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.

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.