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.

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.