testing takeaways

A decade of stagnation: Little progress on closely watched federal test, as big disparities persist

Scores on the exams known as the “nation’s report card” have barely budged over the last two years, new data show.

The minimal progress on the federal math and reading exams given to fourth and eighth graders will be a disappointment to officials who have hoped that their policies would boost students’ performance or help close yawning gaps between groups of students.

The 2017 results also mean that the U.S. has seen its test scores largely stagnate for a decade, after 10 years of substantial gains in math. The country’s “achievement gaps” between black and white students, and between low-income and affluent students, have also largely held steady over the last 10 years.

“I’m pleased that eighth-grade reading scores improved slightly but remain disappointed that only about one-third of America’s fourth- and eighth-grade students read at the NAEP Proficient level,” said former Michigan Governor John Engler, the chair of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the tests. “We are seeing troubling gaps between the highest- and lowest-performing students. We must do better for all children.”

In an era when standardized testing is commonplace, the National Assessment of Educational Progress is the rare exam with low stakes for individual students and schools, but high stakes for politicians and policymakers. Some education leaders have staked their own reputations on NAEP results.

But score analyzers, beware: It’s difficult to draw conclusions about the benefits of specific policies based on the results. NCES, the federal agency that administers the tests, warns against it.

Some have also questioned what the transition to digital assessments means for the trends in individual state results, though NCES insists that extensive efforts have been made to account for this change.

Still, advocates on all sides will use them to argue for their preferred changes to education policy. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has already praised the gains in one state, Florida, and highlighted the disappointing national results. “The report card is in, and the results are clear: We can and we must do better for America’s students,” she said.

What you should know about NAEP and this year’s scores

The National Assessment of Educational Progress is administered by the federal government to a sample of students across the country. The most closely watched tests are the fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading exams, since they show how scores are changing nationally, in individual states, and in a number of cities.

The 2017 results showed only tiny differences from 2015: a loss of 1 point in both subjects in fourth grade, and a gain of 1 point in both subjects in eighth grade. Only the grade eight reading improvement was statistically significant compared to the last test.

(One way to think about how big that is: the difference between the “basic” and the “proficiency” benchmarks is about 35 points, depending on the test.)

Most students did not reach the test’s “proficient” benchmark, which is considered a high bar to clear. But some groups of students remain further behind.

Exam Share of students scoring ‘proficient’ and above Share scoring ‘basic’ and above
Fourth-grade math 40% 80%
Eighth-grade math 34% 70%
Fourth-grade reading 37% 68%
Eighth-grade reading 36% 76%

In eighth-grade math, the average black student scored just below the “basic” benchmark, while the average white student came several points shy of the higher “proficient” benchmark. Forty-four percent of white students were proficient, compared to 20 percent of Hispanic students and 13 percent of black students.

Gaps were similarly large between students who did and did not qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a common proxy for poverty.

While test score gaps by race and poverty remained static, there was a notable increase in the difference in performance between the highest achieving students and the lowest-achieving ones.

As expected, some states and cities saw their scores rise and fall modestly, though the vast majority held steady. Alaska, Louisiana, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Vermont saw statistically significant declines on two or more tests, while Florida was the only state that made significant gains on multiple tests. None of the state improvements or drops were more than 6 points.

Eighth grade reading scores over time

Fourth grade math scores over time

Source: National Center for Education Statistics. Graphics by Sam Park.

Louisiana, New Mexico, and Mississippi students continued to rank at or near the bottom, while Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New Hampshire students perform consistently well.

(Since state demographics vary — and NAEP results are highly correlated with race and poverty — research has tried to account to for that to better isolate performance of schools, and those rankings differ significantly.)

The longer-run trends in NAEP are more positive than the latest results. Nationally, scores have improved substantially in math and modestly in reading since the early 1990s.

What’s the deal with the flat scores?

It’s unclear why scores are flat. NCES, which administers the exam, says the scores could be influenced by specific policies, resources available to schools, and demographics.

That’s a frustrating limitation for policymakers who want clear solutions. It’s also unlikely to stop the finger-pointing and policy prescriptions.

Critics of the reform efforts that prevailed under the Obama administration — the expansion of charter schools, introduction of the Common Core learning standards, and the creation of new teacher evaluation systems — will likely see the results as vindication, even as supporters use the latest data to argue that public schools need substantial change.

A handful of careful statistical analyses have tried to gauge how certain policies have affected NAEP scores in the past. For instance, one recent study found that states that made greater cuts in school funding in response to the Great Recession saw worse NAEP scores as a result; an older study found that an infusion of school funding led to greater NAEP gains.

