Are Children Learning

Could the battle over ISTEP put Indiana's NCLB waiver in jeopardy?

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Notes from a committee during work to create new Indiana math standards in last year.

A showdown is brewing this week over the future of ISTEP, but expect a new question to be raised: could changes to state tests could put Indiana’s federal school aid at risk?

At a minimum, any change of course for ISTEP would likely require a review by the U.S. Department of Education to be sure it would not violate an agreement Indiana made in 2012 to ensure schools would be able to spend federal aid money without new restrictions.

The debate has become increasingly high-stakes as the Indiana State Board of Education and powerful state lawmakers have yet to blink on very different plans for ISTEP. Lawmakers have fewer than 10 days to sort out the dispute as legislative deadlines are looming. The legislature is expected to wrap up its work by the end of April.

The House Education Committee on Tuesday is scheduled to again discuss Senate Bill 566, which would replace ISTEP with an “off-the-shelf” exam to serve as Indiana’s state test. Meanwhile, the state board last week strongly reiterated support for its plan to overhaul the state-created ISTEP test despite growing costs.

“If a school system spends $11 billion or $12 billion in total and doesn’t know where their student are in a comprehensive way, it’s dereliction of duty,” state board member Dan Elsener said at Wednesday’s state board meeting. “This is not an unreasonable cost. This is an investment. This general thing that we are spending too much money is incorrect. Leaders of organizations need to know the outcomes.”

But Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, and Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, who chair the budget-making committees in the Senate and House, testified the following day before the House Education Committee that a national test, such as one created by the Oregon-based Northwest Evaluation Association that some Indiana schools use to prepare for ISTEP, could serve as the state test and save the state millions.

Kenley said testing in Indiana has gotten off-track.

“We have a great deal of concern about where we’ve gone with this,” he said. We think we’ve put together kind of a common sense approach. We think that we need to streamline the testing. We need to make the test shorter. We need to make it more acceptable by the teachers.”

The cost of a new ISTEP, redesigned to match new academic standards approved last year, has come down as the debate has intensified. In December, state Superintendent Glenda Ritz said state tests could cost about $65 million per year once a company was hired to create the new exams, a 45 percent increase over what the state pays now.

A revised proposal from Ritz estimated the cost at $37 million per year, but on Wednesday the state board backed a proposal from board member Sarah O’Brien with an estimated to cost of about $50 million per year. O’Brien argued the actual cost could be lower.

“I understand being cost efficient, but that is not our primary goal,” board member David Frietas said at last week’s meeting. “When we get into an argument over who can do it for the least amount of money I get really concerned. Because, yes, its a balance between having a really good assessment system and the money, but for me what comes first is having a great assessment system that does what we need it to do.”

Last year Indiana dumped Common Core standards, at the urging of the legislature, to create its own standards. Common Core, shared by more than 40 other states, came with shared exams developed by two consortia of states that were projected to be cheaper than the state’s self-created tests. Kenley was among legislative leaders who pushed for Indiana-specific standards.

But the change of standards and alterations to Indiana’s test for this year quickly caught the attention of federal education officials. That was one reason it put Indiana on the equivalent of probation until it proved it could still meet the terms of the 2012 agreement, also called a “waiver.”

The waiver released Indiana from sanctions under the federal No Child Left Behind law, which could have redirected millions in federal dollars schools receive for program to help poor children to outside tutoring companies. Ultimately, Indiana won a one-year renewal of the waiver that must be renewed again this summer.

If the state changes to a different test, expect another federal review, said Mike Cohen, president of Boston-based non-profit Achieve, Inc. The group helped form the Partnership for the Assessment of College and Career Readiness (PARCC), one of the test-making consortia connected to Common Core. Indiana had been part of PARCC before Gov. Mike Pence ordered the state to withdraw.

“When I got toward the end of the bill, in effect, it says, ‘when we pick this national test, if the standards and test are not aligned, we should just change the standards to be more in line with the test,’” said Cohen, who will be in Indiana on Tuesday to testify on the bill. “What’s really critical to having the testing system approved to keep your waiver is having a test aligned to standards and valid for the purposes it will be used.”

On Thursday, Kenley said he had spoken with officials at NWEA and other test-makers, who assured him minor changes could be made to the exams they make so they would fit Indiana’s standards. Or, in some cases, Indiana might need minor revisions to its standards to make them match.

“You could add a small add-on to the test that wouldn’t take much time that would meet the summative performance that would allow us to meet No Child Left Behind,” Kenley said.

But Cohen was skeptical.

“I’m not so sure the tweaks to the test to align with the standards, or vice versa, are all that minor,” he said.

One other complication to using NWEA exams is that they are entirely online and multiple choice. Some Indiana schools have chosen to give ISTEP on paper after repeated problems with online tests, and a few schools don’t yet have the computing capacity to give online exams. Kenley said the state should consider adding money to the budget to ensure all schools have the technology they need.

But Indiana’s new standards also require students to demonstrate more writing skills than in the past, Cohen said. Achieve reviewed Indiana’s standards last year and gave them mostly high marks.

