Are Children Learning

Grading problems delay release of 2018 ISTEP results

PHOTO: Grace Tatter/Chalkbeat

Technical problems with the grading of this year’s ISTEP exams will delay the release of test scores, Indiana Department of Education officials announced Thursday.

Pearson, the testing company that has administered ISTEP since 2016, reported issues involving the grading of a graphing question on the 10th-grade math test and another problem with matching student data between tests in grades 3-8 and 10.

Education department spokesman Adam Baker said only a small percentage of students were expected to be impacted by the problems, and the state was working with Pearson to fix the data.

An official with Pearson who spoke on condition of anonymity told Chalkbeat that there weren’t yet estimates on the number of students affected, but it was “very minor.” No timeline has been given for when the issues will be sorted out and scores will be finalized.

The problem with the error in the 10th-grade math question stemmed from a decimal-rounding discrepancy. Students who gave the correct answer will now get credit.

The other issue only affected schools that gave paper tests for the multiple choice section, written section, or both. The paper test issue was due to incorrectly entered or messily written student information that prevented parts of the test from being matched up and graded correctly, the Pearson official said.

The use of paper tests versus online tests has been much-debated in the state, and this isn’t the first year that the differences between them have caused problems with scoring. While many Indiana schools test students on computers, particularly for the multiple choice section, the written part of the test is still largely done on paper, Indiana’s testing director, Charity Flores, told state board members last year.

In 2017, for example, 92 percent of schools gave the multiple choice test online. The goal was to have at least two-thirds take the written portion online in 2018.

The state has been planning for how to get more schools online as Indiana transitions to a “smart” test next year. Computer testing is cheaper to grade and faster for score reporting, but it requires schools to have more technology resources in place, and can be difficult to implement when some students, such as those with certain kinds of disabilities, might do better with a paper test.

It’s unclear when test results will be released. Passing rates were expected to be made public next week at the Indiana State Board of Education’s September meeting.

The grading problems announced today appear to be a smaller issue compared to the massive testing errors Indiana experienced with its previous testing company, CTB McGraw Hill. ISTEP scores have been delayed numerous times in the past few years because of scoring glitches.

When results are delayed, A-F grades for schools can be as well. That happened in 2015, when results were postponed in part because of problems with the grading of new kinds of questions that allow for more student interaction.

Those scoring problems ultimately derailed the entire scoring process, delaying the release of exam results from the fall until January. The delay forced the state to hold up the release of A-F school accountability grades, too, and to bar, for one year, the use of student test results in evaluating and paying teachers.

Repeated testing problems with CTB were part of what led the state to contract with Pearson.

Are Children Learning

Second study shows Indianapolis charter students fare better on tests

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

The second study in a week shows strong test scores for students at Indianapolis charter schools, bolstering the claims of advocates in a city where school choice continues to expand.

Indianapolis elementary students who attend mayor-sponsored charter schools beginning in kindergarten — and remain in the same schools — make bigger improvements on state tests than their peers in traditional schools across the city, according to the latest study.

The study contributes to emerging research that suggest that charter schools that are well managed and have good instruction can be successful, said co-author Hardy Murphy, a clinical professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the IUPUI School of Education.

The results of the study indicate Indianapolis charter school students are doing better than they would’ve done if they hadn’t enrolled in charter schools, Murphy said.

“This does not appear to have happened by chance,” he said. “I believe that the school experiences and the instructional teachers of those schools they are enrolled in are actually a big part of the results that we are seeing,”

The educational landscape in Indianapolis is defined by school choice. About 18,000 students who live in Marion County attend charter schools, and thousands more transfer to nearby districts or attend private schools with vouchers, according to state data. In recent years, the state’s largest district, Indianapolis Public Schools, has also become a national model for partnerships with charter schools. That makes understanding school performance essential for parents — but unpacking whether schools actually help boost student achievement can be particularly thorny for researchers.

With this study, Murphy said he and co-author Sandi Cole, director of the Center on Education and Lifelong Learning at Indiana University Bloomington, hope to disentangle one factor that makes studying charter schools difficult: the dips in test scores that students often experience after transferring to new schools. Murphy’s research focuses on students who began in charter schools in kindergarten and compares them to similar students in traditional public schools in Indianapolis.

“It’s time to move beyond the debate about whether or not charter schools are effective and start talking about, when they are effective, why, and for whom?” Murphy said, adding that successful approaches can be used in other settings.

The study focuses solely on students who attend charter schools authorized by the mayor’s office. For the control group, the study included township districts as well as Indianapolis Public Schools. The researchers plan to present their results to the education committee of the Indianapolis City-County Council and the 2019 Conference on Academic Research in Education.

The findings add to a growing body of research on Indianapolis charter schools. Last week, the Stanford-based group CREDO released a report that found that students at charter schools had test score gains that mirrored the state average, while Indianapolis Public Schools students made smaller gains on math and reading tests than their peers across the state. Another recent study found that when students moved to charter schools their test scores held steady.

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.