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.”

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.