on the rise

Tennessee No. 1 in nation in growth on national science exam

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Gov. Bill Haslam poses with students at Riverwood Elementary School in Cordova, where he celebrated Tennessee's 2015 NAEP results last October.

Tennessee education officials have a new reason to say the state has the fastest-growing test scores in the country.

Tennessee outpaced almost all other states in gains on a science exam administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, between 2009 and 2015, according to results released on Thursday.

On average, fourth- and eighth-graders across the nation posted 4-point gains on the 300-point test, administered to a sample of students in most states in 2015. Tennessee students saw their scores grow twice as fast.

“I’m a little biased, but I think the eyes of the nation are rightfully on Tennessee students and teachers,” said Gov. Bill Haslam.

The gains mean that Tennessee fell solidly in the top half of states on the test. Even so, nearly 60 percent of its students did not meet NAEP’s threshold for being considered “proficient” in science.

NAEP is the only ongoing assessment of what U.S. students know in different subjects. It calls itself the Nation’s Report Card because it’s the only platform to compare students across states. Recently, states have cited gaps between NAEP scores and scores on their own tests to toughen their academic standards and exams.

The latest science scores come after many states, including Tennessee, overhauled their reading and math standards and renewed attention to science instruction. Schools and districts nationwide have invested in what they are calling STEM education, an acronym that describes a new approach to incorporating science, technology, engineering and math into the school day.

The U.S. Department of Education has encouraged the shift, launching a program to recruit science teachers and expand computer science instruction.

“The data themselves don’t tell us why we’ve seen these improvements, but we do think investments we’ve made over the past eight years have made a difference,” Education Secretary John King said.

The next phase, King said, is for high schools to add more advanced science and math courses — something for which the new federal education law earmarks extra funding.

“We know from our civil rights data that there are many students who attend high schools where you can’t even take Algebra II or physics,” he said.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen says Tennessee already offers more rigorous math and science courses than other states, noting that Algebra II is a graduation requirement.

The state’s score increases mean that Tennessee performed better than more than half of other states, which Haslam called “a rare space” for his state. Only 18 states had average scores higher than Tennessee in fourth-grade science, and 20 did in eighth grade.

Tennessee has a goal to be in the top half of states on the Nation’s Report Card by 2019 for all tested grade levels. It inched over that threshold in fourth-grade math when those scores came out last year. This round of science scores means the state is halfway to its goal.

McQueen credited improvements to Tennessee’s English and math standards with helping students achieve in science, too. The state had not touched its science standards for nearly a decade — until last week when the State Board of Education adopted new standards that will reach classrooms in the 2018-19 school year.

“For a long time, Tennessee has had embarrassingly low results in the Nation’s Report Card, often ranking in the low 40s,” McQueen said. “We knew we had to improve quickly, and this would be a stretch. After all, the rest of the country is trying to improve, too.”

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.

reconsidering takeover

Indiana lawmakers clear path for state to take over struggling districts, but scales back academic control of Muncie schools

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

A plan that would’ve allowed the state to take control over finances and academics in Gary and Muncie would now offer Muncie schools some relief from the threat of academic takeover.

Muncie educators and lawmakers were vocally opposed when their C-rated district was added into Senate Bill 567. The district is facing significant debt issues and feared potential state control of its academic programs as well as its finances. But a final version of the bill that passed with bipartisan support in the Senate and House late Friday scaled back the original plan, removing the academic piece. Financial control is still part of the deal.

“We’ve laid out a path that they may follow so that hopefully, in the next six months, they can right the ship,” said Sen. Luke Kenley, a Noblesville Republican and author of the bill. “I know the community of Muncie is not happy about this, but perhaps it is a wake up call at the right time to get things accomplished.”

Sen. Eddie Melton, a Democrat from Merrilville and the bill’s second author, agreed with the decision to adjust the plan for Muncie schools and encouraged lawmakers to continue these conversations about how to help struggling districts.

The bill next heads to Gov. Eric Holcomb for consideration to be signed into law.

The Gary school district would be on-track for the state to take over both academics and finances. A few provisions called for by local lawmakers were also added in, such as first considering a Gary or Lake County resident for the role of “emergency manager,” the person who’d take charge of the takeover.

Kenley said he specified in the compromise version of the bill that these measures are “not precedent for and may not be appropriate for addressing issues faced by other” districts. Kenley said he hopes the work he and Melton have done on the bill can help Gary schools and that the financial requirements placed on Muncie would be a “wake-up call.”

“This is not a pleasant task, but it’s one that needs to be done,” Kenley said of the Gary plan. “We have a long way to go and a lot to do.”

Lawmakers came up with the takeover strategy to solve long-standing financial troubles in Gary Community Schools, which has racked up $100 million in debt and dwindled to fewer than 6,000 students. The district has also been labeled an F since 2011, with seven schools considered failing.

The bill originally designated Gary and Muncie as “distressed political subdivisions” and moved them under the auspices of an emergency manager, fiscal management board and chief academic officer. In the new plan, Gary would remain a distressed political subdivision, but Muncie would be considered a “fiscally impaired” district, a less harsh category that wouldn’t require they have a chief academic officer but still places them under a stringent plan to shore up their finances and requires them to appoint an emergency manager.

Sen. Tim Lanane, a Democrat from Anderson, near Muncie, spoke on the floor and cautioned lawmakers not to be so quick to take such serious action unless it is fully warranted. Further labeling districts in this way, he said, could cause them to deteriorate further if more families decide to leave.

“What we’re doing here as a precedent is very, very important,” Lanane said. “A community’s reputation is at stake here.”