Test transitions

They rejected multi-state Common Core exams. Now what?

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Indianapolis Public Schools picked a new model for teacher observations.

When it comes to standardized testing, Indiana has commitment issues.

In just the past five years, it joined a multi-state testing consortium, dumped that consortium, launched its own new test, and now, unhappy with the latest problem-plagued version, is searching for something even newer for 2018.

It’s a similar story in Tennessee, Michigan, and dozens of other states where the backlash against the Common Core led lawmakers to overrule state education officials who had invested years of time and resources in tests aligned with the new standards. The process of leaving consortia that was meant to pacify local protests against Common Core-aligned tests has actually led to chaos and confusion in the classroom, not to mention extra costs to those same states to develop replacements exams.

Read: Scrapping Indiana’s ISTEP test: What might come next and at what cost?

Of 44 states and the District of Columbia that were initially affiliated with one or both multi-state test consortia, just 21 will give the tests in 2016. Three states – including Indiana – have gone even farther and rejected the Common Core itself, choosing instead to adopt new state-specific standards.

But while politicians knew what they didn’t want — Republicans blasted the Common Core and its associated tests as federal overreach while Democrats and teachers unions worried about excessive testing — states such as Indiana are now scrambling to figure out what to do after abandoning those exams

The result is a problem-plagued testing season that’s left teachers, students and parents desperate for some stability and craving a chance to be heard.

“Nobody comes and talks to us,” said Robin Clark, a math teacher at Indianapolis’ Emmerich Manual High School. “We are constantly trying to implement whatever we are being told by people who are not fluent in the field.”

When the Common Core first surfaced in 2009 as a state-led effort to raise standards for schools across the country, the idea was largely free from controversy. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle embraced the Common Core as a tool to create a single measuring stick for student learning across the country.

To make things easier and less expensive for states as they transitioned to the new standards, the federal government encouraged states to collaborate and develop tests together. Forty-four states plus the District of Columbia joined at least one — and sometimes both — testing consortia around 2010 that took up the challenge using $350 million in federal funds.

Indiana joined 25 other states including New York, Tennessee, and Colorado in affiliating with the PARCC Assessment System. Michigan, California and 28 other states went with the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. Trial questions were given to students in the 35 states that became official consortia members, and the first actual tests were scheduled to be administered in 2015.

Then, the political winds shifted. As the Common Core became politically toxic, state legislatures across the country voted to pull out of the testing consortia. Some cited political pressure, others logistics, but in most cases, lawmakers wanted to telegraph to voters that they were opposed to the Common Core.

In one state after another, decisions that had been made by curriculum and testing experts working for state education departments were overturned.

“Politicians and ideologues continue driving this system without regard to its educational value,” said Robert Schaeffer, a spokesman for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a testing watchdog group.

Now, just seven states are giving the PARCC test in 2016. Smarter Balanced is down to 14 states.

But in their haste to pull away from something they didn’t want, many states were left without backup plans. They quickly assembled new testing programs that, all over the country, are now backfiring. Three or more years is generally what’s needed to design and vet a new test, but some states, including Indiana, are trying to do that work in two years or less.

In Tennessee, lawmakers pulled out of PARCC in 2014 for not being “Tennessee-specific.” They hurried to replace it with a new “TNReady” test that was plagued by glitches so severe that the state ultimately canceled testing for most students.

In Michigan, lawmakers voted to banish the Smarter Balanced exam just nine months before it was supposed to be administered. That led the state to essentially administer the Smarter Balanced test with a new name, M-STEP, in 2015, followed by different M-STEP in 2016 — a setup that basically means Michigan kids will take three different tests in three years, making year-to-year comparisons impossible. Meanwhile, experts say the Michigan test still bears a lot of similarities to Smarter Balanced, just as many new state-specific standards share much of their content with Common Core. Like Indiana, Michigan is now considering changing its test yet again — an effort led by the state superintendent.

In Indiana, lawmakers who fled both PARCC and the Common Core itself, adopting Indiana-specific standards, continued working with test company CTB McGraw-Hill to quickly update the state’s decades-old ISTEP exam. The hasty revamp was assailed for technical and scoring flaws and was so universally disliked that lawmakers this year voted to scrap ISTEP entirely, pointing to problems with its administration and computer platform as culprits.

Although leaving consortia allowed some states to circumvent political backlash, it didn’t prevent them from realizing consequences to state coffers and in the classroom.

The PARCC test, administered by Pearson, costs the states that use it about $24 per student, according to the consortium’s website. If Indiana were still in the consortium, taxpayers would have spent about $12 million last year for the 500,000 students who were tested. Instead, the state paid about $24 million to CTB for its state-specific exam and is contracted with Pearson for about $32 million this year and next year.

The Brown Center on Education Policy, at the Brookings Institution based in Washington, D.C., reported in 2012 that states spent, on average, $27 per student on tests for state accountability. It’s not clear, the report said, just how large savings would be for consortia states, but the scale of the PARCC and Smarter Balanced tests was intended to reduce costs for states at a time when federal requirements were pressuring states to update their exams in response to new more rigorous standards.

For the second time in two years, Indiana lawmakers will have to scramble again to replace the state’s testing program with another new exam in 2018. Officials don’t yet know what a future contract would include or who would administer it.

The situation is different in every state, but in most cases, states walked away from the years of planning that had gone into the multi-state exams for reasons that had nothing to do with the tests themselves.

“A lot of this has to do with sort of perception wars around the assessments and less to do with the practicality of choosing the best assessments for our kids,” said Abigail Swisher, an education policy analyst with the New America Foundation.

The turmoil has many teachers on edge.

“I work with students who have test anxiety normally, and so if you just compound that by 10, that’s kind of what we’re facing,” said Megan Parker, a third- and fourth-grade special education teacher at Tindley Renaissance Academy, a charter school in Indianapolis. “It’s all about not letting anyone know that you’re freaking out about when the state is doing something to a test that you’re getting ready to give for the first time.”

Indiana largely protected teachers and schools from serious consequences from the dramatic drop in test scores created when the state switched to a new tougher ISTEP in 2015, but no such protections are expected for this year when the state gives largely the same test under a new vendor, British-based Pearson. As lawmakers contemplate yet another new test in 2018, they’ve made no promises to protect teachers or schools from the coming changes.

That means, if students struggle on future exams, their teachers could lose their bonuses. If their schools score poor enough to get four consecutive F-grades from the state, the schools could face state takeovers.

And while teachers are facing stiffer consequences from the exams, they say the constantly changing testing landscape means the tests don’t offer them much value. A different test every year means it’s hard for teachers to track student progress from one year to the next, and it also make it hard for teachers to help their students prepare. When it comes to state accountability, ever-changing exams can prevent policymakers from comparing how students and schools perform one year to the next.

Beth Shaffer-Scott, a veteran Indianapolis Public Schools teacher at School 70, longs for stability.

“It’s just like anything,” Shaffer-Scott said. “You’ve got to stick with it long enough to see whether or not it works.”

If states think there’s an easy way forward after leaving the multi-state testing consortia, they might have another thing coming.

An expectation for quick test turnaround in a year or less could be a dangerous move, even for states like Indiana that own their own test questions — one of the most time-consuming and expensive parts of the test creation process.

Realistically, if Indiana, or any state, wanted to make a big change quickly, it should consider using a national test or shared test questions for the time being while it takes steps to build its own question pools and test programs, said Ed Roeber, a former Michigan test director who’s worked with Indiana. That way, questions can be properly vetted, and states have the benefit of time to really figure out the best test solution.

“That would be the kind of option that I think would more politically viable,” Roeber said. “Eventually, the test is all Indiana.”

But whether that will be an appealing option in states where lawmakers are on high alert for signs that the Common Core could be creeping back in is not clear.

In Indiana, a committee of educators, lawmakers and policymakers plans to consider several options for the state in the next few months.

But the capacity to build entirely new tests might be more challenging than lawmakers expect. Even if states have the autonomy to make big changes, they might not want to spend the money or take the time that’s typically needed.

