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.

testing 1-2-3

Tennessee students to test the test under reworked computer platform

PHOTO: Getty Images

About 45,000 high school students in a third of Tennessee districts will log on Tuesday for a 40-minute simulation to make sure the state’s testing company has worked the bugs out of its online platform.

That platform, called Nextera, was rife with glitches last spring, disrupting days of testing and mostly disqualifying the results from the state’s accountability systems for students, teachers, and schools.

This week’s simulation is designed to make sure those technical problems don’t happen again under Questar, which in June will finish out its contract to administer the state’s TNReady assessment.

Tuesday’s trial run will begin at 8:30 a.m. in participating high schools statewide to simulate testing scheduled for Nov. 26-Dec. 14, when some students will take their TNReady exams. Another simulation is planned before spring testing begins in April on a much larger scale.

The simulation is expected to involve far more than the 30,000 students who will test in real life after Thanksgiving. It also will take into account that Tennessee is split into two time zones.

“We’re looking at a true simulation,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, noting that students on Eastern Time will be submitting their trial test forms while students on Central Time are logging on to their computers and tablets.

The goal is to verify that Questar, which has struggled to deliver a clean TNReady administration the last two years, has fixed the online problems that caused headaches for students who tried unsuccessfully to log on or submit their end-of-course tests.

Here’s a list of everything that went wrong with TNReady testing in 2018

The two primary culprits were functions that Questar added after a successful administration of TNReady last fall but before spring testing began in April: 1) a text-to-speech tool that enabled students with special needs to receive audible instructions; and 2) coupling the test’s login system with a new system for teachers to build practice tests.

Because Questar made the changes without conferring with the state, the company breached its contract and was docked $2.5 million out of its $30 million agreement.

“At the end of the day, this is about vendor execution,” McQueen told members of the State Board of Education last week. “We feel like there was a readiness on the part of the department and the districts … but our vendor execution was poor.”

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

She added: “That’s why we’re taking extra precautions to verify in real time, before the testing window, that things have actually been accomplished.”

By the year’s end, Tennessee plans to request proposals from other companies to take over its testing program beginning in the fall of 2019, with a contract likely to be awarded in April.

The administration of outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam has kept both of Tennessee’s top gubernatorial candidates — Democrat Karl Dean and Republican Bill Lee — in the loop about the process. Officials say they want to avoid the pitfalls that happened as the state raced to find a new vendor in 2014 after the legislature pulled the plug on participating in a multi-state testing consortium known as PARCC.

Why state lawmakers share the blame, too, for TNReady testing headaches

“We feel like, during the first RFP process, there was lots of content expertise, meaning people who understood math and English language arts,” McQueen said. “But the need to have folks that understand assessment deeply as well as the technical side of assessment was potentially missing.”

Academic Accountability

Coming soon: Not one, but two ratings for every Chicago school

Starting this month, Chicago schools will have to juggle two ratings — one from the school district, and another from the state.

The Illinois State Board of Education is scheduled to release on October 31 its annual report cards for schools across the state. This year, for the first time, each school will receive one of four quality stamps from the state: an “exemplary” or “commendable” rating signal the school is meeting standards while an “underperforming” or “lowest performing” designation could trigger intervention, according to state board of education spokeswoman Jackie Matthews.

A federal accountability law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, requires these new ratings.

To complicate matters, the city and state ratings are each based on different underlying metrics and even a different set of standardized tests. The state ratings, for example, are based on a modified version of the PARCC assessment, while Chicago ratings are based largely on the NWEA. The new state ratings, like those the school district issues, can be given out without observers ever having visited a classroom, which is why critics argue that the approach lacks the qualitative metrics necessary to assess the learning, teaching, and leadership at individual schools.

Patricia Brekke, principal at Back of the Yards College Preparatory High School, said she’s still waiting to see how the ratings will be used, “and how that matters for us,” but that parents at her school aren’t necessarily focused on what the state says.

