Are Children Learning

Some teacher tests get lower passing scores, will ISTEP follow?

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
The state board is set to approve final 2015 A-F school grades at its January meeting next week.

When the Indiana State Board of Education faces the tough question later this year of whether to change the passing score for ISTEP, a decision it made last week just might come up again.

By a 9-to-1 vote, board members just approved a plan to make it easier for teachers to pass content tests they must take to qualify for jobs. And the debate might have previewed some of the issues likely to to be raised about ISTEP.

The new passing scores are expected to significantly boost the number of prospective elementary school teachers who pass content tests in English, math, science, health, social studies and fine arts. Right now, some of those exams have low pass rates, such as just 24 percent passing for the English test. With the changes, the science test will become the hardest, with a projected 53 percent pass rate, and math will become easiest, with an 85 percent pass rate.

Some board members wondered why they should reconsider the passing scores at all when the costly new exams were designed to better match up to Indiana’s new academic standards.

To board member Gordon Hendry, for example, it seemed like the testing company’s job to get the passing score set right in the first place.

“I’m just trying to understand if the test is wrong and we’re having to come back and rejigger it, then why are we paying all this money?” Hendry said.

But it’s not that simple, Indiana Department of Education officials said.

The cut-off scores for passing the new tests, created by British-based testing company Pearson, must be adjusted as Indiana’s state standards for teachers are tweaked, they said.

“These tests are customized to Indiana standards, and there isn’t any national data to use to do comparisons with in the course of looking to set cut scores,” said assistant superintendent Risa Regnier.

The process of setting the scores is very similar to what Indiana has gone through in the past couple years to adjust state academic standards, the guidelines for what students must know to graduate and go to college, and write new ISTEP tests.

When state standards change, test questions must also change. And when test questions change, experts have to re-evaluate passing scores to make sure the tests correctly identify who knows the material and who doesn’t.

When standards change, tests change

Creating a standardized test involves a lot of statistical analysis and in many ways can be scientific, but it also requires a lot of human judgment.

It’s teachers — generally panels of educators — who sift through test questions and try to help the test-makers accurately gauge what a teacher needs to know before they walk into a classroom.

How do they advise the test-makers where the passing cut-off score should be?

Turns out, it’s a bit of a guessing game.

The testing company binds together all of the test questions in a booklet in order from the easiest question to the hardest and asks teachers to page through until they hit the point where they think the difficulty begins to go beyond what the average teacher should know. Then they mark the page number.

The panel reviews the range of the number of questions each estimated a teacher should know to pass. Together, they come up with a recommendation from within that range. Essentially, the teachers propose their best guess for how many questions the test-taker should be required to get right to pass.

Because the teachers don’t know the prior passing score, when they set a new passing score it isn’t influenced by a desire to make the test easier or harder than before, Regnier said.

Cari Whicker, a member of the board and a teacher, likes the approach. She said she’d been on on passing score panels before and assured Hendry and the board that the process is sound. Scores are frequently adjusted, she said, with no agenda in mind.

“The teachers, first of all though, aren’t recommending we lower the cut scores,” she said.

The passing scores had to be reset this time because of recent changes to not just the state’s teacher licensure standards, but also because a new company was writing the tests.

For the past few decades, Indiana teachers-to-be took a test known as the Praxis — a national exam that wasn’t specifically connected to Indiana’s standards for teachers. That changed in 2011 when the education department sought new teacher tests based on new state teaching standards adopted the year before. The state chose Pearson to create those tests and switched over to using them in 2014.

Board member Vince Bertram, CEO of Project Lead The Way, still questioned the rigor of the tests themselves — suggesting Pearson should be extra aware of whether the test is truly appropriate for the average, beginning teacher.

“Why are we asking someone on an initial practitioners exam to do something that would take someone 19 years to learn?” he said. “Why aren’t we asking information that is relevant to a beginning teacher?”

