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?”

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.