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.

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.