Are Children Learning

3 reasons why Indiana’s ISTEP test and school A-F scores come out so late now

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

It’s almost mid-October, but Indiana still has not publicly released state ISTEP test scores or A-F accountability grades for schools.

If it seems like they used to come out a lot earlier, that’s because they did.

In the first six years after the state tests moved in 2009 to being administered in the spring — rather than the fall — ISTEP scores were never publicly released later than mid-September. In three of those years, the scores came out in June or July.

The story is similar with A-F grades. In 2011, the first year Indiana began assigning grades to schools, they came out in August. They haven’t come out earlier than the end of October since.

The slow release of test scores has even become an issue in the race for governor. Both Republican Eric Holcomb, the state’s lieutenant governor, and Democrat John Gregg, a former Indiana House speaker have called for the test to be scored more quickly so that teachers can actually use the results to make adjustments to their teaching.

So why are scores and grades so slow to come out these days? And is there any hope the state could get them out earlier? Not with the current process, state Superintendent Glenda Ritz said last week.

There are three big reasons why:

Results today require more verification

Test scores today go through a more rigorous vetting process than they did in the past.

“There is an entire process we must go through,” Ritz said.

For one thing, parents are much more active than they were just a few years ago in asking for a student’s test be re-scored. In fact, some schools encourage parents of students who fell just short of a passing score on ISTEP to request a re-score in hopes it will boost the student’s score and help the school improve its passing percentage.

This also will be the second year for an overhauled and expanded ISTEP, changes that were required to match the test to new, more rigorous state academic standards that were put in place in 2014. After big test changes, more checking is required to assure the new exam is producing accurate results, Ritz said.

One more big change is Indiana‘s switch to a new test company.

After several years of scoring problems and delays, frustrated state officials backed out of Indiana’s long relationship with CTB, formerly CTB-McGraw Hill, picking its competitor, Pearson, to create and score ISTEP instead. Ritz said it is routine to have extra scrutiny after changing companies.

“We’ve had several changes in the assessment that required us to have a delay in when all the scores come out due to changes in the actual test itself,” she said.

Getting test scores back to teachers is top priority

Ritz proudly pointed out that teachers and schools received student test scores shortly after the start of the new school year.

“They have all the student data,” she said. “Teachers already working on what they need to do with instruction. I feel really good about that. That was our priority this year.”

Parents have also been able to access their children’s test scores through an online system since early September.

Pushing to get test results to teachers and parents faster means making the public release a lower priority.

In a word: politics

Changes in state law now require Ritz’s team to deliver state aggregate ISTEP results to the Indiana State Board of Education by July 1, Ritz said. So that has become the first ISTEP task, followed by the push to get the scores ready for teachers and parents.

But for the public release of the scores, followed by A-F school accountability grades, the state goes more slowly to ensure these high-stakes results are accurate. Test results and grades can affect teacher evaluations, even preventing pay raises for those whose students don’t make gains. They can even lead to interventions like state takeovers for schools that repeatedly post low scores.

In recent years, state board members and legislative leaders have even asked the Legislative Service Agency, the Indiana legislature’s research arm, to double-check A-F calculations after the education department’s work on them is finished.

So the public release of test scores and grades now comes after the data is delivered to the state board, after the preliminary test scores are delivered to teachers and parents, after parent re-score requests are complete and after all ISTEP scores and A-F grades are verified.

“What we are doing now is the state’s work to move toward the calculation of grades,” Ritz said. “When you get to the high stakes that are attached to our grades here in Indiana, you have to cross your T’s and dot your I’s.”

Her best guess was that scores and grades could be ready by the end of October.

research report

Three years in, some signs of (slight) academic growth at struggling ‘Renewal’ schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio at Brooklyn Generation School — part of the Renewal program

When Mayor Bill de Blasio launched an aggressive and expensive campaign to turn around the city’s lowest performing schools, he made a big promise: Schools would see “fast and intense” improvements within three years.

Almost exactly three years later, and after flooding 78 schools with more than $386 million in new social services and academic support, there are signs that the Renewal program has generated gains in student learning. The evidence is based on two newly updated analyses of test score data — one from Marcus Winters, a fellow at the conservative-learning Manhattan Institute, and the other from Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College.

But the researchers caution that those improvements are modest — when they exist at all — and don’t yet match the mayor’s lofty promises.

The results may have implications far beyond New York City, as a national and political test case of whether injecting struggling schools with resources is more effective than closing them.

The two researchers previously reviewed the first two years of test score data in elementary and middle schools in the Renewal program: Winters found a positive effect on test scores, while Pallas generally found little to no effect.

Now, as the program reaches its third birthday, the pair of researchers have updated their findings with new test score data from last school year, and largely reaffirmed their earlier conclusions.

“We’re not seeing large increases” in student achievement, Pallas said. “And the reality is it’s hard to get large increases in struggling schools.”

Some advocates have argued that it is too early to expect big shifts in test scores, and that infusing schools with extra social services like mental health counseling and vision screenings are valuable in themselves. But de Blasio’s promise of quick academic turnaround has invited questions about Renewal’s effectiveness and whether resources can be more effective in improving low-performing schools than shuttering them.

To assess the program’s academic effect, Pallas compared changes in Renewal school test scores to other schools that had similar test results and student demographics when the program started, but did not receive extra support.

The biggest gains Pallas found were concentrated at the elementary level.