Other research has found that when states introduce stringent school accountability systems, they do better on the NAEP math tests.

next steps

Adams 14 pledges ‘transformational change’ as Colorado revisits school improvement plans

Aris Mocada-Orjas, left, and Abel Albarran work on a math problem at Hanson Elementary in Commerce City. (Denver Post file photo)

Two Colorado school districts face critical hearings this fall that will determine how much autonomy they’ll retain after failing to turn around years of dismal performance.

Two schools in the Pueblo 60 district in southern Colorado, Adams City High School, and the entire Adams 14 district based in Commerce City are now in their eighth year on a state watchlist and will need to come back before the State Board of Education in November to explain why improvement plans approved last year didn’t generate the hoped-for progress in student achievement.

These hearings will mark the first time state officials revisit the school and district improvement plans. While state takeover isn’t on the table, as it has been in other states, they could tell school administrators to keep working on their plans, make small tweaks, or order more drastic intervention, including closing schools, turning over management to outside organizations or even dissolving districts, though that last option would be politically challenging.

A spokesman for the Adams 14 district said leaders there recognize they need to make “transformational change.”

“We will have to prove to the state board that we are serious this time,” said Alex Sanchez, the district spokesman. “We’ve been at this eight years, and we need to be reflective of those eight years and make sure we are moving forward with an actual plan that will truly address the needs of Adams 14 children.”

The Colorado Department of Education released preliminary school ratings based on spring test scores and other data late last month. Adams 14 remained on “priority improvement,” the second lowest tier in the state’s five-tiered rating system for districts.

Through multiple school boards and three superintendents, the district did not meet promises to raise scores enough to escape from the state’s watchlist — also known as the accountability clock. The State Board of Education last year gave Adams 14 just one year to demonstrate progress. Most other schools and districts on the list got at least two years to see if their plans yielded better outcomes.

In test scores and then ratings released in August, Adams 14 showed some areas of improvement, but not enough to raise the state’s overall rating for the district.

Schools and districts can appeal their ratings, and they don’t become final until December.

Adams 14 may appeal the ratings of up to three schools, and that could change the district’s overall rating. But Sanchez said Superintendent Javier Abrego, his new leadership team, and the school board recognize that the district needs to make large-scale changes regardless of the outcome of those appeals.

“It’s not about going after a decimal of a point here and there,” Sanchez said. “We really need to address the hard realities.”

State education officials don’t want to wait too long before looking at next steps for struggling schools and districts.

“We’re moving forward,” Colorado Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Alyssa Pearson told the state board earlier this month.

Colorado Department of Education

A state review panel will visit Adams 14 schools and make recommendations by October. The state also plans to solicit written feedback from community members before the next hearing.

State accountability officials want the state board to render a decision on the same day as the hearing.

The quick turnaround is intended to allow plenty of planning time if the state board wants to order more substantial changes. The first time the state board reviewed improvement plans, in spring 2017, it largely accepted districts’ proposals and shied away from more aggressive interventions.

But some board members complained that the short time frame essentially gave them no choice. How, for example, were they to order turning over school management to a charter organization for the next school year if no potential operator had been identified in the spring?

Will the state board press for more changes this time? That remains to be seen. State board member Jane Goff asked skeptically if her fellow board members want districts to “start from scratch” and suggested these meetings would be a “check-in” rather than a full hearing.

Board member Val Flores said pushing for too much change can hurt kids.

“We want change for the better, but change can hurt — and the people who hurt the most are kids,” she said. “We can’t hurry along a process that is going to take time.”

The improvement plan for the 7,500-student Adams 14 district includes a partnership with Beyond Textbooks, an Arizona-based nonprofit now also working in the Sheridan district. The nonprofit’s role in Adams 14 includes training teachers to help students reach state standards and to better work with students who don’t grasp material the first time, as well as train coaches for teachers.

The improvement plan was partly tied to a biliteracy program that the district has put on hold, a source of ongoing disagreement and frustration in the district, which has one of the highest percentages of English language learners in the state.

The pressures of turnaround work have frayed relationships with the community and with district staff, with parents pushing back against the loss of the biliteracy program, cuts to recess, and other changes. The top leadership team saw extensive turnover in the past year, and the board president resigned.

Communication has not always been smooth either. State officials went to Adams 14 board meetings throughout the year to provide updates, often alerting the school board that the district was not on track to meet targets. School board members were sometimes surprised to hear the news. After hearing the concerns of one state official at a meeting in February, board members argued about whose responsibility it was to keep up progress toward the state-ordered plan.

Sanchez said district officials and board members know they need to work with the state and that the district may need outside help to make big changes.

“Moving forward, we have to think big, we have to think bold, we have to think transformational change,” he said. “It will take many resources and many strategic partners to get that work done.”

Chair Angelika Schroeder said the state board will be focused on the needs of students.

“Poor education hurts kids,” she said. “The kids are why we’re thinking about intervening in a district.”

Reporter Yesenia Robles contributed.

