Are Children Learning

CTB: More ISTEP problems will delay results for months

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: ISTEP scoring problems will cause what could end up being a months-long delay for the release of scores and assigning of school A-to-F grades.

For the fourth time since 2011, Indiana faces problems with the administration of its state exam, overseen by California-based CTB, formerly CTB/McGraw-Hill. Past problems were a major factor in the state’s decision to switch to British-based Pearson starting next year.

Indiana will cut ties with CTB at the end of its four-year, $95 million contract once it delivers this year’s results. But company president Ellen Haley told the Indiana State Board of Education today that won’t come as soon as expected.

Haley, who has made regular appearances over the years to publicly apologize to Indiana officials for test problems, this time blamed the complications on new computer-enhanced questions the state asked to be included on ISTEP that allow students to manipulate the information on screen in ways that were impossible on prior tests.

Steve Yager, a board member and former superintendent of Northwest Allen County Schools in Fort Wayne, was scathing in his response to Haley’s explanation of the scoring problems. He said he has little faith the company can actually make good on it’s promises.

“You stand here and say you’ll deliver this, but I’ll believe it when I see it,” Yager said. “What’s happening is girls and boys are just being damaged, and teachers are being damaged, by the ineffective practices of your company.”

Company blames Indiana’s new standards

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz said she also is frustrated by the delays, which could mean letter grades aren’t finalized until early next year, but said there was little the state could do other than wait for the company to re-score the test questions to ensure the results are correct.

“I also want to make sure that kids are getting credit for everything on their test,” Ritz said. “And since it is the first time for technology-enhanced items, we just have to make sure we have it absolutely right.”

Haley blamed the problems on Indiana’s decision to institute new academic standards last year and then quickly adapt its exams to match up with them. As a result, she said, the state could not try out test questions on students before the test was given this past spring, which normally would have been the process.

“This is the nature of switching so dramatically,” Haley said. “It’s a good thing — new standards, and a new test — but there’s nothing leftover from the previous test. You’re starting all over again.”

Cari Whicker, a board member and teacher from Huntington, had little sympathy for the testing company.

“I’m sorry it’s more work for you,” Whicker said. “But you know what? It’s been a lot more work for people in the field.”

Other board members argued the problem could have been avoided. Instead, another year of problems only erodes further the shaking confidence that test results can be trusted, they said.

“Many of our teachers and principals and parents and students aren’t having confidence because of all the complications from last spring,” board member Lee Ann Kwiatkowski said. “And now with having another timeline being pushed back further, we’re going to once again reduce the confidence they currently have when they get results.”

Re-scoring to hold up ISTEP scores, school letter grades

Technology and student creativity are what made grading the new test questions so difficult, Haley said, arguing the company isn’t to blame for the delays.

New test questions were given for the first time when students took the test in March, Haley said, and the guidelines the company created for scoring didn’t recognize all of the possible correct answers students gave for the new technology-enhanced questions. In the past there was just one path to a correct answer. Now students can get questions right in different ways, such as by manipulating graphs or writing equations.

“They came up with the correct answer, but they responded differently,” Haley said. “If we don’t pause and change rubric, the student doesn’t get credit for that answer.”

Board member Vince Bertram, a former Evansville superintendent and executive director of Project Lead The Way, said a company that does so much testing work across the country should have anticipated all possible answers. Bertram’s company offers schools project-based curriculum in science, technology, math and engineering fields.

“How could we miss this?” Bertram said. “Don’t we know how a fifth-grader is going to answer a math question?”

Testing director Michele Walker estimated that when time to re-score is factored in, school letter grades might not be released until January or February, at the latest. Schools would still get students’ ISTEP grades by the end of this year.

Company has history of problems in Indiana

This is the fourth year out of five for which ISTEP issues can be traced back to problems at CTB.

In April of 2013, 16 percent of all Indiana students taking ISTEP, about 78,000 kids, experienced interruptions during their tests. That year, letter grades weren’t released until December.

In 2011 and 2012, about 10,000 and 9,000 students respectively had online testing issues. Because of the interruptions in 2013, the state and CTB/McGraw-Hill came to a settlement for $3 million.

Haley said repeatedly during the meeting that delays are part of the process when tests and standards change, especially if those tests involve new technology. Other states are dealing with the same issues, she said.

