Are Children Learning

Explaining the ISTEP debate: 6 reasons why the test ballooned

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Frustrations with repeated problems with ISTEP have lawmakers looking for solutions.

The Indiana legislature is moving fast to cut at least three hours from the state ISTEP after two weeks of sharp words and behind-the-scenes negotiations over its length. Lawmakers are expected to rush a bill through both houses for the governor to sign next week to make the changes.

But with kids just days away from taking the exam, some are still asking: what caused the blow up?

The answer is a little complicated, but here are six reasons why ISTEP more than doubled in length from last year:

1. When standards change, tests must also change.

A big fight over Indiana’s academic standards last year ended when the state rapidly changed course and adopted quickly assembled new standards.

That disrupted a carefully coordinated plan in place since 2010 for the Indiana to adopt Common Core Standards along with 45 other states and use a shared exam that would test student knowledge with results that would be comparable across the country.

When Gov. Mike Pence and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz took office in 2012, Indiana had already adopted Common Core. Schools were putting it in place grade by grade, and a new Common Core-linked exam was scheduled to replace ISTEP this year.

But Pence was wary of the shared test — called the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers or PARCC — and ordered the state to withdraw from the consortium creating the test in 2013. Six months later, both Pence and Ritz supported the idea of Indiana dropping out of Common Core and endorsed new locally made standards that were adopted last April.

Like Common Core,  Indiana’s new academic standards are more in-depth and ask students to do more analysis and critical thinking.

A test matching those expectations was needed in a hurry. Instead of taking years to adapt to the new standards and create the new exam, Indiana tried to do the whole process in a matter of months. That meant asking a lot of the 2015 ISTEP.

2. This year’s test had two extra goals — add questions to match the new standards and help create a test to replace ISTEP in 2016.

More difficult standards naturally meant Indiana needed a more difficult test. But there wasn’t time to completely overhaul ISTEP this year.

Instead, ISTEP was modified for this year to add several extra features. Many of the new standards were similar to the old standards, so many questions roughly matched the style and difficulty of past ISTEP exams. But new questions were added to also test students on new, tougher concepts included in the new standards, which were designed to make sure they graduate high school ready for college and careers.

The online version of ISTEP, for example, includes more advanced testing methods that ask kids to not only answer multiple-choice questions, but also answer questions in new ways, such as by dragging and dropping points on a graph or using drop-down menus.

Finally, this year’s ISTEP had one more job: Try out some questions that could be used on the 2016 exam.

But there was a problem. Indiana law requires release each year of all essay or short-answer test questions that are used in scoring. This would turn out to be a big factor in the length of the test.

3. A huge number of questions on this year’s test actually don’t count in a student’s score.

When test questions are released to the public they are effectively retired. They can never be used again on ISTEP.

So for this year’s exam, there were two big sets of essay and short answer questions: one group that counted toward each student’s score and must be released plus a large second set being tried out for use in 2016 that wouldn’t count.

Trying out questions is important. Test makers examine how students score on them to look for unexpected surprises. Questions they ask include: Was the question harder or easier for students than predicted? Was there reason to believe it was confusing to children? Was there any evidence the question was unfair to certain groups of students?

Trying out enough questions to be able to make a completely new test for 2016 was the main factor that caused what is normally a six-hour test to swell to more than 12 hours this year. All along, however, this was intended as a one-year problem. Future state exams are expected to be only slightly longer than the six-hour tests of the past.

The legislature appears poised to waive for one year the requirement that all essay and short-answer questions be released. This would allow some of this year’s questions to be reused so there could be far fewer extra questions that don’t count.

4. A longer test means more school days devoted to testing.

Indiana students don’t take all of ISTEP at once. They take sections of the exam in smaller doses over several days.

At its Feb. 4 meeting, the state board increased the number of days schools are allowed to use to give the test. The tests will be given over the course of almost a month, beginning Feb. 25 and ending in late March, followed by another set of testing days over three weeks at the end of April into May.

