Stay tuned

ISTEP scores are coming tomorrow. Here’s how this year’s scores could change and why they matter.

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

Although ISTEP’s run in Indiana will soon come to an end, there are still two more years of results to comb through. The latest are set to be released to the public Wednesday.

Years of testing chaos have meant that many in the state — particularly teachers, students and parents — have developed testing fatigue. Changing standards, changing tests and changing administrations have meant there’s been little consistency during a time that can be stressful for those in the classroom.

That stress isn’t unfounded, either — test scores are still the driving piece behind state and federal accountability, meaning they still factor heavily into A-F grades. If enough kids don’t pass and schools receive failing grades for four years, state officials get involved.

Below, we explain the ups and downs Indiana has seen for the past few years, as well as what we’ll be watching for in the new test results state officials will put out at Wednesday’s Indiana State Board of Education meeting.

Let’s set the scene.

This year marks the third year Indiana students have taken largely the same test as in prior years. The test was revamped for 2015 after Indiana abandoned the Common Core standards, one of the few moments of agreement between then-Gov. Mike Pence and then-state Superintendent Glenda Ritz.

Confusion ensued. Teachers were met that fall with a yet-to-be-created test based on new Indiana-specific academic standards, which were designed to be much tougher.

When the 2015 test did take shape, it was projected to be nearly twice as long as its predecessor, prompting Pence to sign an executive order to shorten it. The move inflamed tensions between Pence and Ritz, and ISTEP became even more politically charged. Subsequent scoring issues and a delayed release didn’t help.

But even when we did finally get results, it wasn’t the end of the drama. Almost half of all kids who took the test failed math, English or both. Statewide, the percentage of students who passed both English and math nosedived by 22 percentage points to 53.5 percent.

Before that, Indiana students collectively hadn’t lost ground on ISTEP since 2009. Taken together, the upheaval before, during, and after the 2015 test played a big role in lawmaker’s eventual decision to scrap ISTEP altogether last year.

The 2016 test was expected to offer some redemption — the first year is always rough, experts say. But the anticipated rebound did not occur. Scores dropped for the second year in a row. While the test format and content were the same, Ritz posited that the state’s switch in vendors from CTB to Pearson could explain some of the decline.

So what’s on deck for 2017?

That’s tough to say. If we use previous years as an example, another dip isn’t out of the question. But given the relative stability of the last couple years (no new test, no new vendor), this could be the year Indiana gets its score rebound.

What we do know is the 2017 testing period went off with fewer glitches compared to prior years, although a calculator mishap could force some students to retake the test.

Ok, so it’s been a little smoother. Why does that matter?

It certainly bodes well for state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, who helmed the test’s administration for the first time this past spring. She ran a campaign based on her strength as an administrator, and so far, that appears to be the case.

McCormick is also responsible for overseeing and implementing the state’s next test, which will be called ILEARN and given for the first time in 2019. If she has a good run with ISTEP, she has a better shot of ensuring the next state test can begin to recover from ISTEP’s “broken brand,” as one lawmaker put it.

It’s also the first year of testing under a new governor. While Gov. Eric Holcomb has been far less involved with education than his predecessor, as the state’s chief executive, he could get caught in the crossfire should scores tumble.

Go back to lawmakers — how are they involved?

Quite a bit, as it turns out.

Probably no state officials have had a more active role in shaping Indiana’s test than lawmakers, who are responsible for the many twists and turns the system as a whole has taken over the years. They wrote the laws that took us away from Common Core and its cheaper associated test, created ISTEP’s framework and allocated money to it.

And, they ultimately decided to kill it, sparking yet another bout of test development that will again disrupt what small amount of stability the last two years have wrought.

2017 results likely won’t have much bearing on legislation this session — the ILEARN bill last session took care of that. But as federal accountability rules continue shifting and Indiana looks to adjust A-F grades in the future, it’s important to remember lawmakers heavily influence not just how tests look, but how test scores are used.

Check back in with Chalkbeat tomorrow afternoon for news on the 2017 ISTEP scores. You can find all of our testing coverage here.

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.