tick tock

A Common Core exam or another year of ISTEP? Lawmakers weigh unpopular options

With just seven weeks to go until a Dec. 1 deadline to decide on a new testing program for Indiana schools, some members of a key testing advisory panel are now admitting that it’s increasingly likely the state might have to keep its unpopular ISTEP a bit longer.

Another option is to bring back parts of the controversial PARCC exam, a national test that was rejected by state lawmakers in 2013 because it’s tied to the politically unpopular Common Core State Standards.

Both options would violate current state law and create a political headache for lawmakers who vowed to swiftly replace the much-maligned ISTEP test with something better. But at a meeting Tuesday of the state’s ISTEP replacement panel, lawmakers and panel members acknowledged that starting a new test in the spring of 2018 might not be possible.

The “repeal ISTEP” bill that was signed by Gov. Mike Pence in May lays out an ambitious timeline with the ISTEP advisory panel making recommendations by Dec. 1 so that the legislature can formally enact the new test next spring.

But after months of indecision, members of the panel now say the ISTEP may be sticking around a little longer than expected.

“I don’t see any alternative,” Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, chairman of the Senate Education Committee said at the panel meeting Tuesday. “That’ll probably be a bill that’s in the legislature this next session.”

He joins Rep. Bob Behning, who heads the House Education Committee and initially championed the “repeal ISTEP” bill, who said earlier this summer that ISTEP might continue longer than expected.

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

ISTEP was set to be given for the last time this spring, with a new testing system expected in 2018. Experts testifying to the panel today said any way forward — whether it’s a brand new test or something off-the-shelf like PARCC — would take about two years to put in place. That’s mostly because the new tests would need to be properly aligned to Indiana’s tougher academic standards

“It would be very difficult for us to immediately think that in (2018) we’re going to have a new test,” Behning said today. “We’ll probably have to have some short extension to keep something in place as we develop what we think the next step is in assessments.”

At this point, Behning said he thinks Republicans in his caucus are “relatively open” to whatever recommendations come next, although pushing an Indiana-specific test might be smoother than, say, resurrecting PARCC.

But the political situation has changed slightly since Indiana pulled out of the consortium of states that pooled their resources to create the PARCC exam, said Michael Cohen, president of the nonprofit Achieve that helps states work on academic standards and tests. Indiana originally pivoted so sharply from PARCC because of concerns that the Common Core represented a federal intrusion into state schools.

Today, however, “there’s no federal funds involved,” Cohen said. “It’s gone.”

It’s hard to say whether PARCC would be politically palatable in Indiana given the strong backlash it received in 2013. On one hand, Cohen today said it was a reliable, well-made test that was cheaper than Indiana’s current ISTEP contract with British-based Pearson. On the other hand, the politics might just be too “daunting,” said Indiana Commissioner for Education Teresa Lubbers, even if the test itself makes the most sense.

The panel spent today’s session hearing a rehash of options the state could pursue, as well as briefing on what federal approval would be needed before ending abruptly without much discussion. The next meeting is Nov. 15.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz, meanwhile, is one of the few panel members proposing a complete plan that isn’t just an ISTEP-clone — at least not in the long term.

Ritz and the Indiana Department of Education released details of a proposal for a “computer-adaptive” test that gives students easier or harder questions depending on whether they answer right or wrong.

See Ritz’s entire testing proposal here.

The proposal calls for three tests per year in reading and math — one in the fall, winter and spring so that teachers would have more opportunities to get feedback on student progress.

In one approach, the state could make the fall and winter tests purely about teacher feedback, and the spring test would remain the one that counts for school A-F accountability grades. In a second approach, each test would have a few questions that count toward A-F grades.

High school students would go back to taking end-of-course exams redesigned to align with Indiana’s tougher new standards. Those tests would be in ninth-grade Algebra, ninth-grade English and biology.

Ritz’s plan also calls for the elimination of several existing exams, including the third-grade reading test, a test to see if high-schoolers need remediation and state social studies tests in fifth and seventh grades. All open-ended essay or short-answer questions would be cut except in writing.

But Ritz’s proposals couldn’t all happen by spring of 2018 either. She calls for a slower timeline in which ISTEP, or something very similar to it, is given in 2018 followed by the new computer-adaptive test in the 2018-19 school year.

The department said this approach would reduce Indiana testing time by about eight hours and reduce costs by at least $12 million just by removing existing tests. A complete cost estimate is not yet available, so it’s hard to tell if the overall testing budget would decrease or by how much. Lawmakers set aside about $77 million for testing and remediation in the last two-year budget.

Yet panel members, such as Behning and chairwoman Nicole Fama, an Indianapolis Public Schools principal, still have doubts. They worry schools lack the technology support to give tests exclusively on computers and that teachers might see the interim tests in the fall and winter as further distractions from class time.