Schools can choose how to split up the parts of the test. Students might take just one section per day or do more depending on what teachers and principals decide. Danielle Shockey, the state’s deputy superintendent, said a testing day could take many shapes. In some schools, student take one 35-minute test section each day. In some schools, they spend an hour each day on testing. Other schools may do more.

“They have a long window of time,” Shockey said. “They can take one session a day if they so choose. It’s a local choice.”

5. Test makers had to consider that ISTEP is plays a critical role in school A-to-F grades and teacher evaluation ratings.

ISTEP is used to measure two things: how much students know of the content they were expected to learn this year, and how much they’ve improved from a previous year. Both factor into how Indiana measures the quality of schools with its A-to-F grading system, as well as how it evaluates teachers.

To determine a school’s A-to-F grade, the state considers both the percentage of students who pass ISTEP and how much students improved from last year. For teachers, the state expects to see their students’ test scores improve over the prior year.

When tests are roughly the same each year — measuring the same standards and using similar types of questions — it is easier to gauge how much students improved from the prior year. But when the standards change and the questions are crafted differently, test makers have to add extra questions to help determine each student’s improvement from the last test.

This spring’s test will include a few questions in English and math that are specifically designed to estimate roughly on what grade level each student best fits. For example, a fourth grade test might include a few third grade level questions and a few fifth grade level questions. Some students might do well on only the third grade questions but poorly on harder questions. Others might do well on all the questions, even the more challenging fifth grade questions.

Those extra questions help the test makers better estimate whether the student improved a little, a lot or not at all over the prior year. However, those extra questions also lengthen the test, but only by minutes, not hours, Michele Walker, testing director for the education department, said. The legislature agreed they were worth keeping — those questions will remain under the plan to shorten ISTEP.

6. Then, there’s the social studies question.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law by President Bush in 2002, requires states to test students in English and math each year in grades 3 to 8, and once in high school, and also in science once during elementary, middle and high school.

Noticeably absent? Social studies.

Although Indiana’s social studies ISTEP test is only given to fifth- and seventh-graders each year, accounting for about an hour of testing for those grades, Pence’s test consultants recommended cutting that subject to reduce testing time further since it is only required by state law. That means the legislature could make an exception for this year.

State board members were divided on this idea. Some worried that it would send the message that social studies is not important. Others argued one hour for just two grades doesn’t add much test taking time.

But the legislature liked the idea of reducing test time further this way, so the Indiana Department of Education has told schools to expect the social studies exam to be optional this year. That means some students will take it, if the school decides they should, and others will be allowed to drop it for this year only.

double take

Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Students work on assignments at Indianapolis Public Schools Center For Inquiry at School 27.

Imagine a scenario where Indiana schools get not just one A-F grade each year, but two.

One grade would determine whether a school can be taken over by the state. The other would comply with federal law asking states to track student test progress and how federal aid is spent. Both would count, but each would reflect different measures of achievement and bring different consequences.

This could be Indiana’s future if a state board-approved plan moves ahead at the same time the state is working on a conflicting plan to comply with a new federal law.

If it sounds complicated, that’s because it probably would be, said state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. Originally, A-F grades were intended to be an easy way for parents and community members to understand how their school is doing.

“It’s extremely confusing to have multiple accountability systems with multiple consequences,” McCormick told board members last week. “All along our message has been to get as much alignment as we can.”

Indiana would not be the first state to consider dual accountability systems — Colorado operated separate systems for years under No Child Left Behind and is now doing so again. Virginia, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have also had two models in years past. But this move would be a big departure from Indiana’s efforts over the past several years to simplify accountability, and education officials warn it could create more problems than it would solve.

Dale Chu, an education consultant who previously worked in Indiana under state Superintendent Tony Bennett, said it’s actually not common for states to have multiple systems, and doing so for political reasons, rather than what helps students and families, is concerning.

