Are Children Learning

Mike Pence killed Common Core in Indiana. Now, the state’s choosing a test based on it.

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Gov. Mike Pence and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz battled over education policy for years, but they agreed on dumping Common Core and PARCC.

Indiana officials are recommending that the state pay American Institutes for Research $43 million over three years to design ILEARN, set to replace ISTEP as the state exam in 2019.

AIR, a 66-year-old not-for-profit based in Washington, D.C., worked on tests for Smarter Balanced, one of the exam groups affiliated with Common Core. In its business proposal, AIR says it will use its bank of test questions from Smarter Balanced to build Indiana’s English and math tests.

“This approach — using Smarter Balanced as an item bank, rather than a fixed assessment — offers Indiana a hybrid between an off-the-shelf product and a custom test,” the proposal stated.

ILEARN would replace ISTEP as the yearly exam for students in grades 3-8 and high school. They’re tested in English, math, science and social studies, depending on grade level. Going forward, high school tests will likely go back to end-of-course exams in various subjects rather than a single 10th grade test.

Currently, ISTEP is administered by Pearson, which was chosen in 2015 after the state had several problem-plagued years with the testing company CTB (although Pearson has had its share of issues as well). Pearson will administer ISTEP one last time this spring before that state exam is shelved.

But to those familiar with Indiana’s testing travails, this move might feel like déjà vu, with the state again proposing a test linked to Common Core.

Common Core standards have a fraught history in Indiana, and it’s unclear how educators and parents will react to the state circling back to those academic standards. Indiana took great pains to distance itself from Common Core after then-Gov. Mike Pence and then-state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, in a rare moment of agreement, abandoned the standards and pulled out of the other test consortium, Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).

Since then, state education officials have frequently touted Indiana’s efforts at creating “Indiana-specific” standards and state tests, despite an outpouring of concern and exhaustion from educators and parents. The state has also had to balance the desire to create yet another new test with its limited budget. AIR’s proposed $43 million contract outpaces the state’s $32 million contract with Pearson — but both are less expensive than creating a brand-new test from scratch.

AIR also specializes in computer-adaptive tests, which change in difficulty based on whether students answer questions right or wrong. Both Ritz and state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick have supported using such exams, which they say can more accurately assess what students know.

Given the state’s history, it’s a little surprising Indiana decided to cozy up to a Common-Core-linked exam again, but current officials have connections to the organization. Before coming to the Indiana Department of Education as testing director, Charity Flores was deputy director of content for Smarter Balanced.

“We protected the integrity and transparency of the process by notifying the Office of the Inspector General of Dr. Flores’ involvement with Smarter Balanced,” said press secretary Adam Baker. “Additionally, Dr. Flores served alongside several IDOE staff as one member of an 18-member assessment evaluation committee where IDOE’s vote represented one of 12 votes.”

The team from the Indiana Department of Administration, charged with making the recommendation, also considered proposals from Data Recognition Corporation, Northwest Evaluation Association, Pearson and Questar. Of those companies, Northwest Evaluation Association, whose test products are beloved by a number of Indiana educators, scored the lowest in the state’s evaluation of management and cost. Of the remaining four, Pearson scored third.

AIR reports that 17 states use its exams for their main assessments, including Connecticut, Florida, Utah and Ohio. Also, 43 rely on them for alternate assessments, which are typically for students with severe cognitive disabilities. It has also worked on NAEP, a highly-regarded exam known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” a national alternative exam (NCSC) and an exam used as a benchmark for student learning internationally (PISA). The organization reported that it has not had any contracts terminated outside of those that would naturally end.

The contract stipulates that the state can renew with AIR for up to two more years, at five years total. In addition to ILEARN, AIR would also administer IREAD, the state’s third-grade reading exam.

Under the proposal, Measurement Incorporated, of North Carolina, will be used as a subcontractor to score paper tests with the involvement of Indiana educators.

AIR’s proposal didn’t mention Tennessee’s recent experience with Measurement Inc.: Almost two years after signing an $108 million contract with the state to develop its TNReady test, Measurement Inc.’s online platform could not support the number of students testing. The state announced it would switch to paper tests instead, but even then, finding and distributing the 5 million tests overwhelmed them.

Unless the proposal is challenged by other bidders, Flores said the education department is ready to get started,

“We are excited for what the future holds for education here in Indiana,” Flores said. “We will continue to move forward with the procurement process.”

To Do

Tennessee’s new ed chief says troubleshooting testing is first priority

PHOTO: (Caiaimage/Robert Daly)

Penny Schwinn knows that ensuring a smooth testing experience for Tennessee students this spring will be her first order of business as the state’s new education chief.

Even before Gov.-elect Bill Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, she was poring over a recent report by the state’s chief investigator about what went wrong with TNReady testing last spring and figuring out her strategy for a different outcome.

“My first days will be spent talking with educators and superintendents in the field to really understand the scenario here in Tennessee,” said Schwinn, who’s been chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas since 2016.

“I’ll approach this problem with a healthy mixture of listening and learning,” she added.

Schwinn’s experience with state assessment programs in Texas and in Delaware — where she was assistant secretary of education — is one of the strengths cited by Lee in selecting her for one of his most critical cabinet posts.

The Republican governor-elect has said that getting TNReady right is a must after three straight years of missteps in administration and scoring in Tennessee’s transition to online testing. Last year, technical disruptions interrupted so many testing days that state lawmakers passed emergency legislation ordering that poor scores couldn’t be used to penalize students, teachers, schools, or districts.

Schwinn, 36, recalls dealing with testing headaches during her first days on the job in Texas.

“We had testing disruptions. We had test booklets mailed to the wrong schools. We had answer documents in testing booklets. We had online administration failures,” she told Chalkbeat. “From that, we brought together teachers, superintendents, and experts to figure out solutions, and we had a near-perfect administration of our assessment the next year.”

What she learned in the process: the importance of tight vendor management, including setting clear expectations of what’s expected.

She plans to use the same approach in Tennessee, working closely with people in her new department and Questar Assessment, the state’s current vendor.

“Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

The test itself has gotten good reviews in Tennessee; it’s the online miscues that have many teachers and parents questioning the switch from paper-and-pencil exams. Schwinn sees no choice but to forge ahead online and is quick to list the benefits.

“If you think about how children learn and access information today, many are getting that information from hand-held devices and computers,” she said, “so reflecting that natural experience in our classrooms is incredibly important.”

Schwinn said computerized testing also holds promise for accommodating students with disabilities and provides for a more engaging experience for all students.

“When you look at the multiple-choice tests that we took in school and compare that to an online platform where students can watch videos, perform science experiments, do drag-and-drop and other features, students are just more engaged in the content,” she said.

“It’s a more authentic experience,” she added, “and therefore a better measure of learning.”

Schwinn plans to examine Tennessee’s overall state testing program to look for ways to reduce the number of minutes dedicated to assessment and also to elevate transparency.

She also will oversee the transition when one or more companies take over the state’s testing program beginning next school year. Former Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered a new request for proposals from vendors to provide paper testing for younger students and online testing for older ones. State officials have said they hope to award the contract by spring.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee plan to provide another layer of oversight.

Spring testing in Tennessee is scheduled to begin on April 15. You can learn more about TNReady on the state education department’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about problems with the handling of two education contracts in Texas. 

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

Districts here: