistics, but in most cases, lawmakers wanted to telegraph to voters that they were opposed to the Common Core.

In one state after another, decisions that had been made by curriculum and testing experts working for state education departments were overturned.

“Politicians and ideologues continue driving this system without regard to its educational value,” said Robert Schaeffer, a spokesman for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a testing watchdog group.

Now, just seven states are giving the PARCC test in 2016. Smarter Balanced is down to 14 states.

But in their haste to pull away from something they didn’t want, many states were left without backup plans. They quickly assembled new testing programs that, all over the country, are now backfiring. Three or more years is generally what’s needed to design and vet a new test, but some states, including Indiana, are trying to do that work in two years or less.

In Tennessee, lawmakers pulled out of PARCC in 2014 for not being “Tennessee-specific.” They hurried to replace it with a new “TNReady” test that was plagued by glitches so severe that the state ultimately canceled testing for most students.

In Michigan, lawmakers voted to banish the Smarter Balanced exam just nine months before it was supposed to be administered. That led the state to essentially administer the Smarter Balanced test with a new name, M-STEP, in 2015, followed by different M-STEP in 2016 — a setup that basically means Michigan kids will take three different tests in three years, making year-to-year comparisons impossible. Meanwhile, experts say the Michigan test still bears a lot of similarities to Smarter Balanced, just as many new state-specific standards share much of their content with Common Core. Like Indiana, Michigan is now considering changing its test yet again — an effort led by the state superintendent.

In Indiana, lawmakers who fled both PARCC and the Common Core itself, adopting Indiana-specific standards, continued working with test company CTB McGraw-Hill to quickly update the state’s decades-old ISTEP exam. The hasty revamp was assailed for technical and scoring flaws and was so universally disliked that lawmakers this year voted to scrap ISTEP entirely, pointing to problems with its administration and computer platform as culprits.

Although leaving consortia allowed some states to circumvent political backlash, it didn’t prevent them from realizing consequences to state coffers and in the classroom.

The PARCC test, 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 about $24 million to CTB for its state-specific exam and is contracted with Pearson for about $32 million this year and next year.

The Brown Center on Education Policy, at the Brookings Institution based in Washington, D.C., reported in 2012 that states spent, on average, $27 per student on tests for state accountability. It’s not clear, the report said, just how large savings would be for consortia states, but the scale of the PARCC and Smarter Balanced tests was intended to reduce costs for states at a time when federal requirements were pressuring states to update their exams in response to new more rigorous standards.

For the second time in two years, Indiana lawmakers will have to scramble again to replace the state’s testing program with another new exam in 2018. Officials don’t yet know what a future contract would include or who would administer it.

The situation is different in every state, but in most cases, states walked away from the years of planning that had gone into the multi-state exams for reasons that had nothing to do with the tests themselves.

“A lot of this has to do with sort of perception wars around the assessments and less to do with the practicality of choosing the best assessments for our kids,” said Abigail Swisher, an education policy analyst with the New America Foundation.

The turmoil has many teachers on edge.

“I work with students who have test anxiety normally, and so if you just compound that by 10, that’s kind of what we’re facing,” said Megan Parker, a third- and fourth-grade special education teacher at Tindley Renaissance Academy, a charter school in Indianapolis. “It’s all about not letting anyone know that you’re freaking out about when the state is doing something to a test that you’re getting ready to give for the first time.”

Indiana largely protected teachers and schools from serious consequences from the dramatic drop in test scores created when the state switched to a new tougher ISTEP in 2015, but no such protections are expected for this year when the state gives largely the same test under a new vendor, British-based Pearson. As lawmakers contemplate yet another new test in 2018, they’ve made no promises to protect teachers or schools from the coming changes.

That means, if students struggle on future exams, their teachers could lose their bonuses. If their schools score poor enough to get four consecutive F-grades from the state, the schools could face state takeovers.

And while teachers are facing stiffer consequences from the exams, they say the constantly changing testing landscape means the tests don’t offer them much value. A different test every year means it’s hard for teachers to track student progress from one year to the next, and it also make it hard for teachers to help their students prepare. When it comes to state accountability, ever-changing exams can prevent policymakers from comparing how students and schools perform one year to the next.

Beth Shaffer-Scott, a veteran Indianapolis Public Schools teacher at School 70, longs for stability.

“It’s just like anything,” Shaffer-Scott said. “You’ve got to stick with it long enough to see whether or not it works.”

If states think there’s an easy way forward after leaving the multi-state testing consortia, they might have another thing coming.

An expectation for quick test turnaround in a year or less could be a dangerous move, even for states like Indiana that own their own test questions — one of the most time-consuming and expensive parts of the test creation process.

Realistically, if Indiana, or any state, wanted to make a big change quickly, it should consider using a national test or shared test questions for the time being while it takes steps to build its own question pools and test programs, said Ed Roeber, a former Michigan test director who’s worked with Indiana. That way, questions can be properly vetted, and states have the benefit of time to really figure out the best test solution.

“That would be the kind of option that I think would more politically viable,” Roeber said. “Eventually, the test is all Indiana.”

But whether that will be an appealing option in states where lawmakers are on high alert for signs that the Common Core could be creeping back in is not clear.

