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.

It takes a village

What does it mean to be a community school? This Colorado bill would define it – and promote it

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
A teacher leads a class called community living at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School in Jeffco Public Schools.

A Colorado lawmaker wants to encourage struggling schools to adopt the community school model, which involves schools providing a range of services to address challenges students and their families face outside the classroom.

Community schools are an old idea enjoying a resurgence in education circles with the support of teachers unions and other advocates. These schools often include an extended school day with after-school enrichment, culturally relevant curriculum, significant outreach to parents, and an emphasis on community partnerships.

In Colorado, the Jefferson County school district’s Jefferson Junior-Senior High School is moving toward a community school model with job services and English classes for parents. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has made this approach the centerpiece of school turnaround efforts in that city.

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, is sponsoring a bill that would, for the first time, create a definition of community schools in state law and make it explicit that innovation schools can be community schools. The Senate Education Committee held a hearing on the bill Thursday and didn’t kill it. Instead, state Sen. Owen Hill, the Colorado Springs Republican who chairs the committee, asked to postpone a vote so he could understand the idea better.

“My concern is these chronically underperforming schools who are wavering between hitting the clock and not for years and years,” Zenzinger said. “What sorts of things could we be doing to better support those schools? In Colorado, we tend to do triage. I’m trying to take a more holistic approach and think about preventative care.”

Colorado’s “accountability clock” requires state intervention when schools have one of the two lowest ratings for five years in a row. Schools that earn a higher rating for even one year restart the clock, even if they fall back the next year.

Becoming an innovation school is one pathway for schools facing state intervention, and schools that have struggled to improve sometimes seek innovation status on their own before they run out of time.

Innovation schools have more autonomy and flexibility than traditional district-run schools – though not as much as charters – and they can use that flexibility to extend the school day or the school year, offer services that other schools don’t, and make their own personnel decisions. To become an innovation school, leaders need to develop a plan and get it approved by their local school board and the State Board of Education.

Nothing in existing law prevents community schools. There are traditional, charter, and innovation schools using this model, and many schools with innovation status include some wraparound services.

For example, the plan for Billie Martinez Elementary School in the Greeley-Evans district north of Denver envisions laundry services and an on-site health clinic.

District spokeswoman Theresa Myers said officials with the state Department of Education were extremely supportive of including wraparound services in the innovation plan, which also includes a new learning model and extensive training and coaching for teachers. But the only one that the school has been able to implement is preschool. The rest are on a “wish list.”

“The only barrier we face is resources,” Myers said.

Under Zenzinger’s bill, community schools are those that do annual assets and needs assessments with extensive parent, student, and teacher involvement, develop a strategic plan with problem-solving teams, and have a community school coordinator as a senior staff person implementing that plan. The bill does not include any additional money for community schools – in part to make it more palatable to fiscal hawks in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Supporters of community schools see an opportunity to get more money through the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which includes non-academic factors like attendance, school climate, and expulsions in its school ratings and which encourages schools to work with parents and community partners. In a 2016 report, the Center for Community Schools said ESSA creates “an opportune moment to embrace community schools as a policy framework.” And a report released in December by the Learning Policy Institute argues that “well-implemented community schools” meet the criteria for evidence-based intervention under ESSA.

Zenzinger said that creating a definition of community schools in state law will help schools apply for and get additional federal money under ESSA.

As Chalkbeat reported this week, a series of studies of community schools and associated wraparound services found a mix of positive and inconclusive results – and it wasn’t clear what made some programs more effective at improving learning. However, there doesn’t seem to be a downside to offering services.

The State Board of Education has not taken a position on the bill, and no organizations have registered lobbyists in opposition. But there are skeptics.

Luke Ragland of Ready Colorado, a conservative group that advocates for education reform, said he’s “agnostic” about types of schools and supports the existence of a wide variety of educational approaches from which parents can choose. But he worries that the focus of community schools might be misplaced.

