testing trouble

Every Indianapolis superintendent signed this letter criticizing how the state is replacing ISTEP

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
A bulletin board at IPS School 55 details information about testing.

Indiana’s effort to fix its state test and replace ISTEP is going too slowly, and the steps to improve the exam aren’t even going forward in order, Marion County superintendents argued in a blunt open letter.

The letter was released today by the Indiana Urban Schools Association and was signed by superintendents across the state, including every public school superintendent in Marion County. It lobbed some pointed criticism at members of two major state committees designed to find a new state exam and update the A-F grade model.

The letter calls out the Dec. 1 deadline by which the state’s ISTEP replacement panel has to make recommendations to the Indiana General Assembly — as well as the spring 2018 deadline lawmakers set last year for when Indiana students would take the new test — as possibly unrealistic.

The panel has just two more meetings before Dec. 1, and they have yet to agree on any specific testing plan.

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

Plus, the superintendents argue that new accountability rules should be set before a test is picked to replace ISTEP. Indiana is also in the midst of altering it’s A-F school grading system to comply with new federal law that is expected to go into effect next school year. The Indiana Department of Education is planning to submit a draft of that A-F system plan to the U.S. Department of Education in March.

Testing changes should wait until that plan is done, the letter argues.

“Changes in our accountability system and the expectations for schools in Indiana that result from the impact of this historic federal legislation must be considered in the test chosen to assess whether or not these expectations are achieved, the letter states.

The ISTEP replacement panel next meets Nov. 15, and the accountability committee is set to meet Nov. 18.

The entire letter from the Indiana Urban Schools Association to committee members can be read in full below.


Indiana’s students, educators, parents and community members are concerned. New assessments require the state to first address improvements necessary for a student-centered accountability system.

IUSA submitted a letter to the State Superintendent of Public Instruction last August expressing strong concern about the roles, timelines, possible overlap, and impact of the work of the Indiana Accountability Committee and Assessment Committee. We appreciate the State Superintendent and members of her staff hearing these concerns and discussing them at our October 19th meeting. However, IUSA – a consortium of 38 urban school districts representing 350,000 Hoosier students – feels an urgent need to share our concerns directly with members of these state committees.

IUSA’s primary concern is the fast-approaching deadline for the Assessment Committee to make its recommendation for a test. That test will assess student learning. It also will be a critical part of a yet- to-be-determined accountability system to reflect how schools and districts meet accountability. IUSA members share the belief that student assessments should be designed to ensure that schools and classroom educators have timely and useful data to inform the teaching and learning decisions made at the local level, and these assessments require a student-centered accountability system. We care deeply that the assessment selected will make that a reality for Indiana’s educational environment.

However, given the looming deadlines, the more pressing concern is that the State may be reaching a decision identifying an assessment before reaching decisions about how schools and districts will be held accountable. The current scenario of selecting a test before completing the accountability system that incorporates the new requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act clearly is an example of making a decision out of sequence. Changes in our accountability system and the expectations for schools in Indiana that result from the impact of this historic federal legislation must be considered in the test chosen to assess whether or not these expectations are achieved. The present sequence sets up a pattern where the test chosen determines the architecture of the accountability system. This seems to be “putting the cart before the horse.” This emphatic point was clearly stated to the State Superintendent’s staff at the October IUSA meeting where IUSA also stressed its desire to see adjustments to the accountability system to make it fair, equitable, supportive, and a valid assessment of the corporation and schools’ effectiveness. Accountability decisions and the foreknowledge of those measures are paramount to the credibility of any test selected. And, just as a flawed accountability system will detract from the credibility of a test selection, implementation with fidelity must be a guarantee. Even a perfect test that is not implemented with fidelity will yield less than desired results.

We urge members of the Indiana Assessment Committee to understand that replacement of the ISTEP+ must be aligned with Indiana Academic Standards, must be able to accurately measure students, schools and school corporations using a known set of accountability measures. We urge members of the Indiana Accountability Committee to ensure that the needs of all are considered, weighed, and included to provide equitable weightings that reflect the progress of the student population.

