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.

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.