But other CTB customers, such as Oklahoma, have also suspended their work with work with the company.

the grades are in

Search for your Indiana school’s 2018 A-F grades

PHOTO: Andersen Ross/Getty Images

Indiana schools’ 2018 A-F grades were released Wednesday, and most schools have two grades this year.

One grade is the usual annual rating from the state, which is mainly based on test scores and how much scores improve. These ratings can trigger intervention for schools receiving F grades several years in a row.

The other grade, which is new this year, comes from new federal standards under the Every Student Succeeds Act. This rating looks at how public schools serve students of color, students from low-income families, English learners, and students with disabilities.

The state measured schools more generously than the federal standards: Nearly two-thirds of schools received As or Bs under the Indiana system. About a third of schools received a higher letter grade in the state system than under federal standards.

Read more: Many Indiana schools receive F grades for how they serve students of color and those with disabilities

Read more: How many Indiana schools got As in 2018? Depends if state or feds are doing the grading.

Most schools didn’t see a change in their state grade from last year, a trend that continues because test scores remain largely stagnant.

New schools and schools that join the Indianapolis Public Schools innovation network can opt to be graded by the state for three years based only on how much their test scores improve — a measure known as growth — without factoring in passing rates.

Find your school’s A-F grades in our searchable database below.

Decision day

A state board decision on two long-struggling Pueblo schools could affect the entire district

PHOTO: Andrea Chu/Getty Images

A year after running out of chances to improve on their own, two Pueblo middle schools will be making a return appearance in front of the State Board of Education this week.

Heroes Middle School and Risley International Academy of Innovation have spent the last eight years on a watch list for low-performing schools. A year ago, the state board ordered them along with five school districts and 10 other schools to craft plans to improve — and warned them that too little progress could lead to sharper consequences in the future. It was the first time state regulators faced these decisions under Colorado’s school accountability system.

Many of the schools and districts on the state watchlist have managed to improve enough to avoid further intervention, including Bessemer Elementary, also in Pueblo City Schools.

But even after working with a nonprofit group to improve the quality of teaching, the two schools failed to advance on Colorado’s school rating system, which is largely based on performance on standardized tests. Their test scores left Heroes at the second lowest rating, where it has been for several years, and Risley on “turnaround,” the lowest possible rating, despite some improvement in some subject areas and grade levels.

On Wednesday, state board members will hold a hearing on the future of Heroes and Risley— along with the entire Adams 14 district and its high school. They’ll be taking into account recommendations from independent reviewers who visited the schools, the Pueblo district, students and their families, and advocates who have been lobbying throughout the process.

If the board members take the same approach they did last year, they’re likely to let the schools continue with “innovation” status, with some additional external management. But some state board members have expressed frustration with the pace of change, and they have more drastic options available to them, including closure or turning low-performing schools into charters.

At least in the case of Risley, the recommendation to largely stay the course comes despite grave concerns about the school. The evaluators gave a damning report, rating its leadership “not effective” at implementing change or even having the capacity to benefit from the help of an external partner.

The evaluators described chaotic classrooms in which students slept at their desks or openly played on their phones. In classrooms in which teachers were able to engage students, too many of them were “doing the cognitive work” for the students rather than leading them in real learning, they said.

The school is using too many new programs at once without enough training for teachers, with the result that most of them were not being implemented as intended, the evaluators said, and there isn’t enough coordination. In one example, the school had adopted new reading and math curriculum designed for 90-minute blocks, but the school’s schedule only allows for 75-minute periods.

But closing the school or turning it over to a charter organization would be worse options, evaluators said.

Conversion to a charter school would be divisive and unlikely to better serve students, they said, and there aren’t any nearby schools that could absorb the students if Risley were to close. “There are no other viable options for students that would likely lead to better outcomes,” the evaluators wrote.

What’s more, they wrote, the school serves as an “anchor” to the community — a view that community members expressed in comments submitted to the state board. Parents described using the health clinic associated with the school or getting food from the food pantry, as well as the pride their children felt in their sports teams, which provide positive and structured activities after school.