No states currently have a system like what Ritz is proposing, and one expert said it would be “breaking new ground.” Because of new federal law passed last year, this option is now viable, said Daniel Altman, a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education.

“Now that No Child Left Behind has gone away, states have a lot more flexibility in what is assessed and when and how,” Altman said. “We think taking advantage of that flexibility is something Indiana absolutely needs to do.”

Not over yet

A firm reprimand — but no penalty yet — for two Tennessee districts that defy deadline to share student data

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

So what will be the consequences for the two Tennessee school districts that missed a state-imposed deadline to share contact information for their students with charter schools? For now, disappointment from the state’s top education official.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen had promised to issue consequences if the two districts, Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools, did not meet the Monday deadline.

But when the end of the day passed — as expected — without any data-sharing, McQueen declined to penalize the districts. Instead, she issued a stern statement.

“We are disappointed that these districts are choosing to withhold information from parents about the options that are available to their students while routinely saying they desire more parental engagement,” she said. “Allowing parents to be informed of their educational options is the epitome of family engagement and should be embraced by every school official.”

McQueen seemed to indicate that firmer consequences could lie ahead. “We must consider all options available in situations where a district actively chooses to ignore the law,” she said in the statement. McQueen told lawmakers in a conference call last month that she was not discussing withholding state funds as a penalty at the time, according to Rep. John Clemmons, who was on the call.

The anticlimactic decision comes after weeks of back-and-forth between the state and its two largest school districts over student contact information — the latest front in the districts’ ongoing enrollment war with charter schools.

Charter schools are pressing the districts to share information about their students, arguing that they need to be able to contact local families to inform them about their school options. District leaders argue that a federal rule about student privacy lets local districts decide who gets that information. (The districts have chosen to distribute student contact information to other entities, including yearbook companies.)

The state’s attorney general sided with charter schools, saying that marketing to families is an acceptable use of student contact information and districts were required to hand it over to charter schools that requested it. Both school boards cite a committee discussion in February when state lawmakers sought to make sure the information could not be used as a “recruiting tool” as evidence that the intent of the law runs counter to the state’s application of it.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

Now, the conflict has potential to head to court. Shelby County Schools already committed last month to writing a letter outlining its arguments to support the Nashville district if it decides to file a lawsuit against the state.

As the deadline drew near, the two school boards teamed up to flesh out their positions and preview what that legal battle might look like. Over the weekend, board chairs Anna Shepherd in Nashville and Chris Caldwell in Memphis penned a letter to USA Today’s Tennessee papers arguing the districts should not be required to hand over student information to a state-run district facing deep financial, operational and academic woes.

They also pointed to a recent $2.2 million settlement between a parents and a Nashville charter network over spam text messages promoting enrollment at its schools as evidence the transaction could lead to invasion of privacy.

Clarification (Sept. 25, 2017): This story has been updated to clarify the source of McQueen’s early comments on penalties she was discussing at the time. 

deja vu

For second straight year, two charter schools denied by Memphis board appeal to the state

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of the Tennessee State Board of Education, listens last May to charter appeals by three operators in Memphis.

For the second year in a row, charter schools seeking to open in Memphis are appealing to the state after being rejected by the local board.

Two proposed all-girls schools, The Academy All Girls Charter School and Rich ED Academy of Leaders, went before the Tennessee Board of Education last week to plead for the right to open. Citing weaknesses in the schools’ planning, the Shelby County Schools board had rejected them, along with nine other charter applicants, last month. It approved three schools, many fewer than in previous years.

After state officials and charter operators complained last year that the Memphis school board didn’t have clear reasons for rejecting schools, the district revamped its charter oversight to make the review process more transparent. Now, five independent evaluators help scrutinize schools’ lengthy applications — a job that until this year had been done by three district officials with many other responsibilities. (The district also doubled the size of its charter schools office.)

The new appeals suggest that at least some charter operators aren’t satisfied by the changes.

District officials said the schools did not have clear goals for their academic programs and relied too heavily on grant funding. The board for Rich Ed Academy of Learners said in its appeal letter the district’s concerns were ambiguous and that the school would provide a unique project-based learning model for girls of color from low-income families.

The other school’s board said in its letter that the district’s decision was not in the best interest of students. A school official declined to elaborate.

The state board blasted Shelby County Schools’ charter revocation and approval processes last year, ultimately approving one appeal. That cleared the way for the first charter school in Memphis overseen by the panel.

The state board will vote on the new appeals at its quarterly meeting Friday, Oct. 20. If the state board approves the appeals, the local board would have 30 days to decide whether to authorize the school or relinquish oversight to the state board.