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?”

It takes a village

What does it mean to be a community school? This Colorado bill would define it – and promote it

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
A teacher leads a class called community living at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School in Jeffco Public Schools.

A Colorado lawmaker wants to encourage struggling schools to adopt the community school model, which involves schools providing a range of services to address challenges students and their families face outside the classroom.

Community schools are an old idea enjoying a resurgence in education circles with the support of teachers unions and other advocates. These schools often include an extended school day with after-school enrichment, culturally relevant curriculum, significant outreach to parents, and an emphasis on community partnerships.

In Colorado, the Jefferson County school district’s Jefferson Junior-Senior High School is moving toward a community school model with job services and English classes for parents. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has made this approach the centerpiece of school turnaround efforts in that city.

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, is sponsoring a bill that would, for the first time, create a definition of community schools in state law and make it explicit that innovation schools can be community schools. The Senate Education Committee held a hearing on the bill Thursday and didn’t kill it. Instead, state Sen. Owen Hill, the Colorado Springs Republican who chairs the committee, asked to postpone a vote so he could understand the idea better.

“My concern is these chronically underperforming schools who are wavering between hitting the clock and not for years and years,” Zenzinger said. “What sorts of things could we be doing to better support those schools? In Colorado, we tend to do triage. I’m trying to take a more holistic approach and think about preventative care.”

Colorado’s “accountability clock” requires state intervention when schools have one of the two lowest ratings for five years in a row. Schools that earn a higher rating for even one year restart the clock, even if they fall back the next year.

Becoming an innovation school is one pathway for schools facing state intervention, and schools that have struggled to improve sometimes seek innovation status on their own before they run out of time.

Innovation schools have more autonomy and flexibility than traditional district-run schools – though not as much as charters – and they can use that flexibility to extend the school day or the school year, offer services that other schools don’t, and make their own personnel decisions. To become an innovation school, leaders need to develop a plan and get it approved by their local school board and the State Board of Education.

Nothing in existing law prevents community schools. There are traditional, charter, and innovation schools using this model, and many schools with innovation status include some wraparound services.

For example, the plan for Billie Martinez Elementary School in the Greeley-Evans district north of Denver envisions laundry services and an on-site health clinic.

District spokeswoman Theresa Myers said officials with the state Department of Education were extremely supportive of including wraparound services in the innovation plan, which also includes a new learning model and extensive training and coaching for teachers. But the only one that the school has been able to implement is preschool. The rest are on a “wish list.”

“The only barrier we face is resources,” Myers said.

Under Zenzinger’s bill, community schools are those that do annual assets and needs assessments with extensive parent, student, and teacher involvement, develop a strategic plan with problem-solving teams, and have a community school coordinator as a senior staff person implementing that plan. The bill does not include any additional money for community schools – in part to make it more palatable to fiscal hawks in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Supporters of community schools see an opportunity to get more money through the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which includes non-academic factors like attendance, school climate, and expulsions in its school ratings and which encourages schools to work with parents and community partners. In a 2016 report, the Center for Community Schools said ESSA creates “an opportune moment to embrace community schools as a policy framework.” And a report released in December by the Learning Policy Institute argues that “well-implemented community schools” meet the criteria for evidence-based intervention under ESSA.

Zenzinger said that creating a definition of community schools in state law will help schools apply for and get additional federal money under ESSA.

As Chalkbeat reported this week, a series of studies of community schools and associated wraparound services found a mix of positive and inconclusive results – and it wasn’t clear what made some programs more effective at improving learning. However, there doesn’t seem to be a downside to offering services.

The State Board of Education has not taken a position on the bill, and no organizations have registered lobbyists in opposition. But there are skeptics.

Luke Ragland of Ready Colorado, a conservative group that advocates for education reform, said he’s “agnostic” about types of schools and supports the existence of a wide variety of educational approaches from which parents can choose. But he worries that the focus of community schools might be misplaced.