Indiana online schools

Here’s how some of Indiana’s online schools are trying to fix low testing turnout

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Some Indiana parents, students, and educators praise online schools for allowing students to learn anywhere they want, but it’s exactly that flexibility that leads to one of the schools’ biggest struggles: ensuring students sit for state exams.

Virtual schools have historically struggled to get all of their students tested, compared to their brick-and-mortar peers. While 99 percent of traditional school students are tested throughout the state, in online schools, rates generally fall below the federally mandated 95 percent. In 2017, the most recent data available, most of Indiana’s online schools had test participation rates in the mid-80s and low 90s, with Indiana Virtual School testing just 35 percent of its students.

The schools say they struggle to get a higher number of students tested because they are scattered across the state and often have to drive long distances to testing sites. Also the parents of students at virtual charter schools are often more likely to want their children to “opt out” of tests for philosophical reasons, school leaders say.

Low turnout for state tests can have ramifications for schools: If more than 5 percent of a school’s students skip the ISTEP exams, schools lose points on their state A-F grades.

What’s more, if enough students don’t take tests, the state can’t get a full picture of how they are performing. This could pose a significant problem for virtual schools that already have trouble educating their students, some of whom struggle with bullying, medical issues, or come in far behind grade level. Every virtual school in Indiana received an F grade from the state in 2017.

And low test turnout might also be a piece of a larger problem with a school’s ability to create community and engage far-flung students.

In recent years, several virtual schools have made it a priority to get students to sit for state exams. One school says it spent $500,000 last year on testing, including hotel rooms for proctors near testing sites. Another has a “war room” where school leaders tackle testing issues, an approach that has led to a 15 percentage point jump in testing rates, the school says. We’ll learn if some of these efforts are paying off in the coming months, when the state is expected to release updated test participation rates along with A-F grades.

“You can probably imagine it’s a massive undertaking,” said Melissa Brown, head of schools for Indiana Connections Academy, which enrolls more than 4,600 students. “We try to remind people that they agreed to do this, that the test is just a look at their performance and it allows Indiana to evaluate our school … we try to be positive.”

Ensuring online students take standardized tests is a challenge nationally, as well. According to a 2018 report from the National Education Policy Center, low testing participation rates for virtual schools “allows their performance to go largely unchecked” because in many states a low enough rate lets schools duck state ratings. States should adjust their policies to close this loophole, the researchers said.

Test participation is one of the areas that state officials are examining as they consider further regulating virtual charter schools after Gov. Eric Holcomb called for reforming the schools in response to a 2017 Chalkbeat investigation. In Indiana, almost 12,000 students attend full-time virtual charter schools, or about 1 percent of public school students.

At a meeting last month of the Indiana State Board of Education committee charged with re-examining the virtual school rules, state officials presented test participation data from 2017.

Virtual charter schools say ensuring their students take state exams during two-week-long windows twice a year is expensive and time-consuming. At Connections, Brown said, the school spends about $500,000 on testing each year. Coordinating test days are expensive in part because staff must travel and stay overnight in hotels in order to procter.

Connections has 18 testing locations across the state, and no family should have to travel more than 50 miles to their assigned location. Students might test at a library, convention center, hotel, or community college — but the schools have to rent the space, furnish it with computers, and contract with vendors to ensure servers meet state security guidelines. They also spend time training teachers and staff on test security.

Because families often are traveling some distance, Brown said school leaders try to schedule siblings on the same day and condense testing as much as state rules allow so parents aren’t driving back and forth multiple times a week. That means students might have more testing in a single day, but test for fewer days overall than in a brick-and-mortar school. In 2017, 91 percent of Connections students were tested.

Like at traditional schools, students with special needs receive their required testing accommodations, such as longer test times or a specific environment. At its largest site, 30 students might be in one room at a time, but usually the group is much smaller, Brown said, especially in rural communities.

For students attending the Insight School, a full-time virtual charter school under the Hoosier Academies umbrella that caters to students far behind grade level, the testing process is similar. Elizabeth Lamey, head of school at Insight, said she oversees 12 sites across the state, and families shouldn’t have to travel more than 30 minutes to their assigned spot. If families cannot get there on their own, the school helps provide transportation. In 2017, 84 percent of Insight students were tested.

“It’s quite a process — we have a war room here at our administration building where it’s an all-hands-on-deck approach,” Lamey said.

School leaders find it challenging to sell the importance of state tests to virtual families, many of whom signed on explicitly to avoid what they see as restrictive school rules or intimidating social situations. Families at virtual schools are also more inclined, in Brown’s experience, to advocate for “opting out” of state tests intentionally on principle, not just for logistical reasons.

Last year, between 80 and 100 students opted out at Connections. Lamey said Insight has families who choose to opt out as well. In Indiana, there is no state-approved way for opting out of tests — state officials do not give schools any leeway in accountability for families who deliberately refuse to test.

