Are Children Learning

State board decision Wednesday could mean a big drop in ISTEP passing rates

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

ISTEP test passing rates could plummet by about 16 percentage points in English and 24 percentage points in math compared to 2014 if the Indiana State Board of Education approves a recommendation from educator panels Wednesday.

Those drops are significantly worse than in prior years. ISTEP rarely has swung up or down by more than a few percentage points since 2010. But there’s a good reason, Indiana Department of Education spokesman Daniel Altman said.

“It’s not exactly an apple to apples comparison because this is the first time we’ve been testing on new standards,” he said. “With more rigorous standards come higher expectations as well.”

Setting standardized test passing rates is an inexact science at best. Panels of educators work with test companies to determine just how much they think students can achieve and then reach a consensus recommendation for where the state board should set the cut-off score.

That’s what the state board is expected to decide on Wednesday.

Although the process Indiana uses to set passing scores is widely used and considered valid, some experts think politics can too easily get in the way. State agencies, such as the state board, have the leeway to alter the passing rates because they set the cut-off scores after they see how they could affect the state test passing rates.

The biggest swings in passing rates would be in math. Almost 82 percent of eighth-graders passed in 2014, but about 52 percent would pass in 2015 if the board approves the recommended scores. Seventh-graders would also face an almost 30 percentage point drop. The highest percent of students passing math would be 66.5 percent in fifth-grade.

In English, passing rates would drop by as  much as 18.8 percentage points for fifth-graders, for whom 62.7 percent would pass in 2015 compared to 89.3 percent in 2014 based on the recommendations. The highest passing rate for 2015 English would be for third-graders at 70.9 percent passing.

Overall, scores would shift to about 65 percent of students passing English in 2015, down from 80.7 percent of students passing in 2014. About 59 percent of students would pass math in 2015, down from 83.5 percent in 2014.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz has warned for months that test scores would fall with a tougher exam based on more challenging academic standards. But her calls for relaxing the state’s A-to-F grading system during the transition to the new exam have been rejected by the state board.

“It’s not fair to schools, it’s not fair to kids, it’s not fair to communities,” Altman said. “If you have all of a sudden a lot of school that aren’t doing well on their (A-to-F grades), that has a significant impact on real estate values across the state. It has impact on economic development.”

State board spokesman Marc Lotter said that with new tests, passing rate drops aren’t unusual — in Indiana or across the country. Other states, including IllinoisNew York and Kentucky, have also reported score dips as they switch to tests designed to measure more challenging academic standards.

“The most important message out of this is that we not get singularly focused on a score drop or a change in scores from two tests that are completely different, and one test is much more difficult,” Lotter said. “And we need to remember why we are doing this in the first place: to make sure Hoosier kids are leaving school prepared for success in life.”

For states adopting new standards and new tests, the U.S. Department of Education has offered some relief for the year the switch happens. Indiana has not pursued this option to “pause” accountability and alter a “waiver” agreement that released the state from sanctions of the federal No Child Left Behind Law. The waiver was renewed without changes to A-to-F grading for another three years in June.

Lotter said the state board couldn’t change how grades are issued this year anyway. That require changes to state law by the Indiana legislature.

A legal opinion from September written by Matt Light, with the state’s attorney general’s office, blocked Ritz’s proposal that A-to-F school grades be “paused” for 2014-15. Ritz suggested grades only be changed and made public if they were better than those from 2014. If scores went down, she said, grades should stay the same.

Ritz and her team have tried to persuade the state board to “pause” accountability and school grades several times. Recently, those arguments have been spurred on by difficulties schools have had as they quickly implement new academic standards and give new tests after Indiana dumped Common Core standards in 2014.

“We’ve been working on more rigorous standards that obviously also have a more rigorous assessment,” Altman said. “The problem is the accountability system treats it like it’s the same thing we’ve done in the past when it just isn’t. And you can tell it isn’t when you look at the numbers.”

heads up

Tennessee will release TNReady test scores on Thursday. Here are five things to know.

PHOTO: Getty Images/Kali9

When Tennessee unveils its latest standardized test scores on Thursday, the results won’t count for much.

Technical problems marred the return to statewide online testing this spring, prompting the passage of several emergency state laws that rendered this year’s TNReady scores mostly inconsequential. As a result, poor results can’t be used to hold students, educators, or schools accountable — for instance, firing a teacher or taking over a struggling school through the state’s Achievement School District.

