Are Children Learning

House moves to shorten ISTEP, broaden state board's testing role

PHOTO: Shannan Muskopf via Flickr
State officials are closing as many 38 Michigan schools with low rankings due to test scores but they might have trouble finding higher scoring schools nearby

An accelerated bill that would overhaul ISTEP to shorten the test got rolling quickly today, but the Indiana House isn’t stopping there.

If all the changes proposed so far this week for ISTEP were approved by lawmakers, the result could literally be a different test entirely with a more involved Indiana State Board of Education overseeing the system.

The House Education Committee jumped straight to considering a Senate bill this morning — a move that normally would wait until it completes its work on House bills over the next two weeks — to rewrite Senate Bill 62 to fix ISTEP. The goal is to speed a bill to Gov. Mike Pence’s desk to cut ISTEP testing time before the exam is given starting Feb. 25.

“Hoosier families deserve to know we are all working together to shorten this test and were going to get it done,” Pence said, hailing the bill in a press conference this afternoon. “It will give the Department of Education the ability to significantly reduce time for the test.”

Last week Pence and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz sparred over ISTEP’s length: it could take some students 12-and-a-half hours to complete, or about twice as long as last year. By Friday, both sides had agreed to a plan to cut test time by at least three hours.

But changing the test requires exceptions to state law. An amendment to Senate Bill 62 would provide three big ones.

It would waive a one-year a requirement that the state release essay and short-answer questions as it does each summer, allow the Indiana Department of Education to instead reuse some of those questions next year and waive a requirement that fifth- and seventh-graders take the state social studies exam.

That would cut test time by at least three hours for all students. Dropping social studies would cut more test time for fifth and seventh grades, but department officials said they are considering making the exam optional, so some students might still take it.

On ISTEP, Ritz’s spokesman John Barnes hailed the committee’s quick and unanimous support to shorten the test.

“We know this is an urgent situation,” Barnes said. “At a time like this, it is possible to turn things around very quickly but there is an awful lot of moving parts.”

The Indiana House and Senate this afternoon both passed concurrent resolutions designed to give assurance to educators that it intends to pass Senate Bill 62 to shorten ISTEP.

“It’s a little bit of an unusual move,” House Speaker Brian Bosma said. “I don’t recall seeing it before.”

Bosma said the House hopes to pass Senate Bill 62 on Monday and he hoped the Senate would concur as soon as that same day. Then it would move to Pence for his signature.

State Board could play a bigger role in testing

The cooperative spirit around using Senate Bill 62 to shorten ISTEP didn’t continue for the rest of the House Education Committee’s agenda.

Michele Walker, the education department’s testing chief, was less complimentary of another bill aimed at expanding the state board’s role in the processes for creating the state tests, hiring companies to make them and setting expectations for how much student test score gains should count for teachers’ evaluations.

House Bill 1072, which previously focused on private colleges, was also completely changed by an amendment. Author Jeff Thompson, R-Lizton, said the reshaped bill would not shift authority from Ritz to the state board, it just would simply require collaboration.

But a series of changes the amendment lays out would address state board concerns over recent months. It requires the department to share data with the state board and consult with its members on testing contracts. House Bill 1072 also would let the board set minimum requirements for student test score gains. That’s a decision local schools get to make under current law.

Thompson and other Republicans on the committee said the bill would not shift any authority from Ritz to the state board. Democrats weren’t buying that the changes would have no influence.

Walker said she found the new rules in House Bill 1072 baffling. The department already consults with the state board, she said, and the bill would only require a duplication of efforts.

“It’s that they don’t trust you,” Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, suggested.

On testing, Walker said state board member advice has not been especially helpful.

“Their oversight in the weeds of this process seems to me to be more micromanaging,” she said.

But Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, argued more coordination was needed.

“They don’t have the authority to collaborate with you and make sure, in the process, you are working at the same rate they are and going in the same direction,” he said.

House Bill 1072 passed the committee 9-4.

Both bills could be voted on by the full House later this week, but there’s a much bigger bill — containing the state budget — that could make some of the debate over ISTEP irrelevant.

Could the state budget kill ISTEP?

While discussing House Bill 1001 on Monday, a key Republican leader revealed that the budget proposal does not include extra money for a more expensive testing contract that Ritz and the department have said is necessary for an overhaul of ISTEP in 2016.

“I think it means we will have a discussion of what testing should be,” said Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, chairman of the budget-making House Ways and Means Committee.

Ritz raised alarms with Republicans crafting the budget when she told a committee in December that the cost of ISTEP would grow by 45 percent to $65 million for next year’s exam.

That’s because ISTEP must be overhauled to fit new Indiana academic standards with higher expectations for what students should know and would include new testing techniques. The goal of the standards is for students to graduate high school ready for college and careers, and the new test would include several new features that are more costly.

In response, key legislators proposed a different approach: junk ISTEP altogether and instead use a cheaper national test used by other states. Senate Bill 566 would do just that by halting efforts to create a new ISTEP.

The bill’s authors, including the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, and Sen Ryan Mishler, R-Bremen, suggested Indiana had options for what it could adopt as its state test, such as an exam from the Northwest Evaluation Association that many schools already use to prepare for ISTEP. It could be modified slightly and replace ISTEP, high school end-of-course exams and the third-grade reading exam all in one, depending on whether the test is given to grades 3 to 8 or 3 to 10, they said.

The proposed budget, at least for now, appears to assume the state would follow the path laid out by Senate Bill 566 and end ISTEP in favor of a national test.

At least that’s all the funding the proposed budget is offering to pay for.

“We came in at the same level as last year,” Brown said. “I don’t know if it means an off-the-shelf test or not.”

 

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.