Politics of testing

From ISTEP to ILEARN: GOP test plan clears first legislative hurdle

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

A proposal to replace ISTEP won approval from Indiana’s House Education Committee today, putting what is likely another nail in the deeply unpopular exam’s coffin.

The committee, headed by Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, voted 10-2 to move forward with a testing system that would be called “ILEARN.” If the plan becomes law, those tests would be given for the first time in 2019.

But lawmakers also expressed deep frustration with the constant debate about how to assess Indiana’s students — and acknowledged that there are still a lot of unanswered questions about how “ILEARN” would work.

Read: Getting rid of Indiana’s ISTEP test: What might come next and at what cost?

One question is whether it makes sense for Indiana to continue developing the test even though guidance from the U.S. Department of Education has been unclear — a reference to the recent pause on federal education rules during the presidential transition.

Behning, also the author of House Bill 1003, said it does.

“The law itself is still in place,” Behning said at the bill’s initial hearing on Tuesday.

The proposed system comes primarily from the recommendations of a state commission charged with figuring out what Indiana’s new testing system could look like. 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. For high school students, the state would go back to requiring end-of-course assessments in English, Algebra I and science, not a 10th-grade test like what the state introduced in 2016.

But for students, ILEARN might not look look much different. If Indiana creates a test of its own, as it did with ISTEP, that’s especially likely, since Indiana already owns its test questions. The bill doesn’t spell out if the test must be Indiana-specific or off-the-shelf, but the exam would have to align with Indiana’s academic standards.

Committee members said they were fed up with the ever-changing, never-ending conversations about state tests and the academic standards they’re based on. They pointed to the rollercoaster of education policy changes that Indiana has been on since 2013, when the state ditched tests associated with the Common Core standards.

Read: They rejected multi-state Common Core exams. Now what?

State-created tests like ISTEP, they said, are too costly, too unreliable and so frequently maligned by lawmakers and policymakers alike that parents, teachers and community members no longer have much faith in them.

Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, said he’d rather see the state go with an off-the-shelf test that is cheaper and allows Indiana to compare itself to other states. Other Democrats on the committee echoed his frustrations.

“I think a yes vote is passing up the opportunity to listen to our constituents who say, ‘We’ve had enough of the ISTEP and whatever else name we call it,’” said Rep. Sue Errington, D-Muncie, who voted against the bill Thursday. She was joined by DeLaney.

DeLaney, who passionately argued today that ISTEP is educationally bankrupt, called on legislators to stop and take a hard look at whether the testing changes would ultimately be valuable to schools, teachers and students.

“I think we need to ask ourselves, what are we doing?” DeLaney said. “Amending this failing test is getting us nowhere.”

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

Field trip

Here’s what Superintendent Hopson told state lawmakers in Nashville about Memphis schools

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits in the halls of Legislation Plaza Tuesday after speaking before a legislative committee at the State Capitol.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson came to Nashville on Tuesday seeking to break the stigma and stereotypes of Memphis schools, as well as to build better relationships with state lawmakers.

He left calling his time in the State Capitol “a good first step.”

“Oftentimes, the discussion around Shelby County is somewhat negative. And we certainly have a long way to go,” Hopson told legislators on two House education committees. “I’m not going to sit here and say we’re doing everything right, but there are some things to be proud of.”

His presentation came as lawmakers begin to review legislation that could have a major impact on Memphis schools. Lawmakers are considering two private tuition voucher bills, one of which would target Memphis as a pilot. Leaders of Shelby County Schools vehemently oppose both proposals.

Lawmakers also will consider several bills that would change how Tennessee addresses its lowest performing schools, most of which are in Memphis. The State Department of Education backs those bills, which are part of Tennessee’s proposed education plan under the new federal education law.

Hopson joined school board members and other district officials in Nashville as part of the Tennessee School Boards Association Day on the Hill.

He began his presentation promising to do a better job of telling the story of Memphis schools and working with legislators to improve education in Tennessee.

