breaking news

Could new plans to adapt a test teachers love work for Indiana?

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Indiana educators who want the state to consider replacing ISTEP with an exam that would give teachers immediate feedback about their students might have new reason to be optimistic.

Chalkbeat reported last week that teachers have called on the state to use something like the popular MAP test, which is beloved by teachers for providing real-time information about what students know. At the time, the company that makes the test said MAP isn’t designed to meet testing requirements demanded for federal accountability and Indiana law.

Now, however, the Oregon-based testing company that makes MAP says it’s looking for a way to respond to demand from states like Indiana that have school accountability systems that require a single yearly score to indicate which kids are performing at grade level.

“Our state assessment experts will work with states to understand their goals and devise full solutions to meet those needs,” Jason Mendenhall, the senior vice president of strategic solutions for the testing company, the Northwest Evaluation Association, wrote in an email.

The email said NWEA will soon be creating a new division to work specifically with states to create tests and accountability systems that both meet state and federal education guidelines and encompass aspects of MAP — Measure of Academic Progress — that teachers say they like.

The MAP, which is typically given three times a year, not only gives immediate results that can help guide instruction, teachers say, it also takes less time to administer than year-end comprehensive exams like ISTEP.

Plans to adapt to state accountability systems like Indiana’s had been in the works for some time, Mendenhall said in the email, but the company decided to announce it sooner than originally planned in response to questions raised by Indiana educators after Chalkbeat reported on the issue.

It’s not clear yet what the new NWEA tests will look like or how the company will manage to create a test that both meets Indiana testing and accountability requirements and works well as a teaching tool.

The NWEA initiative bears some resemblance to a vision for Indiana’s testing program that came up today during the second meeting of the state’s ISTEP replacement panel.

The committee, charged with choosing a new suite of tests for Indiana schools once ISTEP ends in 2017, convened at the state capitol Tuesday morning. Some educators and administrators spoke in favor of a “computer adaptive” testing system that measures how students improve over the course of a year, which is how MAP currently works.

“(Teachers) want a growth model, and they want it short and sweet,” said Roncalli High School Principal Chuck Weisenbach.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz said she thinks new flexibility under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act would allow Indiana to move away from a pass/fail test and toward a MAP-like exam. Ritz said she thinks such a test could be modified to include parts that can measure students according to grade level, too.

“When the federal government gave the states, so to speak, the rights to use a computer adaptive test, I think they really did have in mind that you don’t have to have a pass/fail approach,” Ritz said.

Ritz’s vision, however, is likely to meet resistance from other members of the committee including House Education Committee Chairman Bob Behning and the panel’s chairwoman, Indianapolis Public School 93 Principal Nicole Fama.

Most members of the ISTEP panel were appointed by Gov. Mike Pence and the GOP leaders of the state legislature who have long supported high-stakes testing in schools.

Behning, Fama and other policymakers say they are more likely to support an exam that’s more similar to the current ISTEP in how it is administered once a year and measures where students perform within grade level expectations.

“At the end of the day, we have to come up with something that assesses (students) on grade level,” Fama said.

Behning also said he worried that using MAP-like tests that are given on computers could create issues for schools with fewer computers or less updated technology systems.

When the conversation ended Tuesday afternoon, there wasn’t a clear way forward. Parts of the panel’s conversations were very premature, some members said — It’s pointless to try to figure out test specifics before there’s a solid understanding what the test should be for.

At the group’s last meeting, discussion focused on the purpose of state exams. Experts said tests could be designed to determine whether students have improved from one year to the next, evaluate teachers or help rank schools and districts.

But they cautioned that a test that tries to do everything at once would be quite long.

Today, teachers and principals seemed against taking on too much with one test and instead urged the panel to remember that their charge involves more than coming up with a single new state test.

“I’m just concerned we’re getting (too much) into the details,” said Wendy Robinson, superintendent of Fort Wayne Schools. “Teachers don’t know any more what the state is expecting … We have a broken test that is being used like it’s a system, and it’s not.”

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.