“They try to address a lot of things that are outside the control of the school,” he said. “I wonder if that’s a wise way forward, to improve school by improving everything but school.”

Ragland also worries about the state directing schools to choose this path.

“I would argue that under the innovation statute, the ability to start this type of school already exists,” he said. “We should be thinking about ways to provide more flexibility and autonomy without prescribing how schools do that.”

Zenzinger said her intent with the bill is to raise the profile and highlight the benefits of the community school model. She stressed that she’s not trying to force the community school model on anyone – doing it well requires buy-in from school leaders, teachers, and parents – but she does want schools that serve lots of students living in poverty or lots of students learning English to seriously consider it.

“There is not a roadmap for implementing innovation well,” she said. “There are a lot of options, and not a lot of guidance. There’s nothing saying, ‘This is what would work best for you.’ If they’re going to seek innovation status, we want to give them tools to be successful.”

This post has been updated to reflect the result of the Senate Education Committee hearing.

Cap and gown

Graduation rates in Michigan – and Detroit’s main district — are up, but are most students ready for college?

The state superintendent had some good news to share Wednesday about last year’s four-year graduation rates: They are at their highest level in years.

What’s not clear is whether new graduates are being adequately prepared for college.

Slightly more than 80 percent of the state’s high school students graduated last year, an increase of about half a percentage point from the previous year. It was news state education leaders cheered.

“An 80 percent statewide graduation rate is a new watermark for our schools. They’ve worked hard to steadily improve,” state Superintendent Brian Whiston said in a statement.

“This is another important step in helping Michigan become a Top 10 education state in 10 years. We aren’t there yet, so we need to keep working and moving forward,” he said.

But statewide, the number of students ready for college based on their scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test was about 35 percent, underscoring the fact that graduation rate is not necessarily a great measure of school success. Schools looking to raise graduation rates can find ways to make it easier for students to earn credits toward graduation and, unlike some states, Michigan does not require students to pass graduation exams.

The result is that more students are graduating from high school — but might not be ready to do college work.

In Detroit, graduation rates in the city’s main district remained largely steady, with a little more than three-quarters of its students graduating after four years. But the number of students who were ready for college dropped almost a point to 12.3 percent last year. While most students take the SAT in 11th grade as part of the state’s school testing program, that’s an indication students graduating from high school may not have been adequately prepared for college.

The state dropout rate remained largely unchanged at almost nine percent.

Detroit’s main district had the highest four-year graduation rates compared to other large districts, but more district students dropped out of school than in the previous year. More than 10 percent of Detroit students dropped out of high school in the 2016-17 school year, a slight increase from last year, according to state data.

Nikolai Vitti, Detroit’s school chief, said the report should motivate the district to ensure students are graduating at higher numbers, and are college ready when they leave high school.

“We are focused on creating a college going culture in our high schools by expanding accelerating programs, such as IB, dual enrollment, AP, and Early College,” he said. “We have already expanded SAT preparation during the school day and intend to offer classes within the schedule for this focus with 10th graders next year.”

Focusing on strengthening basic skills among elementary and middle school students also will better prepare them for college after graduation, Vitti said.

“Most importantly, if we teach the Common Core standards with fidelity and a stronger aligned curriculum, which we will next year at the K-8 level for reading and math, our students will be exposed to college ready skills and knowledge,” he added. “We look forward to demonstrating the true and untapped talent of our students in the years to come.”

But in spite of steady dropout rates and relatively low college readiness numbers, state officials were upbeat about the graduation results.

“This is the first time the statewide four-year graduation rate has surpassed 80 percent since we started calculating rates by cohorts eleven years ago,” said Tom Howell, director of the Michigan Center for Educational Performance and Information, which tracks school data. “This increase is in line with how the statewide graduation rate has been trending gradually upward.”

Search below to see the four-year graduation rates and college readiness rates for all Michigan high schools.