Are Children Learning

Pence signs executive order to shorten ISTEP test

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Gov. Mike Pence.

Gov. Mike Pence signed an executive order today aimed at shortening Indiana’s ISTEP test, an action that follows days of heated conversations about how the 2015 test is almost twice as long as last year’s exam.

But it is not clear his order can be executed without cooperation from state Superintendent Glenda Ritz.

“Doubling the length of the ISTEP Plus test is unacceptable, and I won’t stand for it,” Pence said today. “Doubling the testing time for our kids is a hardship on them, it’s a hardship on families, it’s a hardship on our teachers, and this is a moment that calls for decisive action.”

Pence said recommendations would be presented to the Indiana State Board of Education and the Indiana Department of Education following a review by “national testing experts” he said would be named later for how the test could be cut down.

The education department has a contract with California-based CTB/McGraw-Hill, and is the only state agency that can write and change the test, Pence acknowledged. However, he suggested “unnecessary” reading and social studies sections could be removed, which he said would significantly decrease test time.

But Daniel Altman, spokesman for Glenda Ritz and the department, said CTB/McGraw-Hill wrote the test with federal requirements in mind and there aren’t superfluous sections that can be cut. He also said the department was notified of the executive order just minutes before the governor’s announcement.

“Yes, the test is too long,” Altman said. “However, those are the requirements the federal government has put on us and the requirements that the House and the Senate want tested as well, and so the department has to comply with that.”

Ritz told Pence in a meeting last week that Indiana should suspend A-to-F grades to give teachers and students a year to adjust to the higher expectations of the new ISTEP.

Pence made it clear he opposed that suggestion.

“You don’t throw out the grades, you fix the test,” Pence said. “And that’s what we’re going to do. And we’re going to have time to do it, but we needed to take action today.”

Indiana has an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education giving the state relief — or a waiver — from some sanctions under federal No Child Left Behind law. In return, the state promised to convert to more rigorous academic standards that would better prepare student for college and careers. Like other states, Indiana was on track to convert to higher standards, and new tests to measure them, in 2015.

But Pence, the legislature and Ritz all joined last year to change direction, dropping Indiana’s plan to follow Common Core standards along with 45 other states. States following Common Core created tests to be used with those standards.

Going its own way put Indiana on a short timeline to adopt new state-created standards — which it did last April — and tests that fit them.

This year’s ISTEP test is longer for a few reasons, the department of education said in documents released on its website.

First, the test itself is harder and might take more time. The 2015 test also has extra questions that don’t count but are needed to help build the 2016 test — a complete overhaul coming next year that the state is still developing.

For 2015, ISTEP also was modified to include new “technology enhanced” questions, which supposedly better measure whether students meet the new standards that attempt to better ready them for college and careers.

Concerns began when parents, teachers and policymakers last week saw documents from the department saying students would spend almost twice as much time taking state standardized tests this year than in years past.

Pence said adopting new standards doesn’t mean test length should double.

“I believe that … the test should roughly be the same burden and the same length as it was before,” Pence said. “Just because the standards are higher and tougher, the questions might be higher and tougher, but it doesn’t mean there need to be more of them.”

This year’s test is slated to take students up to 12-and-a-half hours over several days. Last year’s test took about six hours to complete. Each grade’s total testing time is different, with eighth-graders taking the shortest test at 11 hours and 15 minutes and third-graders taking the longest test at 12-and-a-half hours.

Teachers have been wary of the new ISTEP since the start of the school year because of its new computerized format. They’ve raised questions about how much more students must do on the screen, rather than just selecting multiple choice questions as they did in the past.

But the first part of the test, which will begin Feb. 25, Altman said, is largely writing-based, with kids responding to short reading passages and solving math problems, mostly on paper. The new computerized part is scheduled to begin in late April.

Detroit Story Booth

Why one woman thinks special education reform can’t happen in isolation

PHOTO: Colin Maloney
Sharon Kelso, student advocate from Detroit

When Sharon Kelso’s kids and grandkids were still in school, they’d come home and hear the same question from her almost every day: “How was your day in school?” One day, a little over a decade ago, Kelso’s grandson gave a troubling answer. He felt violated when security guards at his school conducted a mass search of students’ personal belongings.

Kelso, a Cass Tech grad, felt compelled to act. Eventually, she became the plaintiff in two cases which outlawed unreasonable mass searches of students in Detroit’s main district.

Fast forward to August, when her three great-nephews lost both their mother and father in the space of a week and Kelso became their guardian. Today, she asks them the same question she has asked two generations of Detroit students: “How was your day in school?”

The answers she receives still deeply inform her advocacy work.

Watch the full video here:

– Colin Maloney

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on, where this post first appeared.