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.”

measuring up

After criticism, Denver will change the way it rates elementary schools

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Eva Severance, a first-grader, concentrates on a reading lesson at Lincoln Elementary in Denver.

Facing criticism that its school ratings overstated young students’ reading abilities, the Denver school district announced it will change the way elementary schools are rated next year.

The district will increase the number of students in kindergarten, first, second, and third grade who must score at grade-level on early literacy tests for a school to earn points on the district’s rating scale, and decrease how many points those scores will be worth, officials said.

The changes will lessen the impact of early literacy scores on a school’s overall rating, while also raising the bar on how many students must ace the tests for a school to be considered good. Denver rates schools on a color-coded scale from blue (the highest) to red (the lowest).

“We want to see more students making more progress,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said.

Local civil rights groups, elected officials, educators, and education advocates criticized Denver Public Schools this year for misleading students and families with what they characterized as inflated school ratings based partly on overstated early literacy gains.

“At a time when this country is at war on truth, we have an obligation to Denver families to give them a true picture of their schools’ performance,” state Sen. Angela Williams, a Denver Democrat, told Boasberg and the school board at a meeting in December.

The groups had asked the district to revise this year’s ratings, which were issued in October. Boasberg refused, saying, “If you’re going to change the rules of the game, it’s certainly advisable to change them before the game starts.” That’s what the district is doing for next year.

The state requires students in kindergarten through third grade to take the early literacy tests as a way to identify for extra help students who are struggling the most to learn to read. Research shows third graders who don’t read proficiently are four times as likely to fail out of high school. In Denver, most schools administer an early literacy test called iStation.

The state also requires students in third through ninth grade to take a literacy test called PARCC, which is more rigorous. Third-graders are the only students who take both tests.

The issue is that many third-graders who scored well on iStation did not score well on PARCC. At Castro Elementary in southwest Denver, for example, 73 percent of third-graders scored at grade-level or above on iStation, but just 17 percent did on PARCC.

Denver’s school ratings system, called the School Performance Framework, or SPF, has always relied heavily on state test scores. But this year, the weight given to the early literacy scores increased from 10 percent to 34 percent of the overall rating because the district added points for how well certain groups, such as students from low-income families, did on the tests.

That added weight, plus the discrepancy between how third-graders scored on PARCC and how they scored on iStation, raised concerns about the validity of the ratings.

At a school board work session earlier this week, Boasberg called those concerns “understandable.” He laid out the district’s two-pronged approach to addressing them, noting that the changes planned for next year are a stop-gap measure until the district can make a more significant change in 2019 that will hopefully minimize the discrepancy between the tests.

Next year, the district will increase the percentage of students who must score at grade-level on the early literacy tests. Currently, fewer than half of an elementary school’s students must score that way for a school to earn points, said Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova. The district hasn’t yet settled on what the number will be for next year, but it will likely be more than 70 percent, she said. The more points a school earns, the higher its color rating.

The district will also reduce the impact the early literacy test scores have on the ratings by cutting in half the number of points schools can earn related to the tests, Cordova said. This makes the stakes a little lower, even as the district sets a higher bar.

The number of points will go back up in 2019 when the district makes a more significant change, officials said. The change has to do with how the tests are scored.

For the past several years, the district has used the “cut points” set by the test vendors to determine which students are reading at grade-level and which are not. But the discrepancy between the third-grade iStation and PARCC reading scores – and the public outcry it sparked – has caused officials to conclude the vendor cut points are too low.

District officials said they have asked the vendors and the state education department to raise the cut points. But even if they agree, that isn’t a simple or quick fix. In the meantime, the district has developed a set of targets it calls “aimlines” that show how high a student must score on the early literacy tests to be on track to score at grade-level on PARCC, which district officials consider the gold standard measure of what students should know.

The aimlines are essentially higher expectations. A student could be judged to be reading at grade-level according to iStation but considered off-track according to the aimlines.

In 2019, the district will use those aimlines instead of the vendor cut points for the purpose of rating schools. Part of the reason the district is waiting until 2019 is to gather another year of test score data to make sure the aimlines are truly predictive, officials said.

However, the district is encouraging schools to start looking at the aimlines this year. It is also telling families how their students are doing when measured against them. Schools sent letters home to families this past week, a step district critics previously said was a good start.

Van Schoales, CEO of the advocacy group A Plus Colorado, has been among the most persistent critics of this year’s elementary school ratings. He said he’s thrilled the district listened to community concerns and is making changes for next year, though he said it still has work to do to make the ratings easier to understand and more helpful to families.

“We know it’s complicated,” he said. “There is no perfect SPF. We just think we can get to a more perfect SPF with conversations between the district and community folks.”

The district announced other changes to the School Performance Framework next year that will affect all schools, not just elementary schools. They include:

  • Not rating schools on measures for which there is only one year of data available.

Denver’s ratings have always been based on two years of data: for instance, how many students of color met expectations on state math tests in 2016 and how many met expectations in 2017.

But if a school doesn’t have data for one of those years, it will no longer be rated on that measure. One way that could happen is if a school has 20 students of color one year but only 12 the next. Schools must have at least 16 students in a category for their scores to count.

The goal, officials said, is to be more fair and accurate. Some schools complained that judging them based on just one year of data wasn’t fully capturing their performance or progress.

  • Applying the “academic gaps indicator” to all schools without exception.

This year, the district applied a new rule that schools with big gaps between less privileged and more privileged students couldn’t earn its two highest color ratings, blue and green. Schools had to be blue or green on a new “academic gaps indicator” to be blue or green overall.

But district officials made an exception for three schools where nearly all students were from low-income families, reasoning it was difficult to measure gaps when there were so few wealthier students. However, Boasberg said that after soliciting feedback from educators, parents, and advocates, “the overwhelming sentiment was that it should apply to all schools,” in part because it was difficult to find a “natural demographic break point” for exceptions.

Contract review

Here’s what a deeper probe of grade changing at Memphis schools will cost

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The board of education for Shelby County Schools is reviewing another contract with a Memphis firm hired last year to look into allegations of grade tampering at Trezevant High School. Board members will discuss the new contract Feb. 20 and vote on it Feb. 27.

A proposed contract with the accounting firm hired to examine Memphis schools with high instances of grade changes contains new details on the scope of the investigation already underway in Shelby County Schools.

The school board is reviewing a $145,000 contract with Dixon Hughes Goodman, the Memphis firm that last year identified nine high schools as having 199 or more grade changes between July 2012 and October 2016. Seven of those are part of the deeper probe, since two others are now outside of the Memphis district’s control.

The investigation includes:

  • Interviewing teachers and administrators;
  • Comparing paper grade books to electronic ones and accompanying grade change forms;
  • Inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades

In December, the firm recommended “further investigation” into schools with high instances of grade changes. At that time, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson emphasized that not all changes of grades from failing to passing are malicious, but said the district needs to ensure that any changes are proper.

Based on the firm’s hourly rate, a deeper probe could take from 300 to 900 hours. The initial review lasted four months before the firm submitted its report to Shelby County Schools.

The school board is scheduled to vote on the contract Feb. 27.

You can read the full agreement below: