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.”

Q&A

At this Perry Township school, progress isn’t just about testing, it’s ‘the work we do every single day in our classrooms’

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Principal Star Hardimon, celebrates math progress with fourth-graders at Douglas MacArthur Elementary School in Perry Township.

Chalkbeat is talking with principals across the city at schools that made some of the biggest ISTEP gains in 2017 to explore what was behind their school’s progress and identify possible lessons for other schools.

As Principal Star Hardimon hurried down the hallway of Douglas MacArthur Elementary School, she had her sights set on Tom Stahlhut’s fourth grade classroom, where in just minutes students would be packing up for an assembly.

She carried a gold trophy, which is awarded to the classroom that saw the most improvement on math or English practice tests for that month, part of a new program called Evaluate. Kids were already lining up to leave, but she stepped quickly into the room. One student was already on to her surprise.

“Oh, I know what we win!” he said as he and his classmates gathered closely around Hardimon.

“I actually came to your room today because I brought something along for math Evaluate,” Hardimon said. “Mr. Stahlhut’s class went from a 35 percent to a 49 percent. You are the fourth grade winners!”

The students erupted in cheers, waving their arms and jumping up and down as she presented their trophy. These kinds of celebrations aren’t unusual at MacArthur, Hardimon said, and they were especially significant this year given the gains from last year.

MacArthur, which has 805 students in preschool through fifth grade, moved from a B grade from the state in 2016 to an A in 2017. The school’s test passing rates jumped 10.8 percentage points to 63.3 percent of students passing both English and math exams, higher than the state average. Both figures — passing rates and growth — factor into a school’s letter grade.

Find your school’s 2017 ISTEP scores here.

Almost three-quarters of MacArthur students qualify for subsidized meals, and a little more than one-quarter are learning English as a new language. Many of those English-learners are also refugees from Burma, a trend across the district.

The district as a whole last year was focused on tracking student progress on English and math skills though Evaluate. Students and teachers both track results from tests together each month, using a stoplight model — red, yellow, green — to indicate in their records when a student has mastered, say, dividing fractions, and when they need more practice.

Of the Marion County township elementary schools with the highest ISTEP gains, four were from Perry Township. Every Perry principal who spoke to Chalkbeat this fall mentioned the new data tracking system as key to their improvement.

Below are excerpts from a recent conversation with Hardimon to talk about her school’s progress. The interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

What was your reaction when you learned how much improvement you had made this year?

We fully celebrated. We made a banner and every person, from the custodian, cafeteria — every person that supports kids in our building in any way signed the banner, and every person got a cookie, and we did a cookie with the letter “A” on it. We cheered and had some fun in the lunchroom.

Us earning this A wasn’t about the days we took the test. It was about the work we did every single day in our classrooms, at home, during homework, reading on the weekends — it was everything.

What do you think made the difference?

Well, when we initially got our scores back from the previous year, we were bummed. So we really tried to think about what do we need to do, how do we need to look at this test compared to what we’re doing everyday. And I know it’s a new test and there are some different things, and I don’t want to make excuses, so we just needed to figure out what to do.

Every month I met with grade levels to just talk about the data, talk about what we’re doing, talk about what we look like. And teachers would fill out their data tracking sheets, and everybody was really in tune.

The other thing that we really did is in January, we did an all-hands-on-deck, and for third, fourth and fifth grade we pulled our special education, our E.L., our intervention, and our master teachers to pull groups of students out of classrooms so we could work on specific skills during that intervention time. And we also looked at some of the content area time to really home in so kids could get a real 20 minutes of direct instruction on a particular skill. And that’s something that we had not done in that way. And we’re pretty pleased with it.

I really honestly feel that that effort by everyone to really focus in on that bottom 25 percent (of students) regardless of E.L., special education — whatever their needs are — and our general education kids fell into that as well. I think that’s where we earned those points, was with that group.

What is your school community and culture like?

Douglas MacArthur is a very a community-driven school. I have teachers in the building right now who were students here. I have grandparents who always come in and say, “Oh, my kids and now my grandkids go here.” That comes with a lot of pluses and minuses, but the good thing is the people, they believe in this school. They want the best for kids and they’re really willing — they stay for after school activities and they get involved in all our programs.

Our demographic has been changing. Free and reduced lunch numbers since I’ve been here have increased significantly, and this is my fifth year. Just under half of our kids are English-learners, some coming from as part of our refugee community. We have a very small population of African-Americans, however we have more than when I first came, and then the rest are Caucasian. We do have a small population of Hispanic students, and we have the most number of Hispanic students than we did even five years ago. So our community is definitely changing. It used to be Caucasian, mostly.

What is your approach to leadership?

I feel like i’m a very instructional leader. I try and model behavior in almost everything because if I’m not doing it, then I certainly don’t expect a staff member to do it, or a student to do it. So really modeling and holding myself accountable at a very high level. I’m pretty hard on myself. I think that reflection piece needs to be transparent.

I feel like I try really hard to model a professionalism, a pride in something, working hard everyday. That work ethic is important — it’s important for students to see, it’s important for parents to see. They’re trusting us with their babies, and that’s a pretty big deal, so they have to trust me. I think about my own children, and the thoughts I’ve had about administrators that have led their schools, and that has helped me.

Movers & shakers

Former Tennessee Teacher of the Year will lead citywide reading program

PHOTO: Courtesy of Karen Vogelsang
Karen Vogelsang, the 2015 Tennessee Teacher of the Year, will become the executive director of ARISE2Read.

Three years after winning the state’s top award for teaching, Karen Vogelsang is leaving the classroom to lead a citywide early literacy program.

Vogelsang, a fourth grade teacher at Winridge Elementary School, will become the executive director of ARISE2Read, a Christian volunteer organization that matches reading tutors and mentors with struggling second grade readers.

“When we’re presented as teachers with the opportunity to broaden our impact beyond our school, we need to take that seriously,” Vogelsang told Chalkbeat, adding she initially turned the job down a few months ago. “It’s not just the 80 second graders here at Winridge, but the thousands of second graders in Shelby County Schools.”


Tennessee’s 2015 Teacher of the Year on teaching economically disadvantaged students in Memphis


Vogelsang spent 15 years as a banker before switching careers to education in 2003. She became Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year in 2015. And earlier this year, she stepped into a hybrid role on Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s team to interject a teacher’s voice in policy decisions for Shelby County Schools. Since then, the teacher advisory council has grown to 17 teachers across the district, she said.

Though she won’t be with the district anymore, Vogelsang will still be working toward goals set out by Shelby County Schools in her new position. ARISE2Read, which has mentors in 30 Memphis schools, aims to catch up struggling second grade readers by taking them out of the classroom for 30 minutes once a week with a mentor.

Shelby County Schools has a goal of having 90 percent of third graders reading on grade level by 2025. In 2014, it was only 30 percent with a goal of reaching 60 percent by 2020. According to early 2017 results from a nationally standardized test (MAP), about 50 percent of third grade students were proficient.

“We have a lot of work to do and we can’t do it on the manpower of Shelby County Schools alone,” Vogelsang said. “The fact that this was so focused was part of the attraction (to ARISE2Read) and addresses a need we have in the district.”

The organization also has mentors and students in Fayette, Jackson/Madison, Tipton and Gibson counties and has done training in Knoxville and Houston.

Vogelsang’s class will be turned over to a co-teacher who has been in her classroom since taking on the hybrid role, and she will begin at ARISE2Read on Jan. 4.