“The literacy standards have heavy emphasis on writing evidence based arguments, which is based on what the students read,” he said. “A computer adaptive test with no writing will have a hard time aligning and measuring those standards.”

more digging

Kingsbury High added to list of Memphis schools under investigation for grade changing

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Kingsbury High School was added to a list of schools being investigated by an outside firm for improper grade changes. Here, Principal Terry Ross was featured in a Shelby County Schools video about a new school budget tool.

Another Memphis high school has been added to the list of schools being investigated to determine if they made improper changes to student grades.

Adding Kingsbury High School to seven others in Shelby County Schools will further delay the report initially expected to be released in mid-June.

But from what school board Chairwoman Shante Avant has heard so far, “there haven’t been any huge irregularities.”

“Nothing has surfaced that gives me pause at this point,” Avant told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

The accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman is conducting the investigation.

This comes about three weeks after a former Kingsbury teacher, Alesia Harris, told school board members that Principal Terry Ross instructed someone to change 17 student exam grades to 100 percent — against her wishes.

Shelby County Schools said the allegations were “inaccurate” and that the grade changes were a mistake that was self-reported by an employee.

“The school administration immediately reported, and the central office team took the necessary actions and promptly corrected the errors,” the district said in a statement.

Chalkbeat requested a copy of the district’s own initial investigation the day after Harris spoke at the board’s June meeting, but district officials said they likely would not have a response for Chalkbeat until July 27.

Harris said that no one from Dixon Hughes Goodman has contacted her regarding the investigation as of Thursday.

The firm’s investigation initially included seven schools. Kingsbury was not among them. Those seven schools are:

  • Kirby High
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Bolton High
  • Westwood High
  • White Station High
  • Trezevant High
  • Memphis Virtual School

The firm’s first report found as many as 2,900 failing grades changed during four years at nine Memphis-area schools. At the request of the board, two schools were eliminated: one a charter managed by a nonprofit, and a school outside the district. The firm said at the time that further investigation was warranted to determine if the grade changes were legitimate.

The $145,000 investigation includes interviews with teachers and administrators, comparing teachers’ paper grade books to electronic versions, accompanying grade change forms, and inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades.

Since the controversy started last year, the district has restricted the number of employees authorized to make changes to a student’s report card or transcript, and also requires a monthly report from principals detailing any grade changes.

Silver Lining Playbook

Memphis’ youngest students show reading gains on 2018 state tests — and that’s a big deal

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A student works on reading comprehension skills at Lucie E Campbell Elementary School in Memphis and Shelby County Schools.

Those working to improve early literacy rates in Shelby County Schools got a small morale boost Thursday as newly released scores show the district’s elementary school students improved their reading on 2018 state tests.

The percentage of Memphis elementary-age students considered proficient in reading rose by 3 points to almost one-fourth of the district’s children in grades 3 through 5. That’s still well below the state average, and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said “we obviously have a long way to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has overseen Tennessee’s largest public school district since 2013.

Strengthening early literacy has been a priority for the Memphis district, which views better reading skills as crucial to predicting high school graduation and career success. To that end, Shelby County Schools has expanded access to pre-K programs, adjusted reading curriculum, and made investments in literacy training for teachers.

Hopson said the payoff on this year’s TNReady scores was a jump of almost 5 percentage points in third-grade reading proficiency.

“It was about five years ago when we really, really, really started pushing pre-K, and those pre-K kids are now in the third grade. I think that’s something that’s really positive,” Hopson said of the gains, adding that third-grade reading levels are an important indicator of future school performance.

TNReady scores for Shelby County Schools, which has a high concentration of low-performing schools and students living in poverty, were a mixed bag, as they were statewide.

Math scores went up in elementary, middle, and high schools in Tennessee’s largest district. But science scores went down across the board, and the percentage of high school students who scored proficient in reading dropped by 4 percentage points.

The three charts below illustrate, by subject, the percentages of students who performed on track or better in elementary, middle, and high schools within Shelby County Schools. The blue bars reflect the district’s most recent scores, the black bars show last year’s scores, and the yellow bars depict this year’s statewide averages.

Hopson said he was unsure how much the scores of older students — all of whom tested online — were affected by technical problems that hampered Tennessee’s return this year to computerized testing.

“From what people tell me, kids either didn’t try as hard in some instances or didn’t take it seriously,” Hopson told reporters. “We’ll never know what the real impact is, but we have to accept the data that came from these tests.”

But students in two of the district’s school improvement initiatives — the Innovation Zone and the Empowerment Zone — showed progress. “We’re going to double down on these strategies,” Hopson said of the extra investments and classroom supports.

In the state-run Achievement School District, or ASD, which oversees 30 low-performing schools in Memphis, grades 3 through 8 saw an uptick in scores in both reading and math. But high schoolers scored more than 3 percentage points lower in reading and also took a step back in science.

The ASD takes over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent and assigns them to charter operators to improve. But in the five years that the ASD has been in Memphis, its scores have been mostly stagnant.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said she and new ASD Superintendent Sharon Griffin are reviewing the new data to determine next steps.

“We are seeing some encouraging momentum shifts,” McQueen said.

Chalkbeat illustrator Sam Park contributed to this story.