That timeline is especially important if a state wants to create a quality test that will last, Roeber said. He views Indiana’s struggle with ISTEP as less a problem with the actual test, and more a problem with last-minute decisions from lawmakers.

“The (Indiana Department of Education) did the best they could under the circumstances, but those are pretty severe circumstances,” Roeber said. “You have to shortcut a lot of stuff if you have to do it in under a year… they were working under an incredibly unrealistic deadline to get this thing done.”

Consistency is key to a testing system that can reliably measure student performance and cut down on disruptions for schools. And there’s no fast way to create a customized, in-depth test that measures challenging state standards if time and resources aren’t dedicated to it, Roeber said.

If lawmakers want test results that can be compared from one year to the next, they’re going to need to pick one test and stick with it for more than a year or two.

Teachers say they hope they’ll see some consistency before their bonuses and school accountability grades start to suffer.

“Trying to accommodate a new test without having a lot of knowledge about it is a little disconcerting when your school grade is tied to it and your (pay) increases are tied to it,” said Clark, the Manual High School math teacher. “How many times can you change to ultimately deliver the same result?”

testing accountability

Pressuring schools to raise test scores got diminishing returns, new study of No Child Left Behind finds

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

Does tightening the screws on schools and teachers lead to benefits for students?

For the past couple of decades, school reform efforts have assumed that the answer is yes. Setting ambitious goals, and putting pressure on schools to reach them, would push students ahead. And past research has shown that math scores rose as more states began threatening and sanctioning schools with low test scores in the 2000s.

But a new study shows that continuing to to “raise the bar” during the No Child Left Behind era only had a modest effect at best. That raises questions about whether the small gains were worth the political controversy, and what critics claim were the educational costs, of putting a greater focus on test scores.

“These results suggest that the ratcheting [up] of test-based accountability pressures alone is not enough to sustain improvements in student achievement,” conclude researchers Vivian Wong, Coady Wing, David Martin, and Anandita Krishnamachari.

Their paper, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, focuses on the several years after the federal No Child Left Behind law was signed in 2002. The law — which passed with bipartisan support but would eventually draw bipartisan ire — required states to test students annually and set goals for schools. Schools that didn’t meet them faced sanctions.

States each set their own targets using different tests. But the researchers attempted to ask the same questions of each state: How hard was it for each school to hit its goals, and how did that change between 2003 and 2011? Then, they looked at how students did on the National Assessment for Educational Progress. Did states see larger gains on the federal low-stakes test after making life tougher on schools?

In many states, it really did become harder and harder for schools to measure up. In 2008, Education Week noted that California’s school failure rate jumped from 34 to 48 percent between 2007 and 2008. In Vermont, the climb was even steeper: from 12 percent of schools failing to 37 percent.

This added pressure, the authors conclude, seemed to lead to national gains in eighth grade math and reading. But the effect was tiny: about half a point in both subjects. (For comparison’s sake, the difference in performance between white and black students in eighth grade math was 32 points on the latest test.)

“Though they find positive effects, like everyone in this literature, they are small [effects],” Tom Dee, a Stanford education professor.

That said, the gains were largest for certain disadvantaged groups: English language learners, Hispanic students, students with disabilities, and students who started at the lowest levels of performance.

There was no evidence of higher standards causing any improvements in fourth grade math or reading.

If this shows that raising the bar doesn’t do much, though, past research has shown that just having a bar can make a big difference.

In states that didn’t have accountability systems at all before No Child Left Behind, creating them led to big gains on national low-stakes math tests: 8 points in fourth grade and 5 points in eighth grade, according to a study from Dee.

Together, this research bolsters a theory known as the “accountability plateau” — that creating tougher rules boost performance, but ratcheting up the pressure leads to diminishing returns.

“It seems like when you implement an accountability system there’s an initial bump, but after that continued gains are hard to come by,” said Morgan Polikoff, a professor at the University of Southern California who has studied standards and accountability systems.

Dee was more skeptical of this idea. Schools’ goals were getting harder and harder to reach just as criticism of the law was cresting and politicians were considering changes.  

“Districts may have understood it was a nudge and a wink and it didn’t really have teeth,” he said of the law.

