Are Children Learning

Not so fast: Losing bidder says conflict should disqualify the company Indiana may tap to create ILEARN

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

Last week, Indiana was set to move ahead with a new test company to create ILEARN. But on Friday, a rejected competitor threw a wrench into the process.

Data Recognition Corporation, which came in second in the bidding process, is asking the Indiana Department of Administration to halt movement on the winning test proposal from the American Institutes for Research. DRC says its proposal was cheaper and that the process was marred by conflicts of interest — concerns that could delay the state’s plans.

Data Recognition is arguing that AIR’s test, which would draw from question banks developed for the Common-Core aligned Smarter Balanced test, would not be an appropriate match for Indiana academic standards. Data Recognition also says the state’s testing director, Charity Flores, is too close to the winning vendor to have been impartial: Before joining state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick’s administration, Flores was deputy director of content for Smarter Balanced.

Data Recognition says it made the lowest cost proposal at $37.5 million over three years, compared to the $43.4 million AIR proposed. They also scored highest in categories regarding women- and minority-owned businesses, where AIR scored negative points. They say their score was “inexplicably slashed” after oral presentations, which Flores participated in.

“By participating in the evaluation of the proposals, Flores engaged in conduct that constituted a conflict of interest,” DRC’s letter states. “(The contract) could amount to roughly $7,400,000 in revenue to Flores’ former employers. Flores would have known this fact when evaluating the proposals and it was her duty to avoid the conflict under Indiana law.”

The Indiana Department of Education told Chalkbeat last week that that Flores was just one of 18 people on the panel charged with making a decision. Spokesman Adam Baker also noted that protests of vendor recommendations are not uncommon.

“We protected the integrity and transparency of the process by notifying the Office of the Inspector General of Dr. Flores’ involvement with Smarter Balanced,” Baker said last week. (Despite that, the Inspector General’s website shows no disclosures filed by Flores, nor any opinions from the State Ethics Commission regarding her previous employment. A request for more information from the Inspector General’s office was not immediately returned.)

Data Recognition’s letter also argues that AIR’s proposal should have been rejected because of an Indiana law, approved in 2014 as part of a national backlash against the Common Core, that prohibited the adoption of standards or tests created solely by the federal government or by a group of states.

That law would seem to eliminate the option of using Smarter Balanced questions. But after another change to Indiana law in 2015, the state is now allowed to use any other assessment, or part of one, if it aligns with Indiana standards — essentially an escape clause for Indiana lawmakers, should an attractive test come along.

Testing experts have told Chalkbeat in the past that exams can be created from existing questions to align with Indiana-standards.

In fact, Indiana’s new standards, adopted in 2014, have been compared several times to Common Core. The state’s earlier math standards were used to inform Common Core math standards, and a draft of the English standards include a “majority” of their content “verbatim” from Common Core English standards, according to a review from Achieve.

While the state has a history of stepping back from Common Core, there have been numerous recent decisions on science standards and past ISTEP tests that suggest Indiana isn’t quite as Common-Core averse as it once was.

The Indiana Department of Administration, which handles the process to choose vendors, could decide to withdraw their support of AIR’s proposal, but officials say there is no set timeline for a decision at this point.

View the protest letter below:



DRC Protest File Stamped (Text)

research report

Three years in, some signs of (slight) academic growth at struggling ‘Renewal’ schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio at Brooklyn Generation School — part of the Renewal program

When Mayor Bill de Blasio launched an aggressive and expensive campaign to turn around the city’s lowest performing schools, he made a big promise: Schools would see “fast and intense” improvements within three years.

Almost exactly three years later, and after flooding 78 schools with more than $386 million in new social services and academic support, there are signs that the Renewal program has generated gains in student learning. The evidence is based on two newly updated analyses of test score data — one from Marcus Winters, a fellow at the conservative-learning Manhattan Institute, and the other from Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College.

But the researchers caution that those improvements are modest — when they exist at all — and don’t yet match the mayor’s lofty promises.

The results may have implications far beyond New York City, as a national and political test case of whether injecting struggling schools with resources is more effective than closing them.

The two researchers previously reviewed the first two years of test score data in elementary and middle schools in the Renewal program: Winters found a positive effect on test scores, while Pallas generally found little to no effect.

Now, as the program reaches its third birthday, the pair of researchers have updated their findings with new test score data from last school year, and largely reaffirmed their earlier conclusions.

“We’re not seeing large increases” in student achievement, Pallas said. “And the reality is it’s hard to get large increases in struggling schools.”

Some advocates have argued that it is too early to expect big shifts in test scores, and that infusing schools with extra social services like mental health counseling and vision screenings are valuable in themselves. But de Blasio’s promise of quick academic turnaround has invited questions about Renewal’s effectiveness and whether resources can be more effective in improving low-performing schools than shuttering them.

To assess the program’s academic effect, Pallas compared changes in Renewal school test scores to other schools that had similar test results and student demographics when the program started, but did not receive extra support.

The biggest gains Pallas found were concentrated at the elementary level.

Over the past three school years, 20 elementary schools in the Renewal program have made larger gains on average in math and reading than 23 similar schools that didn’t get extra resources. The proportion of elementary school students considered proficient in reading at Renewal schools increased from 7 percent in 2014 to 18 percent last year — an 11-point jump. Meanwhile, the comparison schools also saw gains, but only by seven percentage points, giving Renewal schools a four percentage point advantage.

