Are Children Learning

Indiana dumps CTB-McGraw Hill, picks Pearson to create future ISTEP

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

Indiana appears ready to ditch the company that creates ISTEP after years of testing problems, but the cost of delivering Indiana’s state tests could go way up if it does.

British-owned Pearson, another giant testing company, won the state’s bid for a $38 million two-year contract to give the ISTEP test starting next spring over CTB-McGraw Hill, according to awards released today by the Indiana Department of Administration. California-based CTB-McGraw Hill has created ISTEP since the test’s inception in 2009. The company had a four-year, $95 million contract to create ISTEP that expired last year.

But state lawmakers are already casting doubts on whether they will approve the big spike in spending the contracts would require. So it’s not yet a done deal.

Awards to five other companies would push the price tag for Indiana’s testing system to $133.8 million for the next two years. CTB-McGraw Hill, which has been under fire for repeated testing problems over the past four years, was awarded $68 million to continue creating practice tests school districts use to prepare for state exams.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz slammed the cost of the bids in a statement, which she said her department did not control.

“When I ran for this office, I ran on a platform that included less testing for our students,” Ritz said in a statement. “However, Indiana’s procurement process is modeled to comply with state and federal mandates that require a continuation of assessments that we have been administering to our students.  The Department of Education learned of the awards and the astronomical costs of the assessments after this process had been completed.”

Shelley Triol, a spokeswoman for the department of administration, said her department monitors and carries out the contract proposal process on behalf of the education department and state board of education, but it isn’t involved in budget negotiations. The contracts are not yet final, she said, and budget issues have to be hashed out between the test companies and the department of education.

“For (requests for proposal) conducted or administered by IDOA on behalf of other agencies, IDOA has no part in the budgetary process,” Triol said in an email. “All budgetary issues are dealt with directly by the agency that will ultimately enter into the contract(s) that may result from the (proposal) process.”

Lawmakers, including state Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, have been asking if Indiana should scrap ISTEP altogether in favor of a national “off-the-shelf” test like one from the Northwest Evaluation Association or a well-known exam like the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. Senate Bill 566, which Kenley authored, would do just that. The bill passed the Senate 46-3 last month and is expected to be considered by the House soon.

The current state budget proposal, passed last month by the House, does not include the extra money needed to pay for the contracts that were awarded. It allocates the same amount of money for testing as the state is spending now. The Senate began to debate the budget this week.

Kenley, who heads the budget-making Senate Appropriations Committee, said he thinks this creates the perfect opportunity for Ritz, the education department, lawmakers and the Indiana State Board of Education to continue discussions about his bill and creating a more streamlined, cheaper test that’s better for students and teachers.

“I think that getting the results of the (requests for proposals) and looking at the price tags is a helpful step in motivating everybody … to try to sit down and work on this thing, to get a resolution out that everybody gets comfortable with what we think will be beneficial for the students and for the teachers in the state,” Kenley said.

The education department, he said, is scheduled to present its budget proposal to the Senate Appropriations Committee on March 19. If the cost for testing remains as high as it is, Kenley said he’s not inclined to move the department’s proposal forward. The State Budget Committee, which will meet separately later on this year, must also review the test contracts.

That could throw the state’s entire plan to convert to a new state exam next year off course and raise several hard questions about whether a cheaper test could still meet all the requirements of state and federal law that the bidding companies were asked to meet.

Ritz was not available for interviews, but in her statement she seemed to endorse the idea that cost-saving alternatives should be explored.

“I strongly believe that Indiana needs a streamlined system of assessments that come at a reasonable cost to taxpayers,” she said in the statement. “I look forward to working with Indiana’s policymakers toward that outcome.”

Last month, news of a potentially 12-hour long ISTEP test sent policymakers into a panic. Part of the reason the test was projected to be so lengthy was because the department needed to add questions that did not count this year but that were being tried out for the 2015-16 test.

After a week of heated back-and-forth between Ritz’s department and Gov. Mike Pence’s office, a deal was struck to fast-track a bill that shortened the test by three hours.

Indiana State Board of Education member Sarah O’Brien said in a statement the board also wants more discussion about what the future state testing system should look like.

“The State Board of Education will take a very close look in the coming months at the proposed testing contracts in terms of overall scope and cost,” the statement said. “Hoosier taxpayers and parents can be assured the Board will not authorize any assessment that results in excessive testing time for our children or spends more tax dollars than is necessary to meet state and federal education requirements.”

CTB-McGraw Hill spokesman Brian Belardi said the company declined to comment. A representative from Pearson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Since 2011 CTB-McGraw Hill has had repeated problems with ISTEP.

The biggest incident came in April of 2013, about 78,000 Indiana students taking ISTEP experienced interruptions over the course of several days, or about 16 percent of all test takers online. It was the third consecutive year that online ISTEP had such troubles. In 2011, about 10,000 students had problem and in 2012, it was 9,000 students with online trouble.

Last August CTB-McGraw Hill reached a $3 million settlement with the state over problems on the 2013 exam. The company has had similar problems in other states including Oklahoma, which canceled its contract last July.

Here is a complete list of companies that were awarded potential two-year contracts to create test for Indiana:

  • Pearson would create ISTEP for just over $38 million and IREAD-3, Indiana’s third-grade reading test, for almost $7 million.
  • Questar Assessment would create the high school end-of-course exams for about $7.5 million and the alternate assessment for students with special needs for about $5 million.
  • College Board, which writes the SAT and Advanced Placement tests, would create a graduation exam for $10.7 million and an exam that would determine whether students are ready for college or jobs for $624,381.
  • Amplify, a New York City-based company, would write practice English tests for Kindergarten through second grade for a little more than $3 million.
  • Strategic Measurement and Evaluation, an Indiana-based company affiliated with Questar, would create practice math tests for Kindergarteners through second-graders for about $900,000.
  • McGraw-Hill would create practice tests in science, for kindergarten to second grade, for about $7 million; practice tests in social studies, for kindergarten to second grade, for about $7 million; practice English tests, grades 3 to 10, for almost $13 million; practice math tests, grades 3 to 10, for a little more than $11 million; practice science tests, grades 3 to 10, for a little more than $11 million; and practice social studies tests, grades 3 to 10, for a little more than $11 million.

 

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.