No Child Left Behind’s replacement, the Every Student Succeeds Act, takes a different tack. Instead of giving each state discretion in how many schools are identified as failing and requiring them to ramp up the consequences over time, the law requires each state to identify 5 percent of schools as low-performing.

The latest study suggests that might be a preferable approach if states are able to figure out better ways to help a small group of struggling schools improve. Turnaround efforts — including a prominent federal program backed by a lot of money — have often produced disappointing results.

“It remains unclear how states will implement ESSA,” write the researchers. “But the federal law will likely not succeed if performance requirements are not accompanied by additional support for educators.”

Lost in Translation

Detroit superintendent promises Spanish translators, other fixes for ‘broken’ system

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti addresses Spanish-speaking parents during a forum at Munger Elementary-Middle School.

One by one, the parents who stood in the library of a Southwest Detroit elementary school turned to the district’s superintendent and told him heartbreaking stories of a school system they say has failed them.

Speaking primarily in Spanish through a translator, the parents described miscommunications in schools where nobody knows their language.

One woman teared up as she described her struggle to find out what happened after her son was injured in school. Another said her son’s learning disability went undiagnosed for years while her pleas for help went unanswered. Others told of run-ins with principals, and of school security guards who didn’t realize how alarming it is for immigrant parents to be asked for identification when they come into their children’s schools.

The speakers were members of parent and community groups who had requested a meeting with Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti to discuss a range of concerns for Spanish-speaking parents.

They walked away with a list of promises from Vitti who says there’s a lot the district can do to better meet the needs of these families.

“I want you to hold me accountable,” Vitti told the several dozen parents who were assembled for the community forum at Munger Elementary-Middle School on Monday afternoon. 

He then rattled off a list of measures he planned to take to address their concerns. Among them, Vitti said he would:

  • Establish a Spanish hotline that parents can call to get help from the district in their native language;
  • Ensure that every school with Spanish-speaking children has someone in the office who speaks Spanish;
  • Provide translation services to parents during meetings about the extra supports for children with disabilities;
  • Create a bilingual task force to address the needs of non-English speaking families;
  • Conduct an audit of school security guards to make sure the people stationed in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods are able to speak the language;
  • Develop a new parent identification process so that parents can access their children’s schools without being asked to present a government ID, making it easier for undocumented parents to participate in their children’s education; and,
  • Hire Spanish speakers for his communications staff to better spread district news through social media and phone calls.

Some of those items, like providing translators during meetings about special education, are required by law. Others, like establishing a hotline, seem like basic measures for a district like Detroit where more than 13 percent of students are Hispanic and 12 percent of students speak a language other than English at home.

But Vitti acknowledged that a lot of basic structures in the district are still being rebuilt after years of financial crises and oversight by state-appointed emergency managers.

“The commitment to do it wasn’t there,” he said.

Monday’s meeting came about, he said, because the district was regularly hearing from parents in Southwest Detroit about problems they were having.

“It was starting to become a theme and we felt we just needed to have one unified conversation and begin a momentum of more direct engagement with the community,” Vitti said.

Monday’s meeting was his first major sit-down with Spanish-speaking families since his arrival in Detroit last year. Vitti, who was there for two hours, promised to return for another meeting this fall to update the parents on the progress he’s made.

“Sometimes it’s hard for me to sit and listen to these stories because our school system has to do better for children,” Vitti told the parents as he finished listing the changes he said he would make. “I’m committed to doing better as a school system for all the parents here, but we have to do this together. Tell me what’s broken and tell me what’s wrong but also come with a solution and let’s all work together to make this a better district and a better community.”

Vitti also urged the parents to vote in the upcoming gubernatorial election adding that “it’s very clear who the candidate is who supports public education.”

Parents said they were grateful to have gotten an audience with Vitti and are hopeful that change will come.

“I’m still skeptical because the system is so broken,” said Maria Salinas who leads the Congress of Communities, one of the groups that organized the forum. “We’ve been given a lot of promises that didn’t come through” in the past … “but Vitti is giving us some hope.”