At the middle school level, the results are less encouraging. The 45 Renewal middle schools did not collectively outperform a group of 50 similar schools outside the program in reading or math.

In math, for instance, Renewal school students improved from 5 percent proficient to 7 percent. However, the comparison schools outside the program improved by roughly the same margin — increasing proficiency from 6 to 9 percent (and still far below city average). In reading, Renewal middle schools showed slightly less growth than the comparison group.

City officials have argued that Pallas’ findings are misleading partly because Renewal schools and the comparison schools are not actually comparable. Renewal schools, they say, were designated based on a range of factors like school climate or teacher effectiveness, not just student demographics and test scores.

“The schools included in the study are neither similar nor comparable in quality and a comparison of the two dissimilar groups is unreliable at best,” Michael Aciman, an education department spokesman, said in a statement. Aciman added that Renewal schools have made larger gains in reading and math than similar schools across the state, and have made progress in reducing chronic absenteeism and improving instruction.

Pallas notes that there are some limitations to his approach, and acknowledges that he could not account for some differences between the two groups, such as the quality of a school’s principal. He also does not use student-level data, for instance, which would allow a more fine-grained analysis of whether the Renewal program is boosting student achievement. But Pallas, and other researchers who have previously reviewed his data, have said his model is rigorous.

The Manhattan Institute’s Winters found more positive trends than Pallas, consistent with his earlier findings. Using an approach that evaluates whether Renewal schools are outperforming historical trends compared with schools outside the program, Winters found that the Renewal program appeared to have a statistically significant effect on both reading and math scores — roughly equivalent to the difference in student achievement between charter schools and traditional district schools in New York City.

Asked about how to interpret the fact that his results tended to be more positive, Winters said either interpretation is plausible.

“It’s hard to tell which of these is exactly right,” he said. But “neither of us are finding results that are consistent with what we would expect if the program is having a large positive effect.”

explainer

Five things to know about the latest brouhaha over Tennessee’s TNReady test

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

Last week’s revelation that nearly 10,000 Tennessee high school tests were scored incorrectly has unleashed a new round of criticism of the standardized test known as TNReady.

Testing company Questar says it muffed some tests this spring after failing to update its scanning software. A year earlier, a series of mistakes got its predecessor, Measurement Inc., fired when Tennessee had to cancel most of TNReady in its first year after a failed transition to online testing.

While the two companies’ glitches are hardly comparable in scope, Questar’s flub has uncorked a tempest of frustration and anger over the standardized assessment and how it’s used to hold teachers accountable.

Here are five things to know about the latest TNReady flap:

1. A relatively small number of students, teachers, and schools are affected.

State officials report that the scoring problem was traced to only high school tests, not for its grade-schoolers. Of the 600,000 high school end-of-course tests, about 9,400 were scored incorrectly. Most of the fixes were so small that fewer than 1,700 tests — or less than one-tenth of 1 percent — saw any change in their overall performance level. A state spokeswoman says the corrected scores have been shared with the 33 impacted districts.

2. But the TNReady brand has taken another huge hit.

Tennessee has sought to rebuild public trust in TNReady under Questar and celebrated a relatively uneventful testing season last spring. But the parade of problems that surfaced during TNReady’s rollout, combined with this year’s drops in student performance under the new test, have made subsequent bumps feel more like sinkholes to educators who already are frustrated with the state’s emphasis on testing. Questar’s scanning problems were also tied to delays in delivering preliminary scores to school systems this spring — another bump that exasperated educators and parents at the end of the school year and led many districts to exclude the data from student report cards.

3. State lawmakers will revisit TNReady — and soon.

House Speaker Beth Harwell asked Monday for a hearing into the latest testing problems, and discussion could happen as early as next week when a legislative study committee is scheduled to meet in Nashville. Meanwhile, one Republican gubernatorial candidate says the state should eliminate student growth scores from teacher evaluations, and a teachers union in Memphis called on Tennessee to invalidate this year’s TNReady results.

4. Still, those talks are unlikely to derail TNReady.

Tennessee is heavily invested in its new assessment as part of its five-year strategic plan for raising student achievement. Changing course now would be a surprise. Last school year was the first time that all students in grades 3-11 took TNReady, a standardized test aligned to the Common Core standards, even though those expectations for what students should learn in math and English language arts have been in Tennessee classrooms since 2012. State officials view TNReady results as key to helping Tennessee reach its goal of ranking in the top half of states on the Nation’s Report Card by 2019.

5. Tennessee isn’t alone in traveling a bumpy testing road.

Questar was criticized this summer for its design of two tests in Missouri. Meanwhile, testing giant Pearson has logged errors and missteps in New York, Virginia, and Mississippi. And in Tennessee and Ohio this spring, the ACT testing company administered the wrong college entrance exam to almost 3,000 juniors from 31 schools. Officials with the Tennessee Department of Education emphasized this week that they expect 100 percent accuracy on scoring TNReady. “We hold our vendor and ourselves to the highest standard of delivery because that is what students, teachers, and families in Tennessee deserve,” said spokeswoman Sara Gast.