Hopson then cited the district’s growth in math and literacy in 2015, the latest available testing data for all schools, as well as highlighting a number of high-performing schools and the district’s turnaround work through its Innovation Zone.

Hopson noted the poverty rate in Memphis — 40,000 students live in households where the income is less than $10,000 a year — and its affect on education of students. He also appealed to the Christian faith professed by many state lawmakers.

“When you think about faith, the word compassion comes to mind,” Hopson said. “In my mind, compassion is: You see a need, you’re moved by that need, and then you act on that need.”

He went on.

“Our district is so unique because we have suffocating poverty that many of our kids live in. And if you just think about that for a minute — what that would be like to live in a house with five, six, seven people on 200 bucks a week — … I mean, it just creates really significant challenges because kids are not always prepared to show up to school ready to learn.”

Poverty is “not an excuse” for poor performance in schools, he continued. “But I think it is important when you think about our school district and some of the challenges we have to just take a moment and think about the population that we serve,” Hopson said.

Unfortunately, the superintendent’s presentation was cut short after just 10 minutes, following Education Commissioner Candice McQueen’s remarks on school turnaround work that went long. He said later that he wanted to talk more about the challenges faced by Memphis schools, many of which are priority schools that are academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent.

“We’ve got kids with severe, severe social-emotional needs,” he said of the state’s largest school system. “And absent a strategic attempt to address those needs, we’re not going to ever see the progress in accelerated fashion we want to see. It is what it is. I hope they heard that.”

Unleashed

McQueen rips Tennessee’s school turnaround work as ineffectual, overdue

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks at an event in Memphis in 2015.

In a fiery speech to state lawmakers on Tuesday, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen gave a stinging assessment of Tennessee’s school turnaround work, even calling the outcomes “a little embarrassing.”

McQueen noted that the state has moved only 10 schools off its “priority” list since compiling its first list in 2012, beginning with 83 low performing schools.

“We can’t keep throwing $10 million, $11 million, $12 million, $15 million at solutions that are not solutions,” she told legislators on House education committees.

The remarks were a departure from McQueen’s usual placating tone — and her most direct condemnation of school turnaround work to date in Tennessee. That work includes programs spearheaded both by local districts and the state’s Achievement School District, which has authority to take over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent, generally assigning them to charter operators.

But her indictment stretched far beyond the state’s role in those programs, which serve mostly poor communities. She took aim at efforts that began with the 2002 federal education law known as No Child Left Behind, which prescribed how states must deal with struggling schools.

“This is probably going to come across as a little preachy, but it is preachy,” said McQueen, who became commissioner in 2014. “We’ve got kids who were sitting in schools that we knew — we knew — and I want you to listen to the years, back in 2002, 2003, 2004, that they were in a low performing school that needed to turn around fast. (Those students have) now graduated, and we did not have the increases we needed at those schools to set them up for success.”

While McQueen didn’t single out specific turnaround initiatives, she stressed that Tennessee needs to focus on what has worked — specifically, at the 10 schools that have been moved off the state’s priority list so far. McQueen named common themes: strong school leaders, quality instruction, and community and wraparound supports, such as mental health care services.

Those successes helped to inform the school improvement component of Tennessee’s proposed new education plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. Under that plan, the state would work with local districts to improve their lowest-performing schools through academic and wraparound services. The ASD, which McQueen refers to as the state’s “most rigorous intervention,” would be reined in, making it a last-resort when other efforts have failed. Lawmakers will vote on components of the plan in the coming months.

Under ESSA, states have more flexibility on how to spend money for school improvement. In the past, the federal government gave states school improvement grants with explicit instructions on how to spend them. But those grants ultimately didn’t work, according to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Education.

McQueen told lawmakers that, under the plan, the state would give low-performing schools more resources than ever, but also would expect a quicker pace of change.

“This work is about shorter time frames with more support and expectation of outcomes that ultimately will make or break the future of Tennessee,” she said.