More passing score changes could be coming soon for tests in chemistry and physics, and career and technical education exams for teachers of agriculture and family and consumer sciences. The panel recommended the other changes, but the department did not present those to the board last week.

Then comes the more closely watched board decision: where to set the passing score for the new ISTEP. Probably by the end of the year, board members will make that decision, and the process is much the same.

Again, teachers will gather to review booklets containing all the ISTEP questions ranked from easiest to hardest and give their best guesses for how many questions kids must get right to pass the state exams.

An exam that is carefully crafted by test company scientists to balance hard and easy questions, reviewed by a panel of teachers and comes with a recommended passing score still has another step — the state board. It will again be up to 10 appointed state board members, and the elected state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, to decide exactly where to set the passing score.

For now, the board’s preliminary decision for where to set the teacher passing scores are up for public comment for 30 days. Then the board will consider make the final decision about what the cut-off score will be.

Big money

Chunk of $55 million AbbVie gift will go toward more counselors in schools

PHOTO: Courtesy of Communities in Schools
Counselors in Schools site coordinator Artesha Williams and student Nasje Adams at the King Academy of Social Justice in Chicago

Sixteen more Chicago schools will add full-time counselors charged with reducing dropouts and helping students with critical mental health issues, thanks to a chunk of a $55 million donation gift from a North Chicago pharmaceutical giant.

The AbbVie donation, announced Friday, will be split among three nonprofit groups with a Chicago presence, though not all the money will be spent here. Communities in Schools will receive $30 million for its national efforts to broker relationships between community organizations and schools; the University of Chicago’s Education Lab, which focuses on dropout prevention and college persistence, will receive $15 million; and City Year, which places AmeriCorps tutors and mentors in schools, will receive $10 million.

Communities in Schools, which received the largest gift, will spend $6 million of its $30 million on its Chicago chapter, while the City Year money will be split among Chicago and a project in San Jose, California.

Jane Mentzinger, the executive director of Communities in Schools Chicago, said the $6 million is “transformational” and will be spent on a program that assigns full-time, master’s-level counselors to public schools on the South and West sides.

The AbbVie gift will grow a program that currently places full-time counselors in 15 Chicago schools, adding five schools this year and another 11 next fall.

“In each school, they case manage the 50 highest-need students who are at risk of falling behind and dropping out,” said Mentzinger. “They really work with students is to help resolve conflict, regulate emotions, and provide exposure opportunities, from support and mentoring to counseling.”  

The counselor piece helps fill a dire need within Chicago’s schools: mental health and trauma services. Students, educators, parents, and union leaders regularly lament that the district does not staff enough counselors and mental health practitioners, and that recent efforts have been too focused on college and career-readiness — including helping students draft a post-secondary plan. Starting with the Class of 2020, seniors must produce such a plan to graduate, a controversial idea championed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

In July, Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson announced that the district would hire some 250 new social workers and special education case managers for schools.

Mentzinger said the value of sending in counselors who are employed by an outside agency, and not by the district, is that they have fewer administrative duties and so can cast a “wider net” among master’s degree candidates who might have non-traditional degrees such as art therapy or dance. “The level of need of our kids — we need to have more layers, more layers of work.”

A recent Steinmetz High School graduate, Emily Jade Aguilar, told Chalkbeat on Election Day that she was knocking on doors to get out the vote. Aguilar, who identifies as a trans woman, said the biggest issue driving her activism was mental health for students. “We need more mental health resources in our schools,” said Aguilar, whose school had four counselors for 1,200 students last year.

According to federal data from the 2015-16 school year, Chicago had 2.8 guidance counselors, social workers, and psychologists for every 1,000 students — fewer than in many other large cities. National guidance counselors and social workers groups recommend having one counselor and one social worker each for every 250 students. In schools with “intensive” needs, that ratio falls to one social worker for every 50 students.

In addition to providing counselors, Communities in Schools brokers relationships between nonprofit organizations and 160 schools to provide art and enrichment, mental health services, health care and college and career readiness programming.

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.