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.”

star power

Matt Damon’s latest role: The voice of an education documentary featuring Tennessee testing

PHOTO: Sarah Mondale, Vera Aronow

Tennessee’s debate about over-testing is a cause célèbre — or at least a cause drawing the attention of Matt Damon.

The movie star narrates a new documentary that explores the privatization of public schools. It features Nashville’s Gower Elementary School, as well as board member Amy Frogge of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

Nashville school board member Amy Frogge is featured in the documentary.

Called “Backpack Full of Cash,” the 90-minute film was released in late 2016 and screened this week at the Nashville Film Festival.

“I got involved in ‘Backpack Full of Cash’ because I believe that every kid should have access to great public schools,” Damon said in a statement. “… I got a great education in public schools, and my mom is an educator so I know just how hard teachers work every day.”

The segment featuring Gower Elementary was filmed in the spring of 2014 as students prepared for TCAP tests. A scene showing students practicing multiple-choice questions is followed by a comment from education writer David Kirp: “I’ve sat through those classes. I could barely sit still for 42 minutes. They’re asked to do it for 12 years.”

The film details a long list of tests that Gower students take during the school year, ending with four days of state-mandated testing.

Filmmakers Sarah Mondale and Vera Aronow said they chose to focus that part of the film on Tennessee because of the state’s 2010 Race to the Top win of $500 million in federal funds, which was spurred by a slew of reforms with test data at their core.

“(Tennessee) was a leader in the use of data and testing to drive education — a key part of market-based school reform,” Mondale said.

The movie also covers charter schools in Philadelphia and school vouchers in New Orleans. Both have been hotly debated issues in Tennessee as well.

The film’s title pokes at an argument often made by school choice advocates: that public money should follow students, no matter what school they attend.

“This idea that education is nothing more than the sum of public money that follows kids around is exactly the argument that the film is trying to refute,” Mondale said.

Since the movie’s filming, Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has twice convened task forces to reduce testing, resulting in the elimination of required eighth- and tenth-grade tests. After test times ballooned in the first year of TNReady in 2016, the state shortened the English test this year. (For fifth-graders, it’s dropped from 226 minutes during the last year of TCAP in 2014-15, to 195 minutes this year.) Meanwhile, testing in math has gotten longer (92 minutes in 2014-15 vs. 115 minutes this year), and science has stayed the same. This year’s social studies test is a shortened field test.

McQueen says her department has taken pains to make the current tests more engaging, while emphasizing that the best test prep is “good teaching,” not tedious practice questions.

“Backpack Full of Cash” is a co-production of Stone Lantern Films Inc. and Turnstone Productions. You can find more information about the film and how to watch it here.

BACKPACK FULL OF CASH Official Trailer from Stone Lantern Films on Vimeo.

 

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.