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.

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.