Testing

Why the IPS superintendent isn’t worried that test scores are down

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee has this message for IPS parents who are worried about test scores: Don’t trust the numbers.

The ISTEP scores released last week show the percentage of IPS students passing the state exam declined for a second straight year, but Ferebee said he has little faith in the scores.

That’s because testing in Indiana has gone through so much turmoil in recent years that he says the scores cannot be compared from one year to the next.

“It’s not fuji apple to fuji apple,” he said. “It is very unfair to try to make that comparison.”

Though scores fell across the state, IPS saw more significant declines than the average Indiana district. However, dozens of other districts, including Washington and Warren townships, saw more precipitous declines.

The low scores for IPS were made harder to swallow by the fact that even some of the district’s top schools saw drops in scores. The dip ignited a firestorm of criticism online in part because the scores were released the same day IPS board awarded Ferebee a $26,999 bonus.

The bonus was not connected to test scores and was based on previously agreed upon criteria.

Ferebee is not alone in his criticism of ISTEP. After years of testing turmoil as the state changed standards and switched test makers, many school leaders, policymakers and observers have concluded the ISTEP is simply broken.

But Ferebee was hired three years ago on a promise to turn things around in the struggling district. Test scores are one of the clearest ways to determine whether changes he’s made such as partnering with charter schools and recruiting new leaders are bearing fruit.

With those scores on the decline, it’s no surprise that Ferebee would take issue with them but he argued the fact that schools across the state saw a second year of declines shows the new test is out of sync with typical exams.

“When you see a drop in the second year, that tells you that something is wrong,” he said. “If it was unique to one or two school districts, that’s understandable. It’s just a few districts being impacted. But it’s statewide issue.”

Although passing rates dropped in the district, unreleased, early data the district provided about its A-F score suggests that students are making improvements on the test.

Ferebee argues those growth scores are a more useful measure of student learning.

“I’ve said since the onset as we looked at our accountability model that a year’s growth annually is the expectation for all students,” he said. “Given that philosophy and that lens, I believe growth data is a better indicator of school success.”

Indiana has been going through testing turmoil throughout Ferebee’s tenure as superintendent. During his first year leading the district, when the state used an older version of ISTEP, scores increased slightly and the number of schools receiving Fs on the state accountability scale were cut by a third. Those are improvements district leaders have touted, and Ferebee said he has more faith in that earlier version of the test because it was more consistent.

When he arrived, Indiana had adopted the Common Core State Standards and was preparing to switch to the PARCC exam, a national test aligned with the standards. But the state legislature pulled out of the Common Core State Standards in 2014, and the state education department rushed to develop a replacement test.

That new, harder test was plagued by problems and student scores plummeted. But eventually lawmakers concluded the results would be good enough to set a baseline for future years. Although the state switched to a new vendor in 2016, the tests were designed to be comparable and there were few widespread issues with administration or scoring.

Still, the new version of ISTEP has proven so unpopular that lawmakers are aiming to replace it with yet another new test.

Ferebee said that as the state looks for a new exam, he hopes lawmakers find an option that can be used to give teachers feedback on what students know rather than the current system where teachers don’t learn how their students are doing until long after it’s too late to help them. He also said that if the test is used to measure teacher effectiveness, the focus should be on student growth.

“If a teacher has a classroom of students that were academically advanced, and you are basing it on proficiency, that teacher already has a leg up,” he said. “If you are basing it on growth, that can give more insight.”

Testing reboot

ACT do-overs pay off for 40 percent of Tennessee high school seniors who tried

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Tennessee’s $2 million investment in helping high school seniors retake the ACT test appears to be paying off for a second year in a row.

Almost three-fourths of the class of 2018 took the national college entrance test last fall for a second time, doubling the participation rate in Tennessee’s ACT Senior Retake Day for public schools. State officials announced Wednesday that 40 percent of the do-overs resulted in a higher overall score.

Of the 52,000 students who participated in the initiative’s second year, 2,333 raised their average composite to a 21 or higher, making them eligible for HOPE Scholarship funds of up to $16,000 for tuition. That’s potentially $37 million in state-funded scholarships.

In addition, Tennessee students are expected to save almost $8 million in remedial course costs — and a lot of time — since more of them hit college-readiness benchmarks that allow direct enrollment into credit-bearing coursework.

But besides the benefits to students, the early results suggest that Tennessee is inching closer to raising its ACT average to the national average of 21 by 2020, one of four goals in Tennessee’s five-year strategic plan.

After years of mostly stagnant scores, the state finally cracked 20 last year when the class of 2017 scored an average of 20.1, buoyed in part by the senior retake strategy.

(The ACT testing organization will release its annual report of state-by-state scores in August, based on the most recent test taken. Tennessee will release its own report based on the highest score, which is what colleges use.)

Tennessee is one of 13 states that require its juniors to take the ACT or SAT and, in an effort to boost scores, became the first to pay for public school seniors to retake their ACTs in 2016. Only a third of that class took advantage of the opportunity, but enough students scored higher to make it worth expanding the voluntary program in its second year.