“We do have a good chunk of families that want to own their child’s education, and that’s probably one of the reasons why they’re in our school, and so they’re more likely to (opt out),” Brown said. “Many of those children that are opting out are really high-performing students who just don’t believe in state testing.”

Brown and her staff, as well as those at Insight, communicate frequently with families leading up to tests to ensure they know where to go and when, and to remind them that testing was something they agreed to when they enrolled.

Not all students face testing challenges. Jeremiah Hitch, a 14-year-old freshman at Indiana Connections Academy, said he and his family haven’t had any big problems with getting to and from testing sites. Hitch lives in Evansville, and the testing site was at a convention center just a few miles from his home. He actually enjoys testing days, since he gets to see his teachers face-to-face.

Usually, Hitch said, he’s in a small room with few other students testing, in part because of his special education plan that requires that accomodation for his ADHD. Last year, he spent two days testing in each testing period. Compared to his previous traditional public school, this set-up is not nearly as distracting.

“Even during ISTEP (in the traditional school) you would still have something happening,” Hitch said. “It was a lot more quiet than usual, but it could still be very distracting. With ISTEP now, it’s a lot better.”

Both Connections and Insight expect their participation rates to be about the same or higher than last year, citing rates of about 90 percent and 98.5 percent respectively. Brown and Lamey said communication has been key — between teachers and parents, teachers and administrators, and teachers and students.

“That approach is something that has changed from the previous year,” Lamey said. “We’re undergoing a huge cultural shift at our school … we’re really trying to create an atmosphere, a culture of measurement. No one person holds the responsibility, it’s all of us.”

Indiana Virtual School did not return multiple requests for comment, but at a public meeting last month, school officials said they expected a 92 percent participation rate, up from 35 percent in 2017. Clark said they incentivized students to show up.

“We bought a lot of pizza,” he told the state board’s virtual school committee members.

A jump of that magnitude, in one year, would be a major achievement for the school, which has a history of testing issues. Until 2017, just a small fraction of students took tests each year. And last year, when the school’s rate was 35 percent, superintendent Percy Clark told Chalkbeat that many students still took tests on paper because the school couldn’t control outside computer security.

Even when Clark arrived at Indiana Virtual, he said they “were in hot water” in regards to taking ISTEP, though the school had far fewer students then compared to more than 3,300 today. Details about testing during Indiana Virtual’s early years came to light in a 2014 lawsuit brought against the school by then-superintendent Dave Stashevsky, who was suing for non-payment. At the time Stashevsky was also an educator in Daleville Public Schools, the small rural district that oversees Indiana Virtual School. Depositions in the case revealed that the school had tested very few students, if any — a result of disorganization at the school level and students being scattered across the state.

“Many of them didn’t make it that far to take the test,” a former teacher who taught at the school early on told Chalkbeat last year, requesting her name be withheld out of concerns about backlash from the school. “They left, or they didn’t complete the curriculum, or they kind of fell off the face of the Earth … (I) had no clue about when they took it, if they took it.”

Virtual schools’ struggles to engage families in state testing might also speak to the schools’ larger problem keeping students active and engaged in an online learning environment.

“Engagement” has become a buzzword in conversations Indiana policymakers have about improving online charter schools. If schools are more engaged with students and parents, and students are more engaged with their coursework, there’s more success, the theory goes.

Testing is one part of that relationship. Although, like brick-and-mortar schools, virtual schools can’t force students to take tests, the absence of a physical schooling environment can make it more even more difficult to make testing a priority.

But neither online schools nor policymakers have found a surefire way to ensure that those strong relationships are built. Stronger introductions to online learning when parents enroll their children could be a factor, as could policies some online school advocates praise that let schools expel students who fail to participate after a certain length of time.

Lamey said that a new state policy that lets online schools remove students who aren’t a good fit for that type of learning has been beneficial for the school and for families.

“We don’t want a child to stay in this situation if they’re not finding success,” Lamey said. “We feel like we have a strong culture of support here for our students, but if it’s not working we want them to have success in school.”

Here’s the breakdown of ISTEP participation rates for each virtual charter school in the state that tested students last year, per state data.

2017 ISTEP Math Expected to test Tested Participation rate
Indiana Connections Academy 2,173 1,973 91%
Insight School of Indiana 317 267 84%
Indiana Virtual School 890 314 35%
Hoosier Academy Virtual* 1,594 1,489 93%

 

2017 ISTEP English Expected to test Tested Participation rate
Indiana Connections Academy 2,170 1,947 90%
Insight School of Indiana 320 268 84%
Indiana Virtual School 890 308 35%
Hoosier Academy Virtual* 1,597 1,470 92%

*Hoosier Academy Virtual closed this past June.