This is a not a political matter – this is a matter of urgent need for ensuring that Indiana’s education system is designed for the improvement of students, to help educators and all constituents understand what is necessary to prepare all students for post-secondary opportunities in college and careers.

Sincerely,

IUSA Member District Superintendents – Terry Thompson, Anderson, Dr. Jim Roberts, Bartholomew, Dr. Paul Kaiser, Beech Grove, John Trout, Concord, Dr. Matthew Prusiecki, Decatur, Dr. Youssef Yomtoob, East Chicago, Dr. Robert Haworth, Elkhart, Dr. David B. Smith, Evansville-Vanderburgh, Dr. Russell Hodges, Fayette, Dr. Wendy Robinson, Fort Wayne, Dr. Flora Reichanadter, Franklin Township, Dr. Cheryl Pruitt, Gary, Dr. Diane Woodworth, Goshen, Dr. Pete Morikis, Griffith, Dr. Walter (Jerry) Watkins, Hammond, Dr. Lewis Ferebee, Indianapolis, Dr. Jeff Hauswald, Kokomo, Les Huddle, Lafayette, Dr. Sharon Johnson Shirley, Lake Ridge, Dr. Thomas Cripliver, Lake Station, Dr. Shawn Smith, Lawrence Township, Michele Starkey, Logansport, Brad Lindsay, Marion, Dr. Jeffrey Studebaker, Merrillville, Dr. Barbara Eason-Watkins, Michigan City, Dr. A. Dean Speicher, Mishawaka, Dr. Judith Demuth, Monroe County, Dr. Steven Baule, Muncie, Dr. Thomas Little, Perry Township, Dr. Nate Jones, Pike, Todd Terrill, Richmond, Dr. Kenneth Spells, South Bend, Ken Hull, Speedway, Daniel Tanoos, Vigo, Dr. Dena Cushenberry, Warren Township, Dr. Nikki Woodson, Washington Township, Dr. Jeff Butts, Wayne Township, Cindy Scroggins, Whiting

Testing Testing

“ILEARN” is in, ISTEP is out — Indiana legislature approves test set to begin in 2019. Now awaiting governor’s OK.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

A little more than a year ago, lawmakers made the dramatic call to “repeal” the state’s beleaguered ISTEP test without a set alternative.

Friday night, they finally decided on a plan for what should replace it.

The “ILEARN” testing system in House Bill 1003 passed the House 68-29 and passed the Senate 39-11. Next, the bill will go to Gov. Eric Holcomb for him to sign into law.

The new test would be used for the first time in 2019, meaning ISTEP still has one more year of life. In the meantime, the Indiana Department of Education will be tasked with developing the new test and finding a vendor. Currently, the state contracts with the British test writing company Pearson.

House Speaker Brian Bosma said he was very pleased with the compromise, which he thinks could result in a short, more effective test — although many of those details will depend on the final test writer.

However, a number of Democrats, and even some Republicans, expressed frustration with the testing proposal.

“The federal government requires us to take one test,” said Sen. Aaron Freeman, a Republican from Indianapolis. “Why we continue to add more and more to this, I have no idea.”

For the most part, the test resembles what was recommended by a group of educators, lawmakers and policymakers charged with studying a test replacement. There would be a new year-end test for elementary and middle school students, and High schools would give end-of-course exams in 10th grade English, ninth-grade biology, and algebra I.

An optional end-of-course exam would be added for U.S. government, and the state would be required to test kids in social studies once in fifth or eighth grade.

It’s not clear if the plan still includes state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick’s suggestion to use an elementary and middle school test that would be “computer-adaptive” and adjust difficulty based on students’ answers.

The plan does make potentially significant changes to the state’s graduation requirements. Rather than having ECAs count as the “graduation exam,” the bill would create a number of graduation pathways that the Indiana State Board of Education would flesh out. Options could include the SAT, ACT, industry certifications, or the ASVAB military entrance exam.

Test researchers who have come to speak to Indiana lawmakers have cautioned against such a move, as many of these measures were not designed to determine high school graduation.

