Testing Testing

Indiana's big test score gains prompt debate over cause

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Indiana fourth graders made big gains on a national test, which released scores today.

Indiana fourth graders made big gains on a national test of reading and math known as the “nation’s report card,” according to data released today.

Indiana’s 2013 gains were top five among the 50 states on both fourth grade reading and math. Eighth graders posted smaller gains in both reading and math. Hoosier test takers scored above the national average on all four exams administered.

““I am encouraged by the gains that Hoosier students showed on these tests, particularly their gains in the fourth grade,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz said in a statement. “This is yet another sign of the hard work and dedication exhibited by our educators, administrators, parents, and most importantly, students every day in our schools.”

The state’s success instantly renewed debate about reforms pushed by former Gov. Mitch Daniels and ex-state Superintendent Tony Bennett over four years beginning in 2008.

Bennett was defeated in the 2012 election in a stunning upset by current state Superintendent Glenda Ritz. Eric A. Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, said Bennett’s fight for reform may have cost him his job but it appears to have yielded improvements.

“I think we’re starting to see results,” said Eric A. Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. “These battles are hard-fought, and if we didn’t see any results, then we might wonder if it’s worth it.”

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, attributed the gains to standards reform in the early 2000s, specifically rejecting Bennett and Daniels’ policies as a reason for the improvement.

“The work started long before,” Meredith said. “It was prior to Tony Bennett. In my mind this does not attribute anything positive necessarily to his tenure. It doesn’t negate him it. It just doesn’t support him.”

In an interview, Bennett rejected Meredith’s analysis. The children who took the fourth grade tests weren’t born when the standards were reworked a decade ago, he said, and during that period, the state saw mostly small gains.

“My answer is, what changed?” he said. “Mitch Daniels had a vision to make Indiana’s education system a pillar of his administration, and we passed some pretty bold reforms. I think the policy framework we put in place afforded schools the opportunity to expect more of children, and I applaud the fact our children have answered that call.”

Daniel Altman, a spokesman for Ritz, said nobody should try to claim credit for the good results.

“It is disappointing but not surprising that people are trying to politicize these results,” Altman said. “Today’s news should be about celebrating the hard work put in by our teachers and students every day, not politics.”

The tests, known formally as the National Assessment of Education Progress, or NAEP, are given every two years in math and reading to a sample of fourth and eighth graders in every state. Indiana’s scores have made strong gains in math over the last decade, but mostly smaller gains in reading.

Across the country, Tennessee, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia saw the biggest across-the-board gains this year, though scores for Washington, D.C., especially still rank among the nation’s lowest. Tennessee and Washington, D.C., saw unusually dramatic gains across both grades and subjects. (See Chalkbeat Tennessee’s story on that stat’s best-in-the-nation gains here.)

U.S. Secretary of State Arne Duncan attributed the variations among states to what he called “extraordinary leadership” at the state level from officials who have “done some very difficult and courageous work” raising standards.

That praise, Hanushek said, should extend to Indiana.

“This certainly suggests strongly that some of the things they were trying to do have in fact taken hold and have in fact led to some improvement,” he said.

Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis and chair of the House Education Committee, said credit for better fourth-grade reading scores lies with the IREAD third grade reading test and a rule that prevented some kids from being promoted if they failed it.

“I think it validates that we have a lot of great teachers and hopefully the reforms can take some credit for the successes that we’ve had,” he said. “You’d have to tie IREAD to that. It’s been in place for a couple of years.”

But Meredith said when she was teaching kindergarten, it was Indiana’s new standards that made the biggest change in her classroom.

“This wasn’t just in the last two or three years,” she said. “This was long term. It made me, as a kindergarten teacher, really think about every thing I did.”

Standards are back at the center of education debates in Indiana, as legislators have asked the Indiana State Board of Education to reexamine its commitment to national Common Core standards that the state adopted in 2010.

Duncan, speaking about the national results, emphasized that none of the eight states that adopted Common Core standards earliest saw statistically significant score decreases between 2009 and 2013 — though many of those states didn’t see big increases, either.

“We’re not seeing yet the transformational change nationwide, but we are seeing meaningful, but generally modest progress,” Duncan said.

Meredith said the NAEP scores show that Indiana’s prior standards were good and some of them probably should be maintained as the state adopts Common Core.

“I think it highlights that our standards have been rigorous,” she said. “It’s not a judgement positive or negative on Common Core. We should ask what was significant to teachers, and is it in Common Core? If not, it needs to be included.”

testing talk

‘Virtually meaningless’ or ‘steady progress’? New York City reacts to this year’s state test scores

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

English and math exam pass rates inched up in New York City this year compared to last year — more than they did in the state as a whole, city officials announced Tuesday.

The annual release of test scores created a wave of reactions from education stakeholders across the state. Charter school advocates claimed victory, the state teachers union called them “meaningless” and Mayor Bill de Blasio said they represent the “painstaking work” of schools across New York City.

Here is a sample of reactions:

The mayor touted his own education agenda.

“These improvements over the past four years represent painstaking work – student by student, classroom by classroom, and school by school. It’s steady progress towards a stronger and fairer system for all. We are focused on building on these gains and others – such as the highest-ever high school graduation rate – to deliver equity and excellence for every public school student across the city, no matter their zip code.” — Mayor Bill de Blasio

Charter advocates said it shows the strength of their approach.