Last fall, the state worked with local districts to make it easier for seniors to participate. The retake happened during the school day in students’ own schools, instead of on a Saturday morning at an ACT testing site.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the expanded access has paid off tenfold. “Now, more Tennessee students are able to access scholarship funding, gain admission to colleges and universities, and earn credit for their work from day one,” she said.

Of the state’s four urban districts, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, which serves Davidson County, increased its average composite score the most (up .5 to 18.4), followed by Hamilton County (up .3 to 19.4), and Shelby County Schools, (up .2 to 17.1). Knox County Schools and the state-run Achievement School District, which operates high schools in Memphis, saw slight drops from their retakes and will retain their higher average scores taken earlier.

Statewide, 10 school systems logged a half point or more of growth from their junior test day to the senior retake:

  • Anderson County, up .6 to 19.3
  • Arlington City, up .6 to 22.5
  • Collierville City, up .6 to 24.3
  • Davidson County, up .5 to 18.4
  • Franklin County, up .6 to 20.1
  • Haywood County, up .5 to 17.5
  • Henderson County, up .5 to 21.2
  • Humboldt City, up .8 to 17.4
  • Maryville City, up .5 to 22.1
  • Williamson County, up .6 to 24.1

Tennessee set aside up to $2.5 million to pay for its 2017 Retake Day, and Gov. Bill Haslam is expected to fund the initiative in the upcoming year as well. The state already pays for the first ACT testing day statewide, which it’s done since 2009.

Correction: January 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to show that, while the state set aside $2.5 million for its ACT retake initiative, it spent only $2 million on the program this fiscal year.

double take

Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Students work on assignments at Indianapolis Public Schools Center For Inquiry at School 27.

Imagine a scenario where Indiana schools get not just one A-F grade each year, but two.

One grade would determine whether a school can be taken over by the state. The other would comply with federal law asking states to track student test progress and how federal aid is spent. Both would count, but each would reflect different measures of achievement and bring different consequences.

This could be Indiana’s future if a state board-approved plan moves ahead at the same time the state is working on a conflicting plan to comply with a new federal law.

If it sounds complicated, that’s because it probably would be, said state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. Originally, A-F grades were intended to be an easy way for parents and community members to understand how their school is doing.

“It’s extremely confusing to have multiple accountability systems with multiple consequences,” McCormick told board members last week. “All along our message has been to get as much alignment as we can.”

Indiana would not be the first state to consider dual accountability systems — Colorado operated separate systems for years under No Child Left Behind and is now doing so again. Virginia, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have also had two models in years past. But this move would be a big departure from Indiana’s efforts over the past several years to simplify accountability, and education officials warn it could create more problems than it would solve.

Dale Chu, an education consultant who previously worked in Indiana under state Superintendent Tony Bennett, said it’s actually not common for states to have multiple systems, and doing so for political reasons, rather than what helps students and families, is concerning.

“We all know how confusing accountability systems can be when you just have one,” Chu said. “To create a bifurcated system, I don’t see how you gain additional clarity … I would certainly hope that if that’s the direction the state is going to move in, they are very thoughtful and intentional about it.”

The changes come as Indiana works to create a plan to comply with a new federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. McCormick’s education department has been working to align the federal system with Indiana’s grading system, and is struggling to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, most notably in the area of graduation requirements and diplomas.

At the same time the Indiana State Board of Education is negotiating this alignment, it is also revamping the A-F grade system.

A new grading proposal approved by the state board last week would put more emphasis on student test scores than the A-F system that now unifies state and federal requirements. Those new rules would include extra categories for grading schools, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan.

While that proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

Officials were already expecting to issue two sets of A-F grades to schools in 2018 — one state grade, and one federal — as the state continued to work all of Indiana’s unresolved education issues into the new federal plan. Figuring out how to ensure state graduation rates don’t plummet because of other federal rule changes dictating  which diplomas count and incorporating the new high school graduation requirements, for example, will take time — and legislation — to fix.

Read: Indiana has a curious plan to sidestep federal rules — give schools two A-F grades next year.

But ultimately, officials said, if some of the state board-approved changes make it into final policy, and Indiana’s federal plan doesn’t change to accommodate it, the state and federal accountability systems could remain at odds with each other — meaning schools would continue to get two grades after 2018.

The original intent was to have all Indiana’s state grading system line up with federal requirements before the plan was sent to federal officials in September. Then, once the federal government gave feedback, the state A-F revamp could continue.

But just this past fall, after the federal plan had been submitted, some members of the state board began adding in additional measures, some of which reflect their personal interests in how schools should be rated.

Those measures were added after board members had multiple chances to discuss the federal plan with the education department, conversations that were held in an attempt to ward off such changes this late in the game. Yet even last week at the state board’s monthly meeting, where the new grading changes were approved, some board members didn’t seem to realize until after the vote that the A-F systems would not match up.

David Freitas, a state board member, said he didn’t see the conflicting A-F grade rules as a problem. The board can make Indiana’s state A-F system whatever it wants, he said, and there will be plenty of time to iron out specifics as the rulemaking process unfolds over the next several months.

“We’re not banned from having two different systems,” Freitas said. “But we need to consider the implications and consequences of that.”

Read more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.