“As a parent, I feel better after each time I volunteer,” one mother wrote. “My daughter is a cheerleader here and I enjoy going to all her games and support her school and represent red and black and showing bear pride. I am looking forward to my son attending here in years to come.”

In several letters, students said they were having to take so many tests as part of the turnaround process that they were bored and stressed out and did not want to come to school.

“If we’re testing every month, when the real test comes around, we get tired of it and guess or click through,” one eighth-grade student said. “They’re stressing us out, and we don’t really need them. I understand you guys need to see where we are, but this many tests are not helping any of us.”

The state review panel assessment of Heroes was more positive, even as evaluators noted ongoing problems and recommended an additional external partner to help manage the school, not just provide instructional support.

“The school needs more time to see the full benefits of participation in the Innovation Zone, but implementation thus far has proven effective,” they wrote. “Leadership is developing and beginning to create positive change.”

At Heroes, evaluators did not recommend conversion to a charter school in part because the school serves a high population of students with disabilities. The middle school is also part of a K-8 school with one principal, and disentangling the elementary and middle school would have financial implications for both.

In response to written questions from the State Board of Education, Pueblo district officials said converting both schools to charters would have a serious financial impact on the entire school system. The district, which already faces declining enrollment and operates on a four-day week while staring down a $785 million maintenance backlog for its aging buildings, would lose almost $5 million a year in state funding if Risley and Heroes students all went to charter schools. The school district would also lose one of its newer buildings if Risley converted to a charter.

The opposition to a charter conversion is about more than money. In a letter, Barb Clementi, vice president of the school board in Pueblo, pointed to the example of a struggling school that was turned into a magnet school. While it has a good rating, it now serves a student population that is almost entirely different, and the former students continue to struggle in their new schools. Converting Risley or Heroes to charters runs the same risk, she said.

Risley and Heroes are part of an innovation zone that provides schools more flexibility but also allows teachers and administrators to work together. While the state review panel said both schools need to take more advantage of the zone, other Pueblo schools have come off the state watchlist using the innovation approach.

“I urge you to consider the bigger picture of our entire Pueblo community and school system when making decisions,” Clementi wrote. “These two middle school have made progress and deserve the time and opportunity to continue their good work with perhaps additional partnership support.”

Suzanne Ethredge, president of the Pueblo Education Association, the teachers union, said both schools have suffered from a lack of consistent leadership and significant teacher turnover, an issue that evaluators noted as well. She said any plan to improve the schools needs to take seriously the issue not just of training teachers but keeping them.

Some teachers and parents have asked for the schools to be turned into “community schools,” though letters to the state board indicate this approach has some serious skeptics as well.

“There is a lot of buy-in and a lot of people are looking to this model as a way to engage authentically with our community and dig in and find those root causes that are holding students back,” said Robert Donovan, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Risley and member of the Pueblo Education Coalition.

Community schools incorporate a wide range of services for students and their families, ranging from meals, health clinics, and laundry service to English classes and job training. These schools work to engage parents in their children’s education, and in their most ideal version, parents play a big role in shaping educational decisions.

Teachers unions have been strong advocates for community schools in response to persistent low test scores, including in Pueblo and Adams 14. They argue that community schools address the social and economic problems that make it hard for students to succeed at school. Research on the academic impact of this approach is mixed.

More than 97 percent of Risley students qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty, compared to 80 percent for the district as a whole. Nearly 80 percent of Heroes students are from low-income families.

“The concerns expressed by our community fall into several areas, including authentic parent and community engagement, culturally relevant curriculum, a focus on high-quality teaching and learning, positive discipline practices, and mental health supports, to name a few,” reads the online petition. “The most powerful voices speaking about what is needed were, in fact, students. Based on this engagement, a community schools model … is the best fit for what we need and want in Pueblo.”

At Wednesday’s hearing, district officials will lay out their plans in more detail — they declined to talk to us before the meeting — and face tough questions from state board members, who have until Thursday to render a decision on the two Pueblo schools and the Adams 14 district, which could face significant loss of control.

This week’s decisions will mark a test of how the state board will deal with struggling schools going forward. Pueblo City Schools and Adams 14 have both described a process for finding additional outside partners if that’s what the state board orders, but it’s not entirely clear what that will look like on the ground.

And then it will fall back to principals, teachers, parents, and students to do the work.