Over the past three school years, 20 elementary schools in the Renewal program have made larger gains on average in math and reading than 23 similar schools that didn’t get extra resources. The proportion of elementary school students considered proficient in reading at Renewal schools increased from 7 percent in 2014 to 18 percent last year — an 11-point jump. Meanwhile, the comparison schools also saw gains, but only by seven percentage points, giving Renewal schools a four percentage point advantage.

At the middle school level, the results are less encouraging. The 45 Renewal middle schools did not collectively outperform a group of 50 similar schools outside the program in reading or math.

In math, for instance, Renewal school students improved from 5 percent proficient to 7 percent. However, the comparison schools outside the program improved by roughly the same margin — increasing proficiency from 6 to 9 percent (and still far below city average). In reading, Renewal middle schools showed slightly less growth than the comparison group.

City officials have argued that Pallas’ findings are misleading partly because Renewal schools and the comparison schools are not actually comparable. Renewal schools, they say, were designated based on a range of factors like school climate or teacher effectiveness, not just student demographics and test scores.

“The schools included in the study are neither similar nor comparable in quality and a comparison of the two dissimilar groups is unreliable at best,” Michael Aciman, an education department spokesman, said in a statement. Aciman added that Renewal schools have made larger gains in reading and math than similar schools across the state, and have made progress in reducing chronic absenteeism and improving instruction.

Pallas notes that there are some limitations to his approach, and acknowledges that he could not account for some differences between the two groups, such as the quality of a school’s principal. He also does not use student-level data, for instance, which would allow a more fine-grained analysis of whether the Renewal program is boosting student achievement. But Pallas, and other researchers who have previously reviewed his data, have said his model is rigorous.

The Manhattan Institute’s Winters found more positive trends than Pallas, consistent with his earlier findings. Using an approach that evaluates whether Renewal schools are outperforming historical trends compared with schools outside the program, Winters found that the Renewal program appeared to have a statistically significant effect on both reading and math scores — roughly equivalent to the difference in student achievement between charter schools and traditional district schools in New York City.

Asked about how to interpret the fact that his results tended to be more positive, Winters said either interpretation is plausible.

“It’s hard to tell which of these is exactly right,” he said. But “neither of us are finding results that are consistent with what we would expect if the program is having a large positive effect.”

explainer

Five things to know about the latest brouhaha over Tennessee’s TNReady test

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

Last week’s revelation that nearly 10,000 Tennessee high school tests were scored incorrectly has unleashed a new round of criticism of the standardized test known as TNReady.

Testing company Questar says it muffed some tests this spring after failing to update its scanning software. A year earlier, a series of mistakes got its predecessor, Measurement Inc., fired when Tennessee had to cancel most of TNReady in its first year after a failed transition to online testing.

While the two companies’ glitches are hardly comparable in scope, Questar’s flub has uncorked a tempest of frustration and anger over the standardized assessment and how it’s used to hold teachers accountable.

Here are five things to know about the latest TNReady flap:

1. A relatively small number of students, teachers, and schools are affected.

State officials report that the scoring problem was traced to only high school tests, not for its grade-schoolers. Of the 600,000 high school end-of-course tests, about 9,400 were scored incorrectly. Most of the fixes were so small that fewer than 1,700 tests — or less than one-tenth of 1 percent — saw any change in their overall performance level. A state spokeswoman says the corrected scores have been shared with the 33 impacted districts.

2. But the TNReady brand has taken another huge hit.

Tennessee has sought to rebuild public trust in TNReady under Questar and celebrated a relatively uneventful testing season last spring. But the parade of problems that surfaced during TNReady’s rollout, combined with this year’s drops in student performance under the new test, have made subsequent bumps feel more like sinkholes to educators who already are frustrated with the state’s emphasis on testing. Questar’s scanning problems were also tied to delays in delivering preliminary scores to school systems this spring — another bump that exasperated educators and parents at the end of the school year and led many districts to exclude the data from student report cards.

3. State lawmakers will revisit TNReady — and soon.

House Speaker Beth Harwell asked Monday for a hearing into the latest testing problems, and discussion could happen as early as next week when a legislative study committee is scheduled to meet in Nashville. Meanwhile, one Republican gubernatorial candidate says the state should eliminate student growth scores from teacher evaluations, and a teachers union in Memphis called on Tennessee to invalidate this year’s TNReady results.

4. Still, those talks are unlikely to derail TNReady.

Tennessee is heavily invested in its new assessment as part of its five-year strategic plan for raising student achievement. Changing course now would be a surprise. Last school year was the first time that all students in grades 3-11 took TNReady, a standardized test aligned to the Common Core standards, even though those expectations for what students should learn in math and English language arts have been in Tennessee classrooms since 2012. State officials view TNReady results as key to helping Tennessee reach its goal of ranking in the top half of states on the Nation’s Report Card by 2019.

5. Tennessee isn’t alone in traveling a bumpy testing road.

Questar was criticized this summer for its design of two tests in Missouri. Meanwhile, testing giant Pearson has logged errors and missteps in New York, Virginia, and Mississippi. And in Tennessee and Ohio this spring, the ACT testing company administered the wrong college entrance exam to almost 3,000 juniors from 31 schools. Officials with the Tennessee Department of Education emphasized this week that they expect 100 percent accuracy on scoring TNReady. “We hold our vendor and ourselves to the highest standard of delivery because that is what students, teachers, and families in Tennessee deserve,” said spokeswoman Sara Gast.