Are Children Learning

Indiana students will take two state tests in 2014-15

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Frustrations with repeated problems with ISTEP have lawmakers looking for solutions.

Indiana students will take at least two online, state-run standardized tests in 2014-15, and some state board members raised concerns today about a proposal to add a third test.

No matter what the Indiana State Board of Education decides, only one test will matter for state accountability decisions, including the A to F grades schools earn.

The state is scrambling a bit because it needs to begin transitioning to a new state test to replace ISTEP in 2015-16, even though the standards it will be testing aren’t ready yet. The new test must be matched to new state standards the board hopes to approve on April 28. But state officials had hoped to administer a pilot test in May.

Indiana Department of Education officials today asked the state board to approve a third test for September, replacing the May pilot, as a way of giving students practice on the new test format and try questions based on the news standards.

Led by Brad Oliver, several board members questioned whether that was too many tests for 2014-15.

“I feel like I have to advocate for the students,” Oliver said. “If we’re going to take the time away from class, I’m wrestling with what is the return on investment of that time?”

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz said she didn’t want to give extra tests but felt students needed to see the new format. During her 2012 election campaign, Ritz said the state was doing too much standardized testing. But the need to transition to a new test has put her in the awkward position of advocating, in the short term, for more tests rather than fewer tests.

Even so, Ritz said she believed the state’s proposed plan was manageable for students and teachers.

“We’re not going to over-tax students,” she said. “You’re talking to the person here, in the state superintendent, who wants less testing. But I also know, as a teacher, that you have to be exposed to the types of questions you have to answer.”

Indiana’s hesitation about Common Core, which ultimately led the state to pull out of the shared standards that 45 states initially signed on to follow, has thrown its testing plan off track.

After the state adopted Common Core in 2010, it began working toward replacing ISTEP with a Common Core-linked test. Common Core was designed to assure high school graduates were ready for college and careers, but Indiana critics say it cedes too much control over what children learn to the U.S. Department of Education, which did not create Common Core but has endorsed and promoted it.

In Indiana’s case, the state’s plan to use Common Core satisfied the federal government’s requirement that it institute “college and career ready” standards under an agreement to release the state from some of the sanctions of the 2002 federal No Child Left Behind law.

The U.S. Department of Education had leverage in those talks because it provides millions of dollars to support education in every Indiana school district, much of it focused on helping schools meet the needs of poor and disabled children. Plus, NCLB sanctions could have caused hundreds of schools to take actions like firing their principals or changing their curriculum for not reaching the law’s ever-increasing expectations for test score gain.

In 2012, following its adoption of Common Core, Indiana was working toward adopting a Common Core-linked test to replace ISTEP in 2015-16, with plans for a pilot test in 2014-15 to get ready.

But then the Common Core backlash began.

In 2013, lawmakers “paused” implementation of Common Core and then this year they went further, passing a bill last month to void Indiana’s adoption of Common Core.

That meant Indiana needed new standards quickly.

In February, committees of educators that were reviewing standards began a process to create new ones. They are working to revise draft standards for state board consideration on April 28.

Changing standards knocked the testing plan off schedule.

Instead of a Common Core pilot test in May, state officials instead asked CTB-McGraw Hill, the company that created ISTEP, for enough test questions to create a smaller test, which the state has called CoreLink, for students to take before the end of the 2013-14 school year as a first look at what the new state test will be like.

While the new standards aren’t ready yet and the new test, therefore, can’t be built, the state knows it plans to use new types of online test questions that students haven’t seen before. The state board today saw sample questions in which students would be required to supplement multiple choice answers by highlighting sections of text they referred to and entering the formula they calculated to solve a math word problem.

Because the new standards aren’t ready yet, Ritz’s team proposed pushing to September the small CoreLink test, which they said was an hour-long exam with 10 questions each on English and math.

Board members questioned whether that made sense.

“I’d rather pilot the test in 2015 and not take CoreLink and spend my time in the classroom,” said board member Cari Whicker, a middle school teacher in Huntington.

Tony Walker, a board member from Gary, agreed.

“My vote would be to never administer CoreLink,” he said. “It seems unfair to the students after just two or three weeks under the standards.”

Following a recommendation from board member Sarah O’Brien, a teacher in Avon, Ritz withdrew the plan to offer CoreLink in September, for now. Instead, the board’s testing committee will review its options for how to pilot test questions for the future state test in the upcoming school year.

Board member Andrea Neal, a Common Core opponent, cautioned that CoreLink, built from questions designed for future Common Core-linked tests, might not be the best choice to serve as examples for Indiana’s future state test.

“I see lots of signs that for our assessments to be deemed ‘college and career ready’ that assessments will have to be compatible and fully aligned with Common Core assessments,” she said. “It’s extremely important we figure out our standards, then our curriculum and then do testing at the end.”

Ritz, who noted state officials would modify CoreLink questions to fit Indiana standards, said that would not be a problem.

“Our assessments will be aligned to our standards and will be college and career ready,” she said.


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.


This Wayne Township school made big gains on ISTEP, and its principal said teachers sticking around was key.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students at Robey Elementary School in Wayne Township participate in an English lesson.

As the kindergartners at Robey Elementary School shuffled down the hallway in a single-file line, the wings on their festive construction paper bat headbands flapped softly.

When Principal Ben Markley walked by, the kindergartners jostled to greet him, one after another giving a tiny wave by bending their index fingers up and down. Bat wings flapped furiously.

“Are we working hard today?” Markley asked as he approached, returning what he dubbed the “kindergarten wave” by waggling his own index finger.

“Yes!” the kids chorused back excitedly.

Markley continued down the hallway, explaining that he created the wave to give some of the school’s youngest students a special way to connect with him — a better option than running up and gluing themselves to his legs, he said.

He is now in his fifth year at Robey, a school with more than 750 students located in the northwest corner of Wayne Township. In fact, Markley has spent his entire career as an educator in Wayne Township. And he’s not alone: Of the 20 Robey teachers who taught grades that took ISTEP last year, 19 stayed on from the year before.

Markley says that retaining teachers and staff has afforded students immense benefits — not the least of which that the school made some of the largest gains of any township school on last year’s ISTEP test.

Chalkbeat sat down with Markley recently to talk about the school’s progress. Below are excerpts from the conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

Your passing rate for English and math went up about 8 percentage points from last year, and your letter grade went up from a B to an A. What was your reaction when you learned that?

Two years ago we were pretty disappointed with some of our scores. We saw some areas in math that we thought we should be addressing a little differently — the way our teachers were thinking about curriculum and really the depth and the rigor that we were presenting to our students.

There was this pretty big gap between what we were asking our kids to do and what was on the state assessment. We talked a lot about that last year. We spent a lot of our professional development time thinking about what are the deeper thinking skills that students need, especially in math. We sometimes called it how do we get kids to grapple with problems. How do we get them to show perseverance and dedication and be able to learn from mistakes — to make a mistake and accept that mistake and say, how do we grow from this?

We haven’t had the teacher