tick tock

A Common Core exam or another year of ISTEP? Lawmakers weigh unpopular options

With just seven weeks to go until a Dec. 1 deadline to decide on a new testing program for Indiana schools, some members of a key testing advisory panel are now admitting that it’s increasingly likely the state might have to keep its unpopular ISTEP a bit longer.

Another option is to bring back parts of the controversial PARCC exam, a national test that was rejected by state lawmakers in 2013 because it’s tied to the politically unpopular Common Core State Standards.

Both options would violate current state law and create a political headache for lawmakers who vowed to swiftly replace the much-maligned ISTEP test with something better. But at a meeting Tuesday of the state’s ISTEP replacement panel, lawmakers and panel members acknowledged that starting a new test in the spring of 2018 might not be possible.

The “repeal ISTEP” bill that was signed by Gov. Mike Pence in May lays out an ambitious timeline with the ISTEP advisory panel making recommendations by Dec. 1 so that the legislature can formally enact the new test next spring.

But after months of indecision, members of the panel now say the ISTEP may be sticking around a little longer than expected.

“I don’t see any alternative,” Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, chairman of the Senate Education Committee said at the panel meeting Tuesday. “That’ll probably be a bill that’s in the legislature this next session.”

He joins Rep. Bob Behning, who heads the House Education Committee and initially championed the “repeal ISTEP” bill, who said earlier this summer that ISTEP might continue longer than expected.

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

ISTEP was set to be given for the last time this spring, with a new testing system expected in 2018. Experts testifying to the panel today said any way forward — whether it’s a brand new test or something off-the-shelf like PARCC — would take about two years to put in place. That’s mostly because the new tests would need to be properly aligned to Indiana’s tougher academic standards

“It would be very difficult for us to immediately think that in (2018) we’re going to have a new test,” Behning said today. “We’ll probably have to have some short extension to keep something in place as we develop what we think the next step is in assessments.”

At this point, Behning said he thinks Republicans in his caucus are “relatively open” to whatever recommendations come next, although pushing an Indiana-specific test might be smoother than, say, resurrecting PARCC.

But the political situation has changed slightly since Indiana pulled out of the consortium of states that pooled their resources to create the PARCC exam, said Michael Cohen, president of the nonprofit Achieve that helps states work on academic standards and tests. Indiana originally pivoted so sharply from PARCC because of concerns that the Common Core represented a federal intrusion into state schools.

Today, however, “there’s no federal funds involved,” Cohen said. “It’s gone.”

It’s hard to say whether PARCC would be politically palatable in Indiana given the strong backlash it received in 2013. On one hand, Cohen today said it was a reliable, well-made test that was cheaper than Indiana’s current ISTEP contract with British-based Pearson. On the other hand, the politics might just be too “daunting,” said Indiana Commissioner for Education Teresa Lubbers, even if the test itself makes the most sense.

The panel spent today’s session hearing a rehash of options the state could pursue, as well as briefing on what federal approval would be needed before ending abruptly without much discussion. The next meeting is Nov. 15.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz, meanwhile, is one of the few panel members proposing a complete plan that isn’t just an ISTEP-clone — at least not in the long term.

Ritz and the Indiana Department of Education released details of a proposal for a “computer-adaptive” test that gives students easier or harder questions depending on whether they answer right or wrong.

See Ritz’s entire testing proposal here.

The proposal calls for three tests per year in reading and math — one in the fall, winter and spring so that teachers would have more opportunities to get feedback on student progress.

In one approach, the state could make the fall and winter tests purely about teacher feedback, and the spring test would remain the one that counts for school A-F accountability grades. In a second approach, each test would have a few questions that count toward A-F grades.

High school students would go back to taking end-of-course exams redesigned to align with Indiana’s tougher new standards. Those tests would be in ninth-grade Algebra, ninth-grade English and biology.

Ritz’s plan also calls for the elimination of several existing exams, including the third-grade reading test, a test to see if high-schoolers need remediation and state social studies tests in fifth and seventh grades. All open-ended essay or short-answer questions would be cut except in writing.

But Ritz’s proposals couldn’t all happen by spring of 2018 either. She calls for a slower timeline in which ISTEP, or something very similar to it, is given in 2018 followed by the new computer-adaptive test in the 2018-19 school year.

The department said this approach would reduce Indiana testing time by about eight hours and reduce costs by at least $12 million just by removing existing tests. A complete cost estimate is not yet available, so it’s hard to tell if the overall testing budget would decrease or by how much. Lawmakers set aside about $77 million for testing and remediation in the last two-year budget.

Yet panel members, such as Behning and chairwoman Nicole Fama, an Indianapolis Public Schools principal, still have doubts. They worry schools lack the technology support to give tests exclusively on computers and that teachers might see the interim tests in the fall and winter as further distractions from class time.

No states currently have a system like what Ritz is proposing, and one expert said it would be “breaking new ground.” Because of new federal law passed last year, this option is now viable, said Daniel Altman, a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education.

“Now that No Child Left Behind has gone away, states have a lot more flexibility in what is assessed and when and how,” Altman said. “We think taking advantage of that flexibility is something Indiana absolutely needs to do.”

rules and regs

New York adds some flexibility to its free college scholarship rules. Will it be enough for more students to benefit?

PHOTO: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his 2017 regional State of the State address at the University at Albany.

New York is offering more wiggle room in a controversial “Excelsior” scholarship requirement that students stay in-state after graduating, according to new regulations released Thursday afternoon.

Members of the military, for example, will be excused from the rule, as will those who can prove an “extreme hardship.”

Overall, however, the plan’s rules remain strict. Students are required to enroll full-time and to finish their degrees on time to be eligible for the scholarship — significantly limiting the number who will ultimately qualify.

“It’s a high bar for a low-income student,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a leading expert on college affordability and a professor at Temple University. “It’s going to be the main reason why students lose the scholarship.”

The scholarship covers free college tuition at any state college or university for students whose families earn less than $125,000 per year. But it comes with a major catch: Students who receive Excelsior funding must live and work in New York state for the same number of years after graduation as they receive the scholarship. If they fail to do so, their scholarships will be converted to loans, which the new regulations specify have 10-year terms and are interest-free.

The new regulations allow for some flexibility:

  • The loan can now be prorated. So if a student benefits from Excelsior for four years but moves out of state two years after graduation, the student would only owe two years of payments.
  • Those who lose the scholarship but remain in a state school, or complete a residency in-state, will have that time count toward paying off their award.
  • Members of the military get a reprieve: They will be counted as living and working in-state, regardless of where the person is stationed or deployed.
  • In cases of “extreme hardship,” students can apply for a waiver of the residency and work requirements. The regulations cite “disability” and “labor market conditions” as some examples of a hardship. A state spokeswoman said other situations that “may require that a student work to help meet the financial needs of their family” would qualify as a hardship, such as a death or the loss of a job by a parent.
  • Students who leave the state for graduate school or a residency can defer repaying their award. They would have to return to New York afterwards to avoid having the scholarship convert to a loan.

Some of law’s other requirements were also softened. The law requires students to enroll full-time and take average of 30 credits a year — even though many SUNY and CUNY students do not graduate on time. The new regulations would allow students to apply credits earned in high school toward the 30-credit completion requirement, and stipulates that students who are disabled do not have to enroll full-time to qualify.

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.