“They try to address a lot of things that are outside the control of the school,” he said. “I wonder if that’s a wise way forward, to improve school by improving everything but school.”

Ragland also worries about the state directing schools to choose this path.

“I would argue that under the innovation statute, the ability to start this type of school already exists,” he said. “We should be thinking about ways to provide more flexibility and autonomy without prescribing how schools do that.”

Zenzinger said her intent with the bill is to raise the profile and highlight the benefits of the community school model. She stressed that she’s not trying to force the community school model on anyone – doing it well requires buy-in from school leaders, teachers, and parents – but she does want schools that serve lots of students living in poverty or lots of students learning English to seriously consider it.

“There is not a roadmap for implementing innovation well,” she said. “There are a lot of options, and not a lot of guidance. There’s nothing saying, ‘This is what would work best for you.’ If they’re going to seek innovation status, we want to give them tools to be successful.”

This post has been updated to reflect the result of the Senate Education Committee hearing.

Cap and gown

Graduation rates in Michigan – and Detroit’s main district — are up, but are most students ready for college?

The state superintendent had some good news to share Wednesday about last year’s four-year graduation rates: They are at their highest level in years.

What’s not clear is whether new graduates are being adequately prepared for college.

Slightly more than 80 percent of the state’s high school students graduated last year, an increase of about half a percentage point from the previous year. It was news state education leaders cheered.

“An 80 percent statewide graduation rate is a new watermark for our schools. They’ve worked hard to steadily improve,” state Superintendent Brian Whiston said in a statement.

“This is another important step in helping Michigan become a Top 10 education state in 10 years. We aren’t there yet, so we need to keep working and moving forward,” he said.

But statewide, the number of students ready for college based on their scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test was about 35 percent, underscoring the fact that graduation rate is not necessarily a great measure of school success. Schools looking to raise graduation rates can find ways to make it easier for students to earn credits toward graduation and, unlike some states, Michigan does not require students to pass graduation exams.

The result is that more students are graduating from high school — but might not be ready to do college work.

In Detroit, graduation rates in the city’s main district remained largely steady, with a little more than three-quarters of its students graduating after four years. But the number of students who were ready for college dropped almost a point to 12.3 percent last year. While most students take the SAT in 11th grade as part of the state’s school testing program, that’s an indication students graduating from high school may not have been adequately prepared for college.

The state dropout rate remained largely unchanged at almost nine percent.

Detroit’s main district had the highest four-year graduation rates compared to other large districts, but more district students dropped out of school than in the previous year. More than 10 percent of Detroit students dropped out of high school in the 2016-17 school year, a slight increase from last year, according to state data.

Nikolai Vitti, Detroit’s school chief, said the report should motivate the district to ensure students are graduating at higher numbers, and are college ready when they leave high school.

“We are focused on creating a college going culture in our high schools by expanding accelerating programs, such as IB, dual enrollment, AP, and Early College,” he said. “We have already expanded SAT preparation during the school day and intend to offer classes within the schedule for this focus with 10th graders next year.”

Focusing on strengthening basic skills among elementary and middle school students also will better prepare them for college after graduation, Vitti said.

“Most importantly, if we teach the Common Core standards with fidelity and a stronger aligned curriculum, which we will next year at the K-8 level for reading and math, our students will be exposed to college ready skills and knowledge,” he added. “We look forward to demonstrating the true and untapped talent of our students in the years to come.”

But in spite of steady dropout rates and relatively low college readiness numbers, state officials were upbeat about the graduation results.

“This is the first time the statewide four-year graduation rate has surpassed 80 percent since we started calculating rates by cohorts eleven years ago,” said Tom Howell, director of the Michigan Center for Educational Performance and Information, which tracks school data. “This increase is in line with how the statewide graduation rate has been trending gradually upward.”

Search below to see the four-year graduation rates and college readiness rates for all Michigan high schools.