“We all know how confusing accountability systems can be when you just have one,” Chu said. “To create a bifurcated system, I don’t see how you gain additional clarity … I would certainly hope that if that’s the direction the state is going to move in, they are very thoughtful and intentional about it.”

The changes come as Indiana works to create a plan to comply with a new federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. McCormick’s education department has been working to align the federal system with Indiana’s grading system, and is struggling to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, most notably in the area of graduation requirements and diplomas.

At the same time the Indiana State Board of Education is negotiating this alignment, it is also revamping the A-F grade system.

A new grading proposal approved by the state board last week would put more emphasis on student test scores than the A-F system that now unifies state and federal requirements. Those new rules would include extra categories for grading schools, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan.

While that proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

Officials were already expecting to issue two sets of A-F grades to schools in 2018 — one state grade, and one federal — as the state continued to work all of Indiana’s unresolved education issues into the new federal plan. Figuring out how to ensure state graduation rates don’t plummet because of other federal rule changes dictating  which diplomas count and incorporating the new high school graduation requirements, for example, will take time — and legislation — to fix.

Read: Indiana has a curious plan to sidestep federal rules — give schools two A-F grades next year.

But ultimately, officials said, if some of the state board-approved changes make it into final policy, and Indiana’s federal plan doesn’t change to accommodate it, the state and federal accountability systems could remain at odds with each other — meaning schools would continue to get two grades after 2018.

The original intent was to have all Indiana’s state grading system line up with federal requirements before the plan was sent to federal officials in September. Then, once the federal government gave feedback, the state A-F revamp could continue.

But just this past fall, after the federal plan had been submitted, some members of the state board began adding in additional measures, some of which reflect their personal interests in how schools should be rated.

Those measures were added after board members had multiple chances to discuss the federal plan with the education department, conversations that were held in an attempt to ward off such changes this late in the game. Yet even last week at the state board’s monthly meeting, where the new grading changes were approved, some board members didn’t seem to realize until after the vote that the A-F systems would not match up.

David Freitas, a state board member, said he didn’t see the conflicting A-F grade rules as a problem. The board can make Indiana’s state A-F system whatever it wants, he said, and there will be plenty of time to iron out specifics as the rulemaking process unfolds over the next several months.

“We’re not banned from having two different systems,” Freitas said. “But we need to consider the implications and consequences of that.”

Read more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.

No time to play

Will recess cuts boost learning? One struggling Colorado district wants to find out.

A suburban Denver school district on a state-mandated improvement plan has cut recess time for elementary students in a bid to devote more time to instruction.

On a good day, elementary children in the Adams 14 district get about 15 minutes of recess at lunch time, but sometimes it’s as little as seven, according to teachers who’ve spoken out about the issue.

The change, instituted at the beginning of the school year, has angered both parents and teachers who say the lack of outside playtime is stressful and unhealthy for students and has led to more behavior problems in the classroom.

The reduction in recess is one of a series of controversial decisions this year in the 7,400-student district, where almost half the students are English language learners and 86 percent qualify for subsidized meals. Also contentious this year were decisions to end parent-teacher conferences and scale back a biliteracy program once envisioned as a model for other districts.

It’s not uncommon for students in high-poverty schools like the ones in Adams 14 to get less recess compared to their more affluent peers.

A 2006 report from the National Center for Education Statistics found that the students in the highest poverty elementary schools got 17 to 21 minutes of recess a day while those at schools with relatively few students from poor families got 28 to 32 minutes a day.

District spokeswoman Janelle Asmus said the recess changes came out of feedback from state education officials and a contractor charged with helping the district improve. They urged district leaders to use school time more effectively.

“We’re a district that’s on turnaround … and the state has told us, ‘We expect dramatic improvements from you,’” Asmus said. “What we keep hearing (is), ‘You’re not using every single minute to the maximum amount.’”