But good or bad, the scores still can be useful, say teachers like Josh Rutherford, whose 11th-grade students were among those who experienced frequent online testing interruptions in April.

“There are things we can learn from the data,” said Rutherford, who teaches English at Houston County High School. “I think it would be unprofessional to simply dismiss this year’s scores.”

Heading into this week’s data dump, here are five things to know:

1. This will be the biggest single-day release of state scores since the TNReady era began three years ago.

Anyone with internet access will be able to view state- and district-level scores for math, English, and science for grades 3-12. And more scores will come later. School-by-school data will be released publicly in a few weeks. In addition, Tennessee will unveil the results of its new social studies test this fall after setting the thresholds for what constitutes passing scores at each grade level.

2. Still, this year’s results are anticlimactic.

There are two major reasons. First, many educators and parents question the scores’ reliability due to days of online testing headaches. They also worry that high school students stopped trying after legislators stepped in to say the scores don’t necessarily have to count in final grades. Second, because the scores won’t carry their intended weight, the stakes are lower this year. For instance, teachers have the option of nullifying their evaluation scores. And the state also won’t give each school an A-F grade this fall as originally planned. TNReady scores were supposed to be incorporated into both of those accountability measures.

3. The state is looking into the reliability of the online test scores.

In addition to an internal review by the Education Department, the state commissioned an independent analysis by the Human Resources Research Organization. Researchers for the Virginia-based technical group studied the impact of Tennessee’s online interruptions by looking into testing irregularity reports filed in schools and by scrutinizing variances from year to year and school to school, among other things.

4. The reliability of paper-and-pencil test scores are not in question.

Only about half of Tennessee’s 600,000 students who took TNReady this year tested on computers. The other half — in grades 3-5 and many students in grades 6-8 — took the exams the old-fashioned way. Though there were some complaints related to paper testing too, state officials say they’re confident about those results. Even so, the Legislature made no distinction between the online and paper administrations of TNReady when they ordered that scores only count if they benefit students, teachers, and schools.

5. Ultimately, districts and school communities will decide how to use this year’s data.

Even within the same district, it wasn’t uncommon for one school to experience online problems and another to enjoy a much smoother testing experience. “Every district was impacted differently,” said Dale Lynch, executive director of the state superintendents organization. “It’s up to the local district to look at the data and make decisions based on those local experiences.”

District leaders have been reviewing the embargoed scores for several weeks, and they’ll share them with teachers in the days and weeks ahead. As for families, parents can ask to see their students’ individual score reports so they can learn from this year’s results, too. Districts distribute those reports in different ways, but they’re fair game beginning Thursday. You can learn more here.

Sharing Stories

Tell us your stories about children with special needs in Detroit

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Parents of students with special needs face difficult challenges when trying to get services for their children. Understanding their children’s rights, getting them evaluated and properly diagnosed, and creating an educational plan are among the many issues families face.

Chalkbeat Detroit wants to hear more about those issues to help inform our coverage. We are kicking off a series of conversations called a “listening tour” to discuss your concerns, and our first meeting will focus on children with special needs and disabilities. We’re partnering with the Detroit Parent Network as they look for solutions and better ways to support parents.

Our listening tour, combined with similar events in other communities Chalkbeat serves, will continue throughout this year on a variety of topics. In these meetings, we’ll look to readers, parents, educators, and students to help us know what questions we should ask, and we’ll publish stories from people who feel comfortable having their stories told. We hope you’ll share your stories and explore solutions to the challenges parents face.

Our special education listening tour discussion will take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m., Tuesday July 24, at the Detroit Parent Network headquarters, 726 Lothrop St., Detroit.

As our series continues, we’ll meet at locations around the city to hear stories and experiences parents have while navigating the complexities of getting children the education and services they deserve.

Next week’s event includes a panel discussion with parents of children with special needs, responses from parent advocates, and an open discussion with audience members.

Those who are uncomfortable sharing stories publicly will have a chance to tell a personal story on an audio recorder in a private room, or will be interviewed by a Chalkbeat Detroit reporter privately.

The event is free and open to anyone who wants to attend, but reservations are required because space is limited. To register, complete this form, call 313-309-8100 or email

If you can’t make our event, but have a story to share, send an email to, or call or send a text message to 313-404-0692.

Stayed tuned for more information about listening tour stops, topics and locations.