“New York City charter public schools are continuing to show us poverty is not destiny in the greatest city in the world. Charter public schools offer the promise of closing the achievement gap and today’s results show they are delivering on that promise. It’s been almost 20 years since New York passed its charter law and these public schools are now out of the experimentation phase: not only should their lessons have more reach, but so should they.” — StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Jenny Sedlis

Success Academy highlighted its push for more school space.

“These results should inspire the de Blasio administration to immediately support Success Academy and other high-performing charters to serve more students in public space.” — Eva Moskowitz, Success Academy founder and CEO

The state’s teachers union called the test scores “virtually meaningless.”

“They don’t count for students or teachers — and they shouldn’t count. They are derived from a broken testing system; are rooted in standards that are no longer being taught; and — for now — are the foundation of a totally discredited teacher evaluation system. The test-and-punish era damaged the trust and confidence of parents in our public education system, as evidenced by the continuing strength of the opt-out movement, and we believe dramatic changes are needed to win them back.” — NYSUT President Andy Pallotta

The city’s teachers union said they represented “progress.”

“Thanks to the efforts of teachers and other staff members across the city, our students are making solid, sustainable progress and the nation’s largest school system is moving in the right direction.” — UFT President Michael Mulgrew

Other groups took the chance to criticize opt-out.

“The results show the right thing to do is to keep moving forward, not tear down high standards and end annual assessments like opponents call for. The continued rise in proficiency scores is a clear sign that high standards are preparing students for future challenges, and parents are increasingly rejecting misguided calls to ‘opt out’ of the state’s annual check-ups. Both of these are good trends for every student in New York, no matter where they are growing up.” — High Achievement New York Executive Director Stephen Sigmund

And some pushed for more dramatic change.

“While we are pleased to see the test scores move in the right direction for New York City students overall, we are concerned about the persistent gaps that exist for students with disabilities and English Language Learners. Teaching students to read is one of the most fundamental tasks of schools.  With only 5.6% of English Language Learners and 10.7% of students with disabilities scoring proficiently in reading, the city must do more to support these students and ensure that they receive high-quality, evidence-based instruction that targets their individual needs.”— Advocates for Children Executive Director Kim Sweet

Testing Time

New York’s state test scores are coming out today. Here’s what we’ll be watching for.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

At long last, New York state English and math test scores are being released today, according to state officials.

Though the tests have been criticized as providing only a snapshot of what students have learned, they are still one of the main tools used to judge the progress of schools, students, and major education initiatives.

Because the tests themselves held steady between 2016 and 2017, the test scores will provide a brief glimpse into whether students are making progress. That could also mean smaller changes than last year, when English scores shot up nearly eight percentage points.

But stable comparisons will only make a temporary appearance in New York education. Next year, the state has announced it will shorten testing by two days, which will no doubt call yearly comparisons into question again.

Here are a few storylines we’ll be watching as the state prepares to release test results:

Is the city’s approach to education policy working? What about signature programs like “Renewal”?

When test results jumped almost eight points in English and roughly one point in math last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio was quick to say they showed “pure hard evidence” his policies were working.

The state’s top education policymakers, however, cautioned that due to changes in the test, an “apples-to-apples” comparison to the year before was impossible. The changes included offering students unlimited time and shortening the exams slightly. This year, state tests were kept consistent in order to make those comparisons possible.

That raises an important question: Without changes to tests, will the results still be good news for Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña? It is particularly important for high-profile efforts like the city’s “Renewal” turnaround program, which is entering the year in which the mayor said it should show results.

The only other year under de Blasio’s tenure when the state had fairly consistent testing compared to the prior year was 2015. In that year, test scores inched up one point in math and two points in English.

It may be a good thing if there are only small increases again, said Jennifer Jennings, an associate professor at NYU who has studied testing.

“We hope that they’re gradually inching upwards,” Jennings said. “Very large swings are often evidence that something is off.”

What will happen to opt-out?

For the last two years, about one in five students across New York state have boycotted state tests in protest. That number is significantly lower in New York City — though it has been growing. In 2016, 2.4 percent of city students sat out of the English exams and 2.8 opted out of math in New York City.

The opt-out rate acts as a litmus test of the public’s reaction to state education policy. The movement started in response to a series of state reforms, including adoption of the Common Core and test-based teacher evaluations.

Despite changes the state made last year to appease families upset about the tests, opt-out rates remained relatively consistent. (In fact, they ticked up a bit.) This year, the state has embarked on a process to reshape learning standards and submit a new plan to evaluate schools under the new federal education law.

Will that be enough to defuse some of the tension? Early results indicated opt-out rates may have decreased statewide, but the final tally will likely be released today with state test scores, as it has in past years.

What about equity, which is at the heart of the city’s agenda?

Each year, test results show a disheartening fact: Certain subgroups, such as black and Hispanic students, fare worse than their peers on tests. English learners and students with disabilities also historically score below average.

City and state officials have placed equity at the heart of their agenda. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Equity and Excellence” initiatives and his approach to turning around struggling schools are predicated on the idea that schools — particularly those in low-income communities — need resources in order to be successful. State officials have put equity at the center of their plan to reshape education policy under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

De Blasio’s critics, however, have argued the best way to address equity issues is tackling segregation in New York City schools. (The mayor released a preliminary diversity plan, but has been fairly slow to endorse integration as a strategy for school improvement.)

So, are the extra resources helping to close the gap between students of color and their white and Asian peers? This year’s test scores will help sort out that question, though many of the mayor’s major initiatives could take years to come to fruition.