Testing

IPS sees test scores drop at top schools and first ‘innovation’ restart in 2016

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Find our all our stories and databases on the 2016 ISTEP test results, as well as other testing coverage, here.

It’s another bad year for Indianapolis Public Schools when it comes to state tests.

The state’s largest district saw drops in ISTEP scores at the vast majority of schools. Scores fell across the state, but the situation was worse in IPS, where the passing rate went down by 4 percentage points to 25.3 percent in 2016.

IPS consistently scores lower than surrounding suburban communities, but after two years of falling scores, passing rates are particularly low. Just one in four elementary and middle school students passed the math and reading sections of the test — and fewer than 10 percent of high school students passed the new 10th-grade exam.

The news is a blow to a district that has embarked on a radical new course with the aim of improving student outcomes.

School board president Mary Ann Sullivan, who had not yet seen results, said she couldn’t draw conclusions without analyzing the scores more closely but said low scores could be concerning.

“The whole point of doing the strategies that we’ve implemented is to improve student achievement,” she said. “So we’re going to need to know, if student achievement is not improving, what’s going on?”

The district declined to comment on the test results.

Last year was the first test of the district’s new strategy for turning around failing schools by converting them to innovation schools, which are run by outside charter operators or nonprofits but still considered part of the district. (Teachers at innovation schools are not part of the union.)

The jury is still out on whether the approach will be successful, but the first results are disappointing.

School 103, which was the first failing school to convert to innovation status, actually saw a decline in the number of students passing the test during its first year under the new charter manager, Phalen Leadership Academies. Just 4.6 percent of students passed (down from 9.6 percent the year before).

Schools undergoing wrenching changes frequently see their scores drop at first. That’s exactly what happened at School 103. But another school that made the switch this year, School 93, saw its scores rise by 11 percentage points.

School 93 was taken over by the team that developed the Project Restore turnaround model last year, and it converted to innovation status this fall.

Principal Nicole Fama said one reason she thinks their students did comparatively well is that the Project Restore approach relies on regularly testing students.

“To our kids, who take tests every day, it’s nothing,” Fama said. “They are not scared because they are used to that rigor.”

But overall, the results do not look good for the district. One particularly bleak outcome is that some of the district’s marquee schools saw double-digit declines in passing rates.

At School 79 — which has won praise for serving a huge population of English language learners — scores dropped by 17 percentage points. At School 74, a thriving Spanish immersion magnet school, they were down 15 percentage points. Nearly all of the eight IPS schools with double-digit declines had previously earned high marks from the state.

One low-performing school saw a double-digit decline in passing rates: At School 43 they went from low (16.2 percent) to dismal (5.3 percent). The neighborhood school on the mid-north side of downtown had a tumultuous year: The school struggled with discipline, some classes went months without permanent teachers and the principal left without warning in the middle of the year. (The school has a new principal this year, and community leaders are working to develop a long-term plan.)

For the first year, high school students were also required to take ISTEP, and across the state, they did far worse than elementary and middle school students on the test. In IPS, just 9.9 percent of 10th-graders passed the test.

The results come as the value of standardized testing increasingly is being questioned in Indiana and beyond.

School board member Gayle Cosby declined to discuss the results because she said there are more accurate measures of school performance, and Sullivan also suggested they get too much emphasis.

“I think they are a very incomplete measure of how schools are doing,” Sullivan said. But, she added, “I am still a supporter of having some sort of assessment that can take the temperature across the state and across the nation.”

Correction: an earlier version of this story misreported the passing rate at School 103. It was 4.6 percent.

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.