Testing

Why the IPS superintendent isn’t worried that test scores are down

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee has this message for IPS parents who are worried about test scores: Don’t trust the numbers.

The ISTEP scores released last week show the percentage of IPS students passing the state exam declined for a second straight year, but Ferebee said he has little faith in the scores.

That’s because testing in Indiana has gone through so much turmoil in recent years that he says the scores cannot be compared from one year to the next.

“It’s not fuji apple to fuji apple,” he said. “It is very unfair to try to make that comparison.”

Though scores fell across the state, IPS saw more significant declines than the average Indiana district. However, dozens of other districts, including Washington and Warren townships, saw more precipitous declines.

The low scores for IPS were made harder to swallow by the fact that even some of the district’s top schools saw drops in scores. The dip ignited a firestorm of criticism online in part because the scores were released the same day IPS board awarded Ferebee a $26,999 bonus.

The bonus was not connected to test scores and was based on previously agreed upon criteria.

Ferebee is not alone in his criticism of ISTEP. After years of testing turmoil as the state changed standards and switched test makers, many school leaders, policymakers and observers have concluded the ISTEP is simply broken.

But Ferebee was hired three years ago on a promise to turn things around in the struggling district. Test scores are one of the clearest ways to determine whether changes he’s made such as partnering with charter schools and recruiting new leaders are bearing fruit.

With those scores on the decline, it’s no surprise that Ferebee would take issue with them but he argued the fact that schools across the state saw a second year of declines shows the new test is out of sync with typical exams.

“When you see a drop in the second year, that tells you that something is wrong,” he said. “If it was unique to one or two school districts, that’s understandable. It’s just a few districts being impacted. But it’s statewide issue.”

Although passing rates dropped in the district, unreleased, early data the district provided about its A-F score suggests that students are making improvements on the test.

Ferebee argues those growth scores are a more useful measure of student learning.

“I’ve said since the onset as we looked at our accountability model that a year’s growth annually is the expectation for all students,” he said. “Given that philosophy and that lens, I believe growth data is a better indicator of school success.”

Indiana has been going through testing turmoil throughout Ferebee’s tenure as superintendent. During his first year leading the district, when the state used an older version of ISTEP, scores increased slightly and the number of schools receiving Fs on the state accountability scale were cut by a third. Those are improvements district leaders have touted, and Ferebee said he has more faith in that earlier version of the test because it was more consistent.

When he arrived, Indiana had adopted the Common Core State Standards and was preparing to switch to the PARCC exam, a national test aligned with the standards. But the state legislature pulled out of the Common Core State Standards in 2014, and the state education department rushed to develop a replacement test.

That new, harder test was plagued by problems and student scores plummeted. But eventually lawmakers concluded the results would be good enough to set a baseline for future years. Although the state switched to a new vendor in 2016, the tests were designed to be comparable and there were few widespread issues with administration or scoring.

Still, the new version of ISTEP has proven so unpopular that lawmakers are aiming to replace it with yet another new test.

Ferebee said that as the state looks for a new exam, he hopes lawmakers find an option that can be used to give teachers feedback on what students know rather than the current system where teachers don’t learn how their students are doing until long after it’s too late to help them. He also said that if the test is used to measure teacher effectiveness, the focus should be on student growth.

“If a teacher has a classroom of students that were academically advanced, and you are basing it on proficiency, that teacher already has a leg up,” he said. “If you are basing it on growth, that can give more insight.”

Test tweaks

Tennessee will halve science and social studies tests for its youngest students

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Wednesday plans to slim down science and social studies assessments for third- and fourth-graders as she seeks to respond to complaints of over-testing in Tennessee.

McQueen has been mulling over that option since meeting last summer with her testing task force. The State Department of Education received more public feedback on testing during the last eight months while developing the state’s new plan for its schools in response to a new federal education law.

Tennessee already has eliminated a state test for eighth- and tenth-graders, as well as shortened TNReady, the state’s end-of-year tests for math and reading.

It’s uncertain just how significant the latest reductions are, since McQueen also said that some “components” would be added to English tests in those grades.  

And the trimming, while significant, falls short of a suggestion to eliminate the tests altogether. Federal law does not require tests in science and social studies for those grades, like it does for math and English.

Parents and educators have become increasingly vocal about the amount of testing students are undergoing. The average Tennessee third-grader, for instance, currently spends more than 11 hours taking end-of-course tests in math, English, social studies and science. That doesn’t include practice tests and screeners through the state’s 3-year-old intervention program.

McQueen noted that more changes could be on the horizon. Her testing task force has also considered eliminating or reducing TNReady for 11th-graders because they already are required to take the ACT college-entrance exam. “We will continue to evaluate all of our options for streamlining assessments in the coming years, including in the 11th grade,” she wrote in a blog post.

McQueen also announced that the state is tweaking its schools plan to reduce the role that chronic absenteeism will play in school evaluation scores.

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to evaluate schools based off of a measure that’s not directly tied to test scores. Tennessee officials have selected chronic absenteeism, which is defined as missing 10 percent of school days for any reason, including absences or suspension. McQueen said the measure will be changed to count for 10 percent of a school’s final grade, down from 20 percent for K-8 schools and 15 percent for high schools.

Some local district officials had raised concerns that absenteeism was out of the control of schools.

early adopters

Here are the 25 districts committing to taking TNReady online this spring

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

One year after Tennessee’s first attempt at online testing fizzled, 25 out of 140 Tennessee school districts have signed up to try again.

About 130 districts were eligible to test online this year.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Thursday the number is what she expected as districts prepare to administer the state’s TNReady assessment in April.

Although all districts will make the switch to online testing by 2019 for middle and high school students, they had the option to forge ahead this year with their oldest students.

The Department of Education is staggering its transition to online testing — a lesson learned last year when most of the state tried to do it all at once and the online platform buckled on the first day. As a result, the department fired its testing company, derailing the state’s assessment program, and later hired  Questar as its new test maker.

Districts piloted Questar’s online platform last fall, and had until Wednesday to decide whether to forge ahead with online testing for their high school students this spring or opt for paper-and-pencil tests.

McQueen announced the state’s new game plan for TNReady testing in January and said she is confident that the new platform will work.

While this year was optional for high schools, all high schools will participate in 2018. Middle and elementary schools will make the switch in 2019, though districts will have the option of administering the test on paper to its youngest students.

Districts opting in this spring are:

  • Alvin C. York Institute
  • Bedford County
  • Bledsoe County
  • Blount County
  • Bristol City
  • Campbell County
  • Cannon County
  • Cheatham County
  • Clay County
  • Cocke County
  • Coffee County
  • Cumberland County
  • Grundy County
  • Hamilton County
  • Hancock County
  • Knox County
  • Jackson-Madison County
  • Moore County
  • Morgan County
  • Putnam County
  • Scott County
  • Sullivan County
  • Trousdale County
  • Washington County
  • Williamson County