While teacher evaluations would still be expected to include test scores in some way, the bill gives some flexibility to districts as to specifically how to incorporate them, said Rep. Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican and the bill’s author.

Currently, law says ISTEP scores must “significantly inform” evaluations, but districts use a wide range of percentages to fit that requirement.

You can find all of Chalkbeat’s testing coverage here.

Starting early

It’s not just older students. Tennessee second-graders also started testing this week in nearly 100 districts

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

When LaRita Mitchell was a third-grade teacher, she often found her students were starting behind. They were just beginning to work with multiplication tables when the state’s standards assumed they’d already mastered them. They hadn’t yet encountered division.

“We noticed things that we thought were taught in second grade were not, and we could see a huge gap,” said Mitchell, who works at Sherwood Elementary in Memphis.

Then, Mitchell switched to teaching second grade, and she understood why her students’ had gaps in knowledge. “Second grade used to be more like first grade on steroids,” she said. “Third grade was a huge jump.”

This year, Mitchell’s second-graders are taking a new state standardized test aimed at keeping their students on track in reading and math. It’s shorter than the TNReady assessments that older students are taking but, like TNReady, it’s supposed to better gauge academic skills.  

State officials hope the new second-grade assessment, which is optional for districts, will provide valuable data to both second- and third-grade teachers. That data, they say, should help Tennessee reach its goal of getting 75 percent of third-graders reading on grade level by 2025.

A lot of emphasis is put on third-grade tests. It’s the first year the state has test score data for all students, and research shows that if students are behind in third grade, it’s challenging to catch up.

Before this year, districts could administer the SAT-10, a Pearson-designed test that was not aligned to Tennessee’s standards. That bothered teachers, because SAT-10 tested things, like coordinated grids, that Tennessee teachers were not supposed to teach in the second grade, according to their standards.

“This is crazy,” Cindy Cliche remembers thinking about the SAT-10 tests when she taught second grade for Rutherford County Schools.

“That’s why I was so excited that the state was actually developing a test based on second-grade standards,” said Cliche, now a math coordinator for Murfreesboro City Schools. “ … I want a test that will truly give us information about our students.’”

In addition to being aligned with the state’s standards, Tennessee’s new Questar-administered test has similar questions to TNReady assessments for third- and fourth-graders. Those emphasize the types of literacy skills that the State Department of Education is pushing under its “Ready to be Ready” initiative. Just as with the SAT-10, the new test scores will be used to measure improvement in third grade that will be part of third-grade teacher evaluations.

Tennessee isn’t alone in finding early testing useful. Federal law doesn’t require annual testing until the third grade, but 35 states have some sort of test for younger students. Fifteen, including Tennessee, have a single statewide assessment for younger students, while other states allow districts to choose from a menu.

But unlike 29 other states, Tennessee doesn’t require districts to administer a test before third grade; districts decide whether to opt-in.

Still, nearly 100 districts — far more than half of Tennessee’s 146 — are using this year’s test, around double the districts that used the SAT-10 last school year.

Despite its national popularity, testing in early grades has a lot of critics. Younger students don’t have the same skillset as older ones when it comes to standardized testing, the critics say. In addition to the challenge of understanding the purpose of testing, younger students often can’t sit still as long and have a harder time holding pencils and bubbling in answers.

Mitchell says her students struggle with testing — but they do it all year, since Shelby County Schools, like many districts, also require MAP tests, which stand for Measurements of Academic Progress.

“You can only read a question one time. What happens if a child was asleep and didn’t catch it?” she said. “I had a little boy and he was out cold. He was like two to three questions behind. I’m thinking, ‘Oh well, what do you do?’”

The good news for sleepy students is that the state’s test is relatively short. And at Mitchell’s school, it will be administered in the morning, when students are more alert. Each part of the test is 40 minutes, and students take it spread across four days. Students can write their answers in the test booklet, rather than transferring them to a bubble sheet, like older students.

“They’ll probably think TNReady is a breeze coming off of the MAP testing,” Mitchell said.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen says that the test is designed not to be boring.

“They’re interesting questions, questions that require thinking, which makes it much more engaging for students,” she said.