Testing Testing

3 reasons why Indiana’s ISTEP test and school A-F scores come out so late now

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

It’s almost mid-October, but Indiana still has not publicly released state ISTEP test scores or A-F accountability grades for schools.

If it seems like they used to come out a lot earlier, that’s because they did.

In the first six years after the state tests moved in 2009 to being administered in the spring — rather than the fall — ISTEP scores were never publicly released later than mid-September. In three of those years, the scores came out in June or July.

The story is similar with A-F grades. In 2011, the first year Indiana began assigning grades to schools, they came out in August. They haven’t come out earlier than the end of October since.

The slow release of test scores has even become an issue in the race for governor. Both Republican Eric Holcomb, the state’s lieutenant governor, and Democrat John Gregg, a former Indiana House speaker have called for the test to be scored more quickly so that teachers can actually use the results to make adjustments to their teaching.

So why are scores and grades so slow to come out these days? And is there any hope the state could get them out earlier? Not with the current process, state Superintendent Glenda Ritz said last week.

There are three big reasons why:

Results today require more verification

Test scores today go through a more rigorous vetting process than they did in the past.

“There is an entire process we must go through,” Ritz said.

For one thing, parents are much more active than they were just a few years ago in asking for a student’s test be re-scored. In fact, some schools encourage parents of students who fell just short of a passing score on ISTEP to request a re-score in hopes it will boost the student’s score and help the school improve its passing percentage.

This also will be the second year for an overhauled and expanded ISTEP, changes that were required to match the test to new, more rigorous state academic standards that were put in place in 2014. After big test changes, more checking is required to assure the new exam is producing accurate results, Ritz said.

One more big change is Indiana‘s switch to a new test company.

After several years of scoring problems and delays, frustrated state officials backed out of Indiana’s long relationship with CTB, formerly CTB-McGraw Hill, picking its competitor, Pearson, to create and score ISTEP instead. Ritz said it is routine to have extra scrutiny after changing companies.

“We’ve had several changes in the assessment that required us to have a delay in when all the scores come out due to changes in the actual test itself,” she said.

Getting test scores back to teachers is top priority

Ritz proudly pointed out that teachers and schools received student test scores shortly after the start of the new school year.

“They have all the student data,” she said. “Teachers already working on what they need to do with instruction. I feel really good about that. That was our priority this year.”

Parents have also been able to access their children’s test scores through an online system since early September.

Pushing to get test results to teachers and parents faster means making the public release a lower priority.

In a word: politics

Changes in state law now require Ritz’s team to deliver state aggregate ISTEP results to the Indiana State Board of Education by July 1, Ritz said. So that has become the first ISTEP task, followed by the push to get the scores ready for teachers and parents.

But for the public release of the scores, followed by A-F school accountability grades, the state goes more slowly to ensure these high-stakes results are accurate. Test results and grades can affect teacher evaluations, even preventing pay raises for those whose students don’t make gains. They can even lead to interventions like state takeovers for schools that repeatedly post low scores.

In recent years, state board members and legislative leaders have even asked the Legislative Service Agency, the Indiana legislature’s research arm, to double-check A-F calculations after the education department’s work on them is finished.

So the public release of test scores and grades now comes after the data is delivered to the state board, after the preliminary test scores are delivered to teachers and parents, after parent re-score requests are complete and after all ISTEP scores and A-F grades are verified.

“What we are doing now is the state’s work to move toward the calculation of grades,” Ritz said. “When you get to the high stakes that are attached to our grades here in Indiana, you have to cross your T’s and dot your I’s.”

Her best guess was that scores and grades could be ready by the end of October.

First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.

a failure of accountability

High-stakes testing may push struggling teachers to younger grades, hurting students

PHOTO: Justin Weiner

Kindergarten, first grade, and second grade are often free of the high-stakes testing common in later grades — but those years are still high-stakes for students’ learning and development.

That means it’s a big problem when schools encourage their least effective teachers to work with their youngest students. And a new study says that the pressure of school accountability systems may be encouraging exactly that.

“Evidence on the importance of early-grades learning for later life outcomes suggests that a system that pushes schools to concentrate ineffective teachers in the earliest grades could have serious unintended consequences,” write study authors Jason Grissom of Vanderbilt and Demetra Kalogrides and Susanna Loeb of Stanford.

The research comes at an opportune time. All 50 states are in the middle of crafting new systems designed to hold schools accountable for student learning. And this is just the latest study to point out just how much those systems matter — for good and for ill.

The study, published earlier this month in the peer-reviewed American Educational Research Journal, focuses on Miami-Dade County schools, the fourth-largest district in the country, from 2003 to 2014. Florida had strict accountability rules during that period, including performance-based letter grades for schools. (Those policies have been promoted as a national model by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and his national education reform outfit, where Education Secretary Betsy DeVos previously served on the board.)

The trio of researchers hypothesized that because Florida focuses on the performance of students in certain grades and subjects — generally third through 10th grade math and English — less-effective teachers would get shunted to other assignments, like early elementary grades or social studies.

That’s exactly what they found.

In particular, elementary teachers effective at raising test scores tended to end up teaching grades 3-6, while lower-performing ones moved toward early grades.

While that may have helped schools look better, it didn’t help students. Indeed, the study finds that being assigned a teacher in early elementary school who switched from a higher grade led to reduced academic achievement, effects that persisted through at least third grade.

The impact was modest in size, akin to being assigned a novice teacher as opposed to a more experienced one.

The study is limited in that it focuses on just a single district, albeit a very large one — a point the authors acknowledge. Still, the results are consistent with past research in North Carolina and Florida as a whole, and district leaders elsewhere have acknowledged responding to test pressure in the same way.

“There was once upon a time that, when the test was only grades 3 through 12, we put the least effective teachers in K-2,” schools chief Sharon Griffin of Shelby County schools in Memphis said earlier this year. “We can’t do that anymore. We’re killing third grade and then we have students who get in third grade whose challenges are so great, they never ever catch up.”

While the Florida study can’t definitively link the migration of teachers to the state’s accountability system, evidence suggests that it was a contributing factor.

For one, the pattern is more pronounced in F-rated schools, which face the greatest pressure to raise test scores. The pattern is also stronger when principals have more control over staffing decisions — consistent with the idea that school leaders are moving teachers around with accountability systems in mind.

Previous research of policies like No Child Left Behind that threaten to sanction schools with low test scores have found both benefits and downsides. On the positive side, accountability can lead to higher achievement on low-stakes exams and improved instruction; studies of Florida’s system, in particular, have found a number of positive effects. On the negative side, high-stakes testing has caused cheating, teaching to the test, and suspensions of students unlikely to test well.

So how can districts avoid the unintended consequences for young students documented by the Miami-Dade study?

One idea is to emphasize student proficiency in third grade, a proxy for how well schools have taught kids in kindergarten, first and second grades.

Scholars generally say that focusing on progress from year to year is a better gauge of school effectiveness than student proficiency. But a heavily growth-based system could actually give schools an incentive to lower student achievement in early grades.

“These results do make an argument for weighting [proficiency] in those early tests to essentially guard against totally ignoring those early grades,” said Grissom, who also noted that states could make more efforts to directly measure performance of the youngest students.

But Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor at the University of Southern California, was more skeptical of this approach.

“It’s not as if states are going to add grades K-2 testing, so schools and districts will always have this incentive (or think they do),” he told Chalkbeat in an email. “I think measurement is always going to be an issue in those early grades.”