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.”

Mapping a Turnaround

This is what the State Board of Education hopes to order Adams 14 to do

PHOTO: Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
Javier Abrego, superintendent of Adams 14 School District on April 17, 2018.

In Colorado’s first-ever attempt to give away management of a school district, state officials Thursday provided a preview of what the final order requiring Adams 14 to give up district management could include.

The State Board of Education is expected to approve its final directives to the district later this month.

Thursday, after expressing a lack of trust in district officials who pleaded their case, the state board asked the Attorney General’s office for advice and help in drafting a final order detailing how the district is to cede authority, and in what areas.

Colorado has never ordered an external organization to take over full management of an entire district.

Among details discussed Thursday, Adams 14 will be required to hire an external manager for at least four years. The district will have 90 days to finalize a contract with an external manager. If it doesn’t, or if the contract doesn’t meet the state’s guidelines, the state may pull the district’s accreditation, which would trigger dissolution of Adams 14.

State board chair Angelika Schroeder said no one wants to have to resort to that measure.

But districts should know, the state board does have “a few more tools in our toolbox,” she said.

In addition, if they get legal clearance, state board members would like to explicitly require the district:

  • To give up hiring and firing authority, at least for at-will employees who are administrators, but not teachers, to the external manager.
    When State Board member Steve Durham questioned the Adams 14 school board President Connie Quintana about this point on Wednesday, she made it clear she was not interested in giving up this authority.
  • To give up instructional, curricular, and teacher training decisions to the external manager.
  • To allow the new external manager to decide if there is value in continuing the existing work with nonprofit Beyond Textbooks.
    District officials have proposed they continue this work and are expanding Beyond Textbooks resources to more schools this year. The state review panel also suggested keeping the Beyond Textbooks partnership, mostly to give teachers continuity instead of switching strategies again.
  • To require Adams 14 to seek an outside manager that uses research-based strategies and has experience working in that role and with similar students.
  • To task the external manager with helping the district improve community engagement.
  • To be more open about their progress.
    The state board wants to be able to keep track of how things are going. State board member Rebecca McClellan said she would like the state board and the department’s progress monitor to be able to do unannounced site visits. Board member Jane Goff asked for brief weekly reports.
  • To allow the external manager to decide if the high school requires additional management or other support.
  • To allow state education officials, and/or the state board, to review the final contract between the district and its selected manager, to review for compliance with the final order.

Facing the potential for losing near total control over his district, Superintendent Javier Abrego Thursday afternoon thanked the state board for “honoring our request.”

The district had accepted the recommendation of external management and brought forward its own proposal — but with the district retaining more authority.

Asked about the ways in which the state board went above and beyond the district’s proposal, such as giving the outside manager the authority to hire and fire administrative staff, Abrego did not seem concerned.

“That has not been determined yet,” he said. “That will all be negotiated.”

The state board asked that the final order include clear instructions about next steps if the district failed to comply with the state’s order.

Indiana A-F grades

Why it’s hard to compare Indianapolis schools under the A-F grading system

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Because Thomas Gregg Neighborhood School became an innovation school last year, the state uses a different scale to grade it.

A-F grades for schools across Indiana were released Wednesday, but in the state’s largest district, the grades aren’t necessarily an easy way to compare schools.

An increasing share of Indianapolis Public Schools campuses, last year about 20 percent, are being measured by a different yardstick than others, creating a system where schools with virtually identical results on state tests can receive vastly different letter grades.

The letter grades aim to show how well schools are serving students by measuring both how their students score on state tests and how much their scores improve. But as Chalkbeat reported last year, new schools and schools that join the IPS innovation network can opt to be graded for three years based only on the second measure, known as growth. Schools in the innovation network are part of the district, but they are run by outside charter or nonprofit operators.

Of the 11 out 70 Indianapolis Public Schools campuses that received A marks from the state, eight were graded based on growth alone. They included a school in its first year of operation and seven innovation schools.

At the same time, traditional neighborhood and magnet schools with growth scores as good as or better than the scores at A-rated innovation schools received Bs, Cs, and even Ds.

Of the 13 innovation schools that received grades for last school year, eight received As, two got Bs, two got Cs, and one got a D. Only Herron High School was graded on the same scale as other schools. (For high schools, grades incorporate other measures including graduation rates.)

The result is a system that most parents don’t understand, said Seretha Edwards, a parent of four children at School 43, a school that received a failing grade from the state but would have gotten a B if it were measured by growth alone.

“I just think it’s kind of deceiving,” she added. “I don’t think it paints a fair picture of the schools.”

Indianapolis Public Schools deputy superintendent for academics Aleesia Johnson said the growth scores show schools are on a good trajectory.

“If you see that kids are making progress in terms of growth, that’s a good sign that you’re on the right track,” she said.

Still, she acknowledged that “there’s still a lot of work to do” to get students to pass tests and show proficiency.

Johnson pointed out that often-changing standardized tests and different A-F grades can cause confusion for families, and those measures don’t provide a complete or timely picture for families who want to assess their schools or choose new ones. “I don’t think it gives a lot of valuable information,” she said.

Advocates have said the growth only model makes sense because schools shouldn’t be held accountable for the low passing rates of students that they just began educating. But in practice, the policy benefits charter and innovation schools, which enjoy strong support from Republican lawmakers.

“The concept behind the growth-only model was that we measured newer schools based off of what they are able to do for their students, rather than taking them where they received them,” said Maggie Paino, the director of accountability for the education department. “You’re taking strides to get toward proficiency.”

The situation is even more muddled than usual this year. Schools across the state received two letter grades. One was calculated under a state model that relies largely on test scores, and the other was determined under a plan the state uses to comply with federal standards.

In addition to helping parents choose schools, years of repeated low letter grades from the state can trigger intervention or takeover. But the state has deferred in decisions about intervening in low-rated schools to IPS in recent years.

Back in 2012, the state took over four chronically low-performing Indianapolis schools. Since Superintendent Lewis Ferebee took over, IPS has taken aggressive steps to overhaul struggling schools by “restarting” them as innovation schools with new managers. Other struggling schools have been closed.

School 63, which received its sixth consecutive F from the state, might have faced state intervention in the past. But the school is unlikely to face repercussions because IPS restarted the school by turning it over to an outside manager. The Haughville elementary school is now managed by Matchbook Learning.

Shaina Cavazos and Stephanie Wang contributed reporting.