Test talk

Want to boost test scores? Experts say Indiana must change teaching

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
An IPS School 79 student works on a test while her teacher looks on.

It’s been a common phenomenon in the testing world: A new exam is introduced, and the scores for it are significantly lower than for the old one — but then in the following years, come back up.

This “sawtooth” pattern has long been widely observed and written about, so it stands to reason that it’s also worked its way into the expectations of state education officials closely monitoring test results each year.

But in Indiana, ISTEP scores at the state level have been stagnant. In the two rounds of ISTEP tests since 2015, scores statewide have barely changed — 51.5 percent of students passed both English and math exams this year, compared to 53.5 percent in 2015. That year, with the switch to a tougher new exam, the number of students passing was 22 percentage points lower than on the previous test.

“The fact that (passing rates) are as flat as they are is striking,” said Derek Briggs, a test researcher and professor at the University of Colorado Boulder.

The suspicion that the flat scores are the new normal for Indiana — and that the lingering hope for big improvements in a short period of time could be unrealistic — has testing experts and educators speculating about why, and what could be done to nudge scores upward.

“The evidence that there’s a large test score gain after the first year or two, I think, is based on a different era of testing,” said Ed Roeber, a former Michigan testing director and consultant who has worked with Indiana on ISTEP.

Indiana is not alone in seeing flat scores. Michigan appears to be seeing a similar effect, with scores staying largely the same. But other states are still experiencing a sawtooth pattern.

Some experts suspect that the switch in 2015 to a tougher test based on new state standards has effectively ended the days of sawtooth results in Indiana.

Roeber said before No Child Left Behind, state tests and standards received far less fanfare from the public and even from rank-and-file educators. When a test changed, it might have caught schools off-guard and led to score drops. In subsequent years when students became more familiar with the format, scores would improve.

Now, it’s not just the format that’s changing — the questions themselves are more difficult and ask students to think in deeper ways than previously. More practice questions or better test-taking strategies aren’t a quick fix.

“People pay far more attention to the tests, so hard tests don’t get easier just by people becoming familiar with them,” Roeber said.

Briggs said the new test requires different skills that defy easy fixes.

“You could argue that if the standards were successful at focusing both instruction and redevelopment of assessments to that higher depth of knowledge, that these would be the kinds of things that are much harder to coach or teach the students how to beat on a test,” Briggs said.

If so, that puts added pressure on teachers and schools, experts said.

“The only way to really change student performance is to make sure they are learning what they are being taught,” Roeber said.

Roeber said teachers need to assess their own teaching and see how they can measure student learning every day, not just once a year. And schools need to give them the freedom, time and support to do it.

He calls these “formative tests” — different from the computerized Northwest Evaluation Association exams Indiana teachers have advocated for. Instead, he’s talking about asking students to do things like answer math questions on whiteboards after a lesson or having teachers randomly call on students to gauge widespread understanding.

At the school level, teachers should also meet within and across grade levels to ensure they are prepared for the students they get each year. They need to know students’ strengths and weaknesses and then adjust their instruction and curriculum accordingly.

“We spend about 95 percent of our resources telling people what kids do or do not know and less than 5 percent helping teachers assess their teaching,” Roeber said. “We keep emphasizing testing kids for how much they’ve learned and think that is going to change how teachers teach and what (kids learn), and it doesn’t.”

To be sure, there are many teachers and schools who already do this. Ayana Wilson-Coles, a second grade teacher at Eagle Creek Elementary School in Pike Township, is one of them.

Although Wilson-Coles now teaches a non-tested grade, she was previously a third-grade teacher. She’s still very involved in conversations happening between teachers, she said, and she knows what to look for in her own students to make sure they are prepared when they do get ready to test.

But the new ISTEP represented “a huge shift in thinking,” Wilson-Coles said. The standards now are “requiring kids to really think critically and have higher level thinking. I think sometimes teachers are not sure of how to do that … that has a lot to do with why we’re not seeing a change. That kind of thinking has to happen genuinely and you can’t force it.”

Wilson-Coles also thinks that the amount of testing being done is having a burnout effect. She remembers her third-graders being overwhelmed with tests — IREAD, then ISTEP, then the NWEA Map test.

“By the time they were doing the computerized tests, they were tired and done,” she said. “They do know how to think, but having them be motivated, and showing that” on still another test is a challenge, she said.

Bob Schaeffer, spokesman for The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, an organization that acts as a testing watchdog, said the flat scores could be indicative of a larger issue, but also show the accountability system as a whole isn’t leading to improvement — its stated purpose.

“It’s worth an investigation to try to see what’s going on and why things are flat,” Schaeffer said. “But (the state) should look at better ways to assess Indiana’s public school students that actually improves academic excellence and equity.”

Damian Betebenner, a consultant with the Center for Assessment who has worked with Indiana on A-F grades, said educators have to keep in mind that test scores are still an important indicator of “whether there’s problems or what types of problems you might have.

“It’s a number, and it’s a very valuable set of numbers, that can be used as part of a larger investigation as to what to do,” Betebenner said.

And, Briggs said, with one more year left of ISTEP, there should still be a way to draw some comparison between its scores and those on the next test, ILEARN, in 2019. It would depend heavily on the test vendor, content and structure, but “it’s not impossible that connections couldn’t be made to trend over time,” he said.

At the same time, Briggs said it may be too soon to fully explain the flat scores. More definitive research is necessary to establish any kind of trend, he said.

“At this point we should have evidence across the country,” Briggs said. “It’d be nice if we had that in a more systematic way.”


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.