In Indiana, a committee of educators, lawmakers and policymakers plans to consider several options for the state in the next few months.

But the capacity to build entirely new tests might be more challenging than lawmakers expect. Even if states have the autonomy to make big changes, they might not want to spend the money or take the time that’s typically needed.

That timeline is especially important if a state wants to create a quality test that will last, Roeber said. He views Indiana’s struggle with ISTEP as less a problem with the actual test, and more a problem with last-minute decisions from lawmakers.

“The (Indiana Department of Education) did the best they could under the circumstances, but those are pretty severe circumstances,” Roeber said. “You have to shortcut a lot of stuff if you have to do it in under a year… they were working under an incredibly unrealistic deadline to get this thing done.”

Consistency is key to a testing system that can reliably measure student performance and cut down on disruptions for schools. And there’s no fast way to create a customized, in-depth test that measures challenging state standards if time and resources aren’t dedicated to it, Roeber said.

If lawmakers want test results that can be compared from one year to the next, they’re going to need to pick one test and stick with it for more than a year or two.

Teachers say they hope they’ll see some consistency before their bonuses and school accountability grades start to suffer.

“Trying to accommodate a new test without having a lot of knowledge about it is a little disconcerting when your school grade is tied to it and your (pay) increases are tied to it,” said Clark, the Manual High School math teacher. “How many times can you change to ultimately deliver the same result?”

test prep

To test or not to test? That’s the question families face as students head into state exams this week

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Starting this week, thousands of New York City students in grades 3-8 will sit for the state’s controversial standardized tests — a gauge of student progress that has become an educational lightning rod in recent years.

Across the state, parents have been opting their students out of the tests in record numbers to protest what they say is an educational culture too focused on test preparation. Statewide, the percentage of students opting out was 21 percent last year, while the city’s rate was much lower at less than 3 percent refusing to sit for exams, an uptick from the year before.

Testing protests contributed to a larger sea change in education policy, including the state’s decision to revise the Common Core learning standards and stop using grades 3-8 math and English test scores in teacher evaluations. Officials also made some changes to the tests last year, including shortening them and providing students with unlimited time.

So what’s new this year? State Education Department officials announced this November they would not make significant changes to exams this year in order to allow for stable year-over-year comparisons.

Some supporters of opt-out, including the chair of the City Council’s education committee, Daniel Dromm, are pushing for families to know their rights about refusing the test. The state education commissioner has said parents need to make their own choices on the matter.

“It’s up to parents to decide if their children should take the tests,” State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said in a statement. “We want them to have the all the facts so they can make an informed decision.”

Here’s what you need to know as students start taking English exams on Tuesday.

How much do state tests matter — and what are they used for?

  • They matter less than they once did, but Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has cited test scores as one of many factors the city uses to determine whether a school should close.
  • State policymakers have decided that grades 3-8 math and English exam scores will no longer count in teacher evaluations.
  • Meanwhile, the city has reduced the tests’ influence on school ratings and decisions about whether students move on to the next grade.
  • The state is is currently deciding how test scores will be used to judge schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act, a new federal education law. There is no official plan yet, but early signs indicate policymakers want to use much more than just state test scores.

Why are state tests so controversial?

  • When the state adopted new Common Core-aligned standards, the tests became more difficult to pass, just as the stakes for teachers and schools grew.
  • The state began tying teacher evaluations to test scores.
  • Critics argue teachers have been forced to narrow their curriculum to focus on test preparation.
  • Many teachers are frustrated by the continued emphasis on testing. Others see the tests as helpful to gauging student progress.

What has the state changed in recent years?

  • The tests were slightly shorter last year.
  • Students were also allotted unlimited time to complete them last year — a change meant to reduce student stress.
  • State test scores in English leapt after last year’s changes. Elia said that meant the scores could not be compared “apples-to-apples” to the year before, but city officials still celebrated the scores with little mention of the changes.
  • That led some to ask, how should we use the scores? And what does it mean for evaluating struggling schools?
  • Since 2015, a greater number of teachers have been involved in reviewing test questions, state officials said.
  • In November, state officials announced they did not plan to make significant changes to the tests this year. (First, they announced they would keep the tests stable for two years, but then backed off that decision the next day.)

What’s up with the opt-out movement?

  • Last year, opt-out percentages were 21 percent statewide, fairly flat from the year before.
  • Though much smaller, the number of families sitting out of exams in New York City did increase substantially. In 2016, 2.4 percent of city students sat out the English exams — a 71 percent jump over 2015. And 2.76 percent opted out of math, a 53 percent spike.
  • Statewide, opt-out students in 2015 were more likely to be white and less likely to be poor, and liberal areas in Brooklyn and Manhattan saw the city’s highest opt-out numbers.
  • Leaders of the the opt-out movement want to broaden their approach to state politics. Nationally, a recent study found that many members of the movement aren’t parents at all, but teachers and education advocates.
  • Despite the changes enacted last year, opt-out advocates aren’t satisfied. They still want substantially shorter tests with no consequences for schools, teachers or students.
  • A federal mandate says 95 percent of students must take state tests, but New York state officials indicated last year they did not plan to withhold funding for schools or districts that break that rule. Elia reiterated that point to Chalkbeat at a recent Board of Regents meeting, saying she has no desire to do so now or in the future.

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.