“What our parents usually want to know is what [Chicago Public Schools] says about us, and how we’re doing in comparison to other schools nearby that their children are interested in,” she said.

Educators at Chicago Public Schools understand the power of school quality ratings.  The district already has its own five-tiered rating system: Level 1+ and Level 1 designate the highest performing schools, Level 2+ and Level 2 describe for average and below average performing schools, respectively, and Level 3, the lowest performance rating, is for schools in need of “intensive intervention.” The ratings help parents decide where to enroll their children, and are supposed to signal to the district that the school needs more support. But the ratings are also the source of angst — used to justify replacing school leaders, closing schools, or opening new schools in neighborhoods where options are deemed inadequate.

In contrast, the state’s school quality designations actually target underperforming and lowest-performing schools with additional federal funding and support with the goal of improving student outcomes. Matthews said schools will work with “school support managers” from the state to do a self-inquiry and identify areas for improvement. She described Chicago’s school quality rating system as “a local dashboard that they have developed to communicate with their communities.”

Staff from the Illinois State Board of Education will be traveling around the state next week to meet with district leaders and principals to discuss the new accountability system, including the ratings. They’ll be in Bloomington, Marion, O’Fallon, Chicago, and Melrose Park. The Chicago meeting is Wednesday, Oct. 24, at 5 p.m. at Chicago Public Schools headquarters.

Rae Clementz, director of assessment and accountability at the state board said that a second set of ratings reveals “that there are multiple valid ways to look at school quality and success; it’s a richer picture.”

Under auspices of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the state school report cards released at the end of the month for elementary schools are 75 percent based on academics, including English language arts and math test scores, English learner progress as measured by the ACCESS test, and academic growth. The other 25 percent reflects the school climate and success, such as attendance and chronic absenteeism.

Other measures are slated to be phased in over the next several years, including academic indicators like science proficiency and school quality indicators, such as school climate surveys of staff, students and parents

High school designations take a similar approach with English and math test scores but will take into account graduation rates, instead of academic growth, and also includes the percentage of  9th graders on track to graduate — that is freshmen who earn 10 semester credits, and no more than one semester F in a core course.

Critics of Chicago’s school rating system argue that the ratings correlate more with socioeconomic status and race than they do school quality, and say little about what’s happening in classrooms and how kids are learning. Chicago does try to mitigate these issues with a greater emphasis on growth in test scores rather than absolute attainment, school climate surveys, and including academic growth by priority groups, like African-American, Latino, ELL, and students in special education.

Cory Koedel, a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Missouri, said that many rating systems basically capture poverty status with a focus on how high or low students score on tests. Chicago’s approach is fairer than that of many other school systems.

“What I like about this is it does seem to have a high weight on growth and lower weight on attainment levels,” he said.

Morgan Polikoff, a professor at University of Southern California’s school of education, said that Chicago’s emphasis on student growth is a good thing “if the purpose of the system is to identify schools doing a good job educating kids.”

Chicago weights 50 percent of the rating on growth, but he’s seen 35 to as low as 15 percent at other districts. But he said the school district’s reliance on the NWEA test rather than the PARCC test used in the state school ratings was atypical.

“It’s not a state test, and though they say it aligns with standards, I know from talking to educators that a lot of them feel the tests are not well aligned with what they are supposed to be teaching,” he said. “It’s just a little odd to me they would have state assessment data, which is what they are held accountable for with the state, but use the other data.”

He’s skeptical about school systems relying too heavily on standardized test scores, whether the SAT, PARCC or NWEA, because “You worry that now you’re just turning the curriculum to test prep, and that’s an incentive you don’t want to create for educators.”

He said the high school measures in particular include a wide array of measures, including measures that follow students into college, “so I love that.”

“I really like the idea of broadening the set of indicators on which we evaluate schools and encouraging schools to really pay attention to how well they prepare students for what comes next,” he said.