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.”

testing 1-2-3

Tennessee students to test the test under reworked computer platform

PHOTO: Getty Images

About 45,000 high school students in a third of Tennessee districts will log on Tuesday for a 40-minute simulation to make sure the state’s testing company has worked the bugs out of its online platform.

That platform, called Nextera, was rife with glitches last spring, disrupting days of testing and mostly disqualifying the results from the state’s accountability systems for students, teachers, and schools.

This week’s simulation is designed to make sure those technical problems don’t happen again under Questar, which in June will finish out its contract to administer the state’s TNReady assessment.

Tuesday’s trial run will begin at 8:30 a.m. in participating high schools statewide to simulate testing scheduled for Nov. 26-Dec. 14, when some students will take their TNReady exams. Another simulation is planned before spring testing begins in April on a much larger scale.

The simulation is expected to involve far more than the 30,000 students who will test in real life after Thanksgiving. It also will take into account that Tennessee is split into two time zones.

“We’re looking at a true simulation,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, noting that students on Eastern Time will be submitting their trial test forms while students on Central Time are logging on to their computers and tablets.

The goal is to verify that Questar, which has struggled to deliver a clean TNReady administration the last two years, has fixed the online problems that caused headaches for students who tried unsuccessfully to log on or submit their end-of-course tests.


Here’s a list of everything that went wrong with TNReady testing in 2018


The two primary culprits were functions that Questar added after a successful administration of TNReady last fall but before spring testing began in April: 1) a text-to-speech tool that enabled students with special needs to receive audible instructions; and 2) coupling the test’s login system with a new system for teachers to build practice tests.

Because Questar made the changes without conferring with the state, the company breached its contract and was docked $2.5 million out of its $30 million agreement.

“At the end of the day, this is about vendor execution,” McQueen told members of the State Board of Education last week. “We feel like there was a readiness on the part of the department and the districts … but our vendor execution was poor.”

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

She added: “That’s why we’re taking extra precautions to verify in real time, before the testing window, that things have actually been accomplished.”

By the year’s end, Tennessee plans to request proposals from other companies to take over its testing program beginning in the fall of 2019, with a contract likely to be awarded in April.

The administration of outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam has kept both of Tennessee’s top gubernatorial candidates — Democrat Karl Dean and Republican Bill Lee — in the loop about the process. Officials say they want to avoid the pitfalls that happened as the state raced to find a new vendor in 2014 after the legislature pulled the plug on participating in a multi-state testing consortium known as PARCC.


Why state lawmakers share the blame, too, for TNReady testing headaches


“We feel like, during the first RFP process, there was lots of content expertise, meaning people who understood math and English language arts,” McQueen said. “But the need to have folks that understand assessment deeply as well as the technical side of assessment was potentially missing.”

Academic Accountability

Coming soon: Not one, but two ratings for every Chicago school

Starting this month, Chicago schools will have to juggle two ratings — one from the school district, and another from the state.

The Illinois State Board of Education is scheduled to release on October 31 its annual report cards for schools across the state. This year, for the first time, each school will receive one of four quality stamps from the state: an “exemplary” or “commendable” rating signal the school is meeting standards while an “underperforming” or “lowest performing” designation could trigger intervention, according to state board of education spokeswoman Jackie Matthews.

A federal accountability law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, requires these new ratings.

To complicate matters, the city and state ratings are each based on different underlying metrics and even a different set of standardized tests. The state ratings, for example, are based on a modified version of the PARCC assessment, while Chicago ratings are based largely on the NWEA. The new state ratings, like those the school district issues, can be given out without observers ever having visited a classroom, which is why critics argue that the approach lacks the qualitative metrics necessary to assess the learning, teaching, and leadership at individual schools.

Patricia Brekke, principal at Back of the Yards College Preparatory High School, said she’s still waiting to see how the ratings will be used, “and how that matters for us,” but that parents at her school aren’t necessarily focused on what the state says.

“What our parents usually want to know is what [Chicago Public Schools] says about us, and how we’re doing in comparison to other schools nearby that their children are interested in,” she said.

Educators at Chicago Public Schools understand the power of school quality ratings.  The district already has its own five-tiered rating system: Level 1+ and Level 1 designate the highest performing schools, Level 2+ and Level 2 describe for average and below average performing schools, respectively, and Level 3, the lowest performance rating, is for schools in need of “intensive intervention.” The ratings help parents decide where to enroll their children, and are supposed to signal to the district that the school needs more support. But the ratings are also the source of angst — used to justify replacing school leaders, closing schools, or opening new schools in neighborhoods where options are deemed inadequate.

In contrast, the state’s school quality designations actually target underperforming and lowest-performing schools with additional federal funding and support with the goal of improving student outcomes. Matthews said schools will work with “school support managers” from the state to do a self-inquiry and identify areas for improvement. She described Chicago’s school quality rating system as “a local dashboard that they have developed to communicate with their communities.”

Staff from the Illinois State Board of Education will be traveling around the state next week to meet with district leaders and principals to discuss the new accountability system, including the ratings. They’ll be in Bloomington, Marion, O’Fallon, Chicago, and Melrose Park. The Chicago meeting is Wednesday, Oct. 24, at 5 p.m. at Chicago Public Schools headquarters.

Rae Clementz, director of assessment and accountability at the state board said that a second set of ratings reveals “that there are multiple valid ways to look at school quality and success; it’s a richer picture.”

Under auspices of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the state school report cards released at the end of the month for elementary schools are 75 percent based on academics, including English language arts and math test scores, English learner progress as measured by the ACCESS test, and academic growth. The other 25 percent reflects the school climate and success, such as attendance and chronic absenteeism.

Other measures are slated to be phased in over the next several years, including academic indicators like science proficiency and school quality indicators, such as school climate surveys of staff, students and parents

High school designations take a similar approach with English and math test scores but will take into account graduation rates, instead of academic growth, and also includes the percentage of  9th graders on track to graduate — that is freshmen who earn 10 semester credits, and no more than one semester F in a core course.

Critics of Chicago’s school rating system argue that the ratings correlate more with socioeconomic status and race than they do school quality, and say little about what’s happening in classrooms and how kids are learning. Chicago does try to mitigate these issues with a greater emphasis on growth in test scores rather than absolute attainment, school climate surveys, and including academic growth by priority groups, like African-American, Latino, ELL, and students in special education.

Cory Koedel, a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Missouri, said that many rating systems basically capture poverty status with a focus on how high or low students score on tests. Chicago’s approach is fairer than that of many other school systems.

“What I like about this is it does seem to have a high weight on growth and lower weight on attainment levels,” he said.

Morgan Polikoff, a professor at University of Southern California’s school of education, said that Chicago’s emphasis on student growth is a good thing “if the purpose of the system is to identify schools doing a good job educating kids.”

Chicago weights 50 percent of the rating on growth, but he’s seen 35 to as low as 15 percent at other districts. But he said the school district’s reliance on the NWEA test rather than the PARCC test used in the state school ratings was atypical.

“It’s not a state test, and though they say it aligns with standards, I know from talking to educators that a lot of them feel the tests are not well aligned with what they are supposed to be teaching,” he said. “It’s just a little odd to me they would have state assessment data, which is what they are held accountable for with the state, but use the other data.”

He’s skeptical about school systems relying too heavily on standardized test scores, whether the SAT, PARCC or NWEA, because “You worry that now you’re just turning the curriculum to test prep, and that’s an incentive you don’t want to create for educators.”

He said the high school measures in particular include a wide array of measures, including measures that follow students into college, “so I love that.”

“I really like the idea of broadening the set of indicators on which we evaluate schools and encouraging schools to really pay attention to how well they prepare students for what comes next,” he said.