Last year, district elementary schools generally had around 45 minutes of recess a day, Asmus said. While there was some variation between schools and some of that time was spent donning jackets, lining up, and filing out of the building, most had a 15-minute morning recess, 15-minute afternoon recess, and a 30-minute midday break split between lunch and recess, she said.

This year, students have only the 30-minute lunch/recess break. At a school board meeting held a week into the school year, a string of parents and teachers complained about the lack of both recess time and eating time, and a few were moved nearly to tears as they described the consequences.

Some children were throwing most of their meals away because they didn’t have enough time to eat. Others, particularly special education students who required extra help going through the cafeteria line and feeding themselves, were getting little to no recess with their peers.

While Colorado law requires elementary schools to provide students with an average of 30 minutes of physical activity a day, many observers consider it a weak law because it allows so much flexibility in what counts as physical activity and no minimum minutes for any particular type of physical activity.

Critics of the recess cut in Adams 14 say it flies in the face of research showing that physical activity improves focus and helps students better absorb information.

But Asmus said district officials agree with the research and are simply integrating physical activity into the elementary school day outside of recess. This approach entails lessons that incorporate movement or “brain breaks” — short periods of exercise in the classroom.

But teachers like Derene Armelin have their doubts.

A first grade teacher at Dupont Elementary, she said this week that some children sit out during movement breaks because they’re embarrassed to follow the choreographed moves that popular brain break videos rely on — dance moves or pretend wall-climbing, for example.

Plus, she said, there’s no replacement for getting fresh air outside.

Asmus said ensuring kids get time outdoors is up to teachers.

“This is where we rely on our teachers’ professional judgement,” she said. “How are they using their lessons to address all the needs of the student?”

Asmus said teachers can take kids outside as part of lessons, say for a butterfly hunt or to count flowers in a garden.

Armelin sees signs that the daily schedule is hard on youngsters. Some act tired. Others ask repeatedly for bathroom breaks just to get up and move.

“They’re walking down the hallway. They’re getting a drink of water,” she said. “They’re doing whatever form of exercise they can come up with.”

Parent Elizabeth Vitela said her first-grade son and fourth-grade daughter mention the lack of recess almost every day.
“They say it’s too little,” she said. “It’s not a good amount.”

Vitela, whose children attend Dupont Elementary, said she’s upset that no one ever explained the recess cuts or the discontinuation of parent-teacher conferences to parents.

Parent Carolina Rosales, who has a kindergartner and third-grader at Hanson Elementary, said her 5-year-old son sometimes misses recess altogether because he prefers to use the allotted 30 minutes to eat. Her 9-year-old daughter is the opposite, often gulping down just fruit and milk before dashing outside.

Recess practices vary in Colorado districts, including those that face the same kinds of academic hurdles as Adams 14. In nearby Westminster Public Schools, which is also on a state-required improvement plan, most elementary students get a 10-minute morning recess, a 10-minute afternoon recess and 10 to 20 minutes during the lunch/recess period, said district spokesman Stephen Saunders.

In Pueblo City Schools, which improved just enough in 2016 to avoid a state improvement plan, elementary students get a 35-minute lunch/recess break plus 10 to 15 minutes of additional recess during other times of the day, said district spokesman R. Dalton Sprouse.

While the recess cuts in Adams 14, like other recent changes there, are intended to boost learning and raise test scores, some district teachers believe the plan will backfire.

“I honestly think it’s going to bring scores down,” said Hanson Elementary teacher Jodi Connelly, who teaches fourth- and fifth-graders.

“To tell them you’re going to have to sit in a chair all day long … and have things put in your head,” she said. “That’s not how they’re wired.”

Connelly, who is currently on a health-related leave of absence, said before she went on leave in late fall she was seeing more student conflicts and disruptions. One boy, who had gradually shed his previously defiant behavior, was regressing. He’d become mouthy and rude again, habits that were landing him in detention.

“We spend more time dealing with behaviors as a result of not having the time for kids to get out there and be kids,” she said.