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.

more digging

Kingsbury High added to list of Memphis schools under investigation for grade changing

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Kingsbury High School was added to a list of schools being investigated by an outside firm for improper grade changes. Here, Principal Terry Ross was featured in a Shelby County Schools video about a new school budget tool.

Another Memphis high school has been added to the list of schools being investigated to determine if they made improper changes to student grades.

Adding Kingsbury High School to seven others in Shelby County Schools will further delay the report initially expected to be released in mid-June.

But from what school board Chairwoman Shante Avant has heard so far, “there haven’t been any huge irregularities.”

“Nothing has surfaced that gives me pause at this point,” Avant told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

The accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman is conducting the investigation.

This comes about three weeks after a former Kingsbury teacher, Alesia Harris, told school board members that Principal Terry Ross instructed someone to change 17 student exam grades to 100 percent — against her wishes.

Shelby County Schools said the allegations were “inaccurate” and that the grade changes were a mistake that was self-reported by an employee.

“The school administration immediately reported, and the central office team took the necessary actions and promptly corrected the errors,” the district said in a statement.

Chalkbeat requested a copy of the district’s own initial investigation the day after Harris spoke at the board’s June meeting, but district officials said they likely would not have a response for Chalkbeat until July 27.

Harris said that no one from Dixon Hughes Goodman has contacted her regarding the investigation as of Thursday.

The firm’s investigation initially included seven schools. Kingsbury was not among them. Those seven schools are:

  • Kirby High
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Bolton High
  • Westwood High
  • White Station High
  • Trezevant High
  • Memphis Virtual School

The firm’s first report found as many as 2,900 failing grades changed during four years at nine Memphis-area schools. At the request of the board, two schools were eliminated: one a charter managed by a nonprofit, and a school outside the district. The firm said at the time that further investigation was warranted to determine if the grade changes were legitimate.

The $145,000 investigation includes interviews with teachers and administrators, comparing teachers’ paper grade books to electronic versions, accompanying grade change forms, and inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades.

Since the controversy started last year, the district has restricted the number of employees authorized to make changes to a student’s report card or transcript, and also requires a monthly report from principals detailing any grade changes.

Silver Lining Playbook

Memphis’ youngest students show reading gains on 2018 state tests — and that’s a big deal

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A student works on reading comprehension skills at Lucie E Campbell Elementary School in Memphis and Shelby County Schools.

Those working to improve early literacy rates in Shelby County Schools got a small morale boost Thursday as newly released scores show the district’s elementary school students improved their reading on 2018 state tests.

The percentage of Memphis elementary-age students considered proficient in reading rose by 3 points to almost one-fourth of the district’s children in grades 3 through 5. That’s still well below the state average, and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said “we obviously have a long way to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has overseen Tennessee’s largest public school district since 2013.

Strengthening early literacy has been a priority for the Memphis district, which views better reading skills as crucial to predicting high school graduation and career success. To that end, Shelby County Schools has expanded access to pre-K programs, adjusted reading curriculum, and made investments in literacy training for teachers.

Hopson said the payoff on this year’s TNReady scores was a jump of almost 5 percentage points in third-grade reading proficiency.

“It was about five years ago when we really, really, really started pushing pre-K, and those pre-K kids are now in the third grade. I think that’s something that’s really positive,” Hopson said of the gains, adding that third-grade reading levels are an important indicator of future school performance.

TNReady scores for Shelby County Schools, which has a high concentration of low-performing schools and students living in poverty, were a mixed bag, as they were statewide.

Math scores went up in elementary, middle, and high schools in Tennessee’s largest district. But science scores went down across the board, and the percentage of high school students who scored proficient in reading dropped by 4 percentage points.

The three charts below illustrate, by subject, the percentages of students who performed on track or better in elementary, middle, and high schools within Shelby County Schools. The blue bars reflect the district’s most recent scores, the black bars show last year’s scores, and the yellow bars depict this year’s statewide averages.

Hopson said he was unsure how much the scores of older students — all of whom tested online — were affected by technical problems that hampered Tennessee’s return this year to computerized testing.

“From what people tell me, kids either didn’t try as hard in some instances or didn’t take it seriously,” Hopson told reporters. “We’ll never know what the real impact is, but we have to accept the data that came from these tests.”

But students in two of the district’s school improvement initiatives — the Innovation Zone and the Empowerment Zone — showed progress. “We’re going to double down on these strategies,” Hopson said of the extra investments and classroom supports.

In the state-run Achievement School District, or ASD, which oversees 30 low-performing schools in Memphis, grades 3 through 8 saw an uptick in scores in both reading and math. But high schoolers scored more than 3 percentage points lower in reading and also took a step back in science.

The ASD takes over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent and assigns them to charter operators to improve. But in the five years that the ASD has been in Memphis, its scores have been mostly stagnant.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said she and new ASD Superintendent Sharon Griffin are reviewing the new data to determine next steps.

“We are seeing some encouraging momentum shifts,” McQueen said.

Chalkbeat illustrator Sam Park contributed to this story.