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.

Sharing Stories

Tell us your stories about children with special needs in Detroit

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Parents of students with special needs face difficult challenges when trying to get services for their children. Understanding their children’s rights, getting them evaluated and properly diagnosed, and creating an educational plan are among the many issues families face.

Chalkbeat Detroit wants to hear more about those issues to help inform our coverage. We are kicking off a series of conversations called a “listening tour” to discuss your concerns, and our first meeting will focus on children with special needs and disabilities. We’re partnering with the Detroit Parent Network as they look for solutions and better ways to support parents.

Our listening tour, combined with similar events in other communities Chalkbeat serves, will continue throughout this year on a variety of topics. In these meetings, we’ll look to readers, parents, educators, and students to help us know what questions we should ask, and we’ll publish stories from people who feel comfortable having their stories told. We hope you’ll share your stories and explore solutions to the challenges parents face.

Our special education listening tour discussion will take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m., Tuesday July 24, at the Detroit Parent Network headquarters, 726 Lothrop St., Detroit.

As our series continues, we’ll meet at locations around the city to hear stories and experiences parents have while navigating the complexities of getting children the education and services they deserve.

Next week’s event includes a panel discussion with parents of children with special needs, responses from parent advocates, and an open discussion with audience members.

Those who are uncomfortable sharing stories publicly will have a chance to tell a personal story on an audio recorder in a private room, or will be interviewed by a Chalkbeat Detroit reporter privately.

The event is free and open to anyone who wants to attend, but reservations are required because space is limited. To register, call 313-309-8100 or email

If you can’t make our event, but have a story to share, send an email to, or call or send a text message to 313-404-0692.

Stayed tuned for more information about listening tour stops, topics and locations.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.