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.”

union power

Gutting Wisconsin teachers unions hurt students, study finds

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2015.

The high-profile fight to limit union power was replete with drama — including a recall election and state legislators fleeing to neighboring states.

In the 2011 battle in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker ultimately came out the victor. The controversial law passed, Walker won the recall, and the Democratic-aligned unions have lost much of their power.

But new research points to other losers in the fight: students in the state’s already struggling schools.

The first study to assess how Wisconsin’s high-profile weakening of unions, particularly teachers unions, affected students finds that it led to a substantial decline in test scores.

The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments for a case, known as Janus, that could dramatically scale back union power across the country — essentially taking aspects of the Wisconsin model national. And they give credence to concerns from unions and their defenders that weakening teachers bargaining power would ultimately make schools worse, not better.

A report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress released Wednesday highlights this research — and the fact that teacher pay and average experience declined in the wake of the law, known as Act 10 — to argue that weakening unions ultimately harm schools.

“Those concerned about the quality of public education — and of all public services — should understand that Wisconsin’s Act 10 and associated budget cuts have not had the positive impact on education that its proponents claimed it would,” the CAP report argues.

Still, the research, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, only assesses the short-term impact of Wisconsin’s law. It adds to a complicated set of research findings on unions that doesn’t render a clear verdict.

Short-term effect in Wisconsin is negative, especially for low-achieving schools

The new research looks at the effects of Wisconsin Act 10, which became law in 2011 and severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt of unions.

The paper’s author, Jason Baron, took advantage of what was essentially a natural experiment set up by the law. Act 10 did not affect all school districts at once — a handful of school districts were allowed to maintain union rules until their existing contract expired up to two years later. That helped isolate the immediate impact of the law.

Baron found that weakening unions led to declines in test scores, particularly in math and science. The effects were fairly large, comparable to sharply increasing class sizes. And the harm was not evenly distributed: Schools that started out furthest behind were hurt the most, while higher achieving schools saw no impact.

Other research may help explain why.

The law led to big cuts in teacher compensation, particularly for veteran teachers and especially in health insurance and retirement benefits, according to one paper. There was also a spike in teacher retirement immediately following the law’s passage.

As compensation drops, it may become harder for district and teachers to recruit and keep teachers. An increase in retirement also reduces teacher experience, which has been linked to effectiveness.

Another study found that some Wisconsin districts moved from a single salary schedule to a performance-based pay system after Act 10’s passage. Those performance pay systems were more likely to be adopted by higher-achieving districts, potentially allowing them to lure effective teachers away from struggling schools.

“Following Act 10, high-performing schools filled vacancies from teacher retirements by poaching high-quality teachers from low-performing schools through attractive compensation schemes,” the paper concludes. So while those retirements might have hit all districts equally, high-performing districts were better able to make up the difference — at the expense of low-performing schools.

There is one study that complicates the narrative in Wisconsin. As retirements spiked, it found that academic achievement actually increased in the grades that teachers left. It’s not clear what explains this.

The larger question of how teachers unions affect learning remains up for debate

A number of other recent studies have examined the relationship between teachers unions and student outcomes outside of Wisconsin. The results aren’t consistent, but the trend has been more positive for unions of late. A caveat: Some of these studies have not been published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

  • On recent efforts to weaken unions: Research in Tennessee found that it led to a drop in teacher pay, but had no effect on student test scores. But a study of four states, including Wisconsin, that recently weakened unions found evidence of reduced teacher quality as a result.
  • On what happens when charter schools unionize: Two studies in California came to differing conclusions. One found that when charters unionize, student test scores go up, but the other showed no impact.
  • On the initial rise of collective bargaining: Another paper finds that students who went to schools where districts negotiated with unions earned less money and were more likely to be unemployed as adults. But this study looks at a fairly old data set — examining those who attended schools between 1965 and 1992.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if any of this research is likely to influence the Supreme Court, as it considers the Janus case that could make life more difficult for unions. Last month, Chief Justice John Roberts called empirical studies on political gerrymandering “sociological gobbledygook.”

study up

Trump education nominee pleads ignorance about high-profile voucher studies showing negative results

At his confirmation hearing, Mick Zais, the nominee to be second-in-command at the Department of Education, said that he was not aware of high-profile studies showing that school vouchers can hurt student achievement.

It was a remarkable acknowledgement by Zais, who said he supports vouchers and would report to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose signature issue has been expanding publicly funded private school choice programs.

The issue was raised by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who asked whether Zais, who was previously the South Carolina schools chief, was “aware of the research on the impact of vouchers on student achievement.”

He replied: “To the best of my knowledge, whenever we give parents an opportunity to choose a school that’s a good fit for their child the result is improved outcomes.”

Franken responded, “No, that’s not true. The academic outcomes for students who used vouchers to attend private school are actually quite abysmal.”

Franken proceeded to mention recent studies from Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, and Washington, DC that showed declines in test scores after students move to private schools with a voucher.

Zais responded: “Senator, I was unaware of those studies that you cited.”

Franken then asked if Zais’s initial response expressing confidence in school choice was anecdotal, and Zais said that it was.

What’s surprising about Zais’s response is that these studies were not just published in dusty academic journals, but received substantial media attention, including in the New York Times and Washington Post (and Chalkbeat). They’ve also sparked significant debate, including among voucher supporters, who have argued against judging voucher programs based on short-term test scores.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the research confusion was a bipartisan affair at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing.

Although Franken, who referred to a New York Times article on voucher research in his question, was broadly accurate in his description of the recent studies, he said that a DC voucher study showed “significantly lower math and reading scores”; in fact, the results were only statistically significant in math, not reading.

Franken also did not mention evidence that the initial negative effects abated in later years in Indiana and for some students in Louisiana, or discuss recent research linking Florida’s voucher-style tax credit program to higher student graduation rates.

In a separate exchange, Washington Sen. Patty Murray grilled Jim Blew — the administration’s nominee for assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development — on the performance of Michigan’s charter schools. Murray said that DeVos was “one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system,” describing the results as “disastrous for children.”

Blew disputed this: “The characterization of the charter school sector in Detroit as being a disaster seems unfair. The most reliable studies are saying, indeed, the charter school students outperform the district students.”

Murray responded: “Actually, Michigan’s achievement rates have plummeted for all kids. In addition, charter schools in Michigan are performing worse than traditional public schools.”

(Murray may be referring to an Education Trust analysis showing that Michigan ranking on NAEP exams have fallen relative to other states. The study can’t show why, or whether school choice policies are the culprit, as some have claimed.)

Blew answered: “The most reliable studies do show that the charter school students in Detroit outperform their peers in the district schools.”

Murray: “I would like to see that because that’s not the data that we have.”

Blew: “I will be happy to get if for you; it’s done by the Stanford CREDO operation.”

Murray: “I’m not aware of that organization.”

CREDO, a Stanford-based research institution, has conducted among the most widely publicized — and sometimes disputed — studies of charter schools. The group’s research on Detroit does show that the city’s charter students were outperforming similar students in district schools, though the city’s students are among the lowest-performing in the country on national tests.