Are Children Learning

Lawmakers say ISTEP rescore necessary to ensure accuracy in 2016

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

The dramatic drop in standardized test scores that hit nearly every school in Indiana has re-energized some state legislators to go after the exam.

Lawmakers have been grumbling for months about problems with the ISTEP, but in the wake of yesterday’s state announcement of rock-bottom ISTEP scores, some are now going farther to say the 2015 exam needs to be rescored.

That could mean thousands of exams would be re-opened. Questions — especially those where students’ answers are written — would be re-graded and scores could be changed.

Others have ramped up calls to scrap the ISTEP altogether.

The administration of this year’s ISTEP was a “nightmare” riddled with scoring, test design and other problems, said Caryl Auslander, a lobbyist for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.

That’s prompted Republicans and other education reformers to call for changes, which are on the heels of yesterday’s passage of two education bills that aim to help shield teachers and schools from the effects of the score drops.

Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, said he plans to introduce a bill to that would force a rescore, though lawmakers don’t yet know how much it would cost or who would pay for it. Draft bill language is not yet available, but Behning must file his bill before Tuesday for the idea to be considered during this legislative session.

Behning said a rescore is necessary because Indiana will be using the 2015 scores as a “baseline” for a new accountability system in 2016. The new A-F model used to grade schools emphasizes student test score growth from one year to the next and will equally weigh student test score growth with the percentage of students who passed the exam when calculating those grades. Previously, growth was not as major a component in the formula.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, echoed Behning’s concerns about the exam, but said he isn’t sure state legislation is needed to address the problems. He said the state could instead call on the Indiana Department of Administration, which oversees state contracts, to work with CTB/McGraw Hill, the testing company that made the 2015 ISTEP.

A panel of testing experts already conducted one review of the test after concerns were raised in October over differences in difficulty between the paper version of the exam and the online version.

In December, the Indianapolis Star reported another scoring glitch that could have led to thousands of mis-scored tests. The state convened a second panel to examine the data and found that the glitch did not affect student scores.

Bosma, however, said today that he’s not satisfied with the panel’s conclusions.
“We cannot confirm that the data is accurate with respect to schools or students,” Bosma said. “We don’t know the cost, but we’re going to find out.”

But the whole mess has some officials wanting to eliminate ISTEP completely.

When Bosma today presented House Republicans’ legislative priorities for this year’s short 10-week session, he included plans to explore the possibility of a “streamlined test in the future.”

“It’s very clear that the ISTEP test is a damaged brand,” Bosma said. “We do need to be cognizant of the fact that we have a new test and new administration of it, but many of us are prepared to look for alternatives and to do so promptly.”

Although state Superintendent Glenda Ritz said Indiana has done its “due diligence” in regard to accurately scoring the 2015 test, she, too, has criticized ISTEP.

Ritz said she would support an exam that would better determine whether students are improving during the school year. Yesterday she suggested a series of shorter tests that would track students’ progress, followed by a final test that would take a “snapshot” of their skills at the end of year, much like ISTEP does now, except it would be shorter.

Ritz said this strategy would reduce the amount of time kids spend taking tests and provide teachers and parents with faster results that could help guide instruction.

“Students don’t take all same questions at same time,” Ritz said. “It’s a very individualized approach … that’s what I’d like to see us move towards.”

As the country transitions from the federal No Child Left Behind law to the Every Student Succeeds Act over the next couple years, it’s still not clear exactly what kind of test changes will be allowed by the U.S. Department of Education.

Bosma said he doesn’t know what form his plan for future tests would take, but it could come as an executive order by the governor, a collaboration between legislative leaders and Ritz or another summer study committee.

Bosma said his goal is to finish out this session with a strategy so that the state can take action next year or finish its two-year contract with Pearson, the company hired to build the 2016 and 2017 tests, before transitioning to something new. Whatever route lawmakers decide to pursue, he said something needs to change.

“We have to put some time in on this test revision,” he said.

Testing reboot

ACT do-overs pay off for 40 percent of Tennessee high school seniors who tried

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Tennessee’s $2 million investment in helping high school seniors retake the ACT test appears to be paying off for a second year in a row.

Almost three-fourths of the class of 2018 took the national college entrance test last fall for a second time, doubling the participation rate in Tennessee’s ACT Senior Retake Day for public schools. State officials announced Wednesday that 40 percent of the do-overs resulted in a higher overall score.

Of the 52,000 students who participated in the initiative’s second year, 2,333 raised their average composite to a 21 or higher, making them eligible for HOPE Scholarship funds of up to $16,000 for tuition. That’s potentially $37 million in state-funded scholarships.

In addition, Tennessee students are expected to save almost $8 million in remedial course costs — and a lot of time — since more of them hit college-readiness benchmarks that allow direct enrollment into credit-bearing coursework.

But besides the benefits to students, the early results suggest that Tennessee is inching closer to raising its ACT average to the national average of 21 by 2020, one of four goals in Tennessee’s five-year strategic plan.

After years of mostly stagnant scores, the state finally cracked 20 last year when the class of 2017 scored an average of 20.1, buoyed in part by the senior retake strategy.

(The ACT testing organization will release its annual report of state-by-state scores in August, based on the most recent test taken. Tennessee will release its own report based on the highest score, which is what colleges use.)

Tennessee is one of 13 states that require its juniors to take the ACT or SAT and, in an effort to boost scores, became the first to pay for public school seniors to retake their ACTs in 2016. Only a third of that class took advantage of the opportunity, but enough students scored higher to make it worth expanding the voluntary program in its second year.

Last fall, the state worked with local districts to make it easier for seniors to participate. The retake happened during the school day in students’ own schools, instead of on a Saturday morning at an ACT testing site.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the expanded access has paid off tenfold. “Now, more Tennessee students are able to access scholarship funding, gain admission to colleges and universities, and earn credit for their work from day one,” she said.

Of the state’s four urban districts, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, which serves Davidson County, increased its average composite score the most (up .5 to 18.4), followed by Hamilton County (up .3 to 19.4), and Shelby County Schools, (up .2 to 17.1). Knox County Schools and the state-run Achievement School District, which operates high schools in Memphis, saw slight drops from their retakes and will retain their higher average scores taken earlier.

Statewide, 10 school systems logged a half point or more of growth from their junior test day to the senior retake:

  • Anderson County, up .6 to 19.3
  • Arlington City, up .6 to 22.5
  • Collierville City, up .6 to 24.3
  • Davidson County, up .5 to 18.4
  • Franklin County, up .6 to 20.1
  • Haywood County, up .5 to 17.5
  • Henderson County, up .5 to 21.2
  • Humboldt City, up .8 to 17.4
  • Maryville City, up .5 to 22.1
  • Williamson County, up .6 to 24.1

Tennessee set aside up to $2.5 million to pay for its 2017 Retake Day, and Gov. Bill Haslam is expected to fund the initiative in the upcoming year as well. The state already pays for the first ACT testing day statewide, which it’s done since 2009.

Correction: January 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to show that, while the state set aside $2.5 million for its ACT retake initiative, it spent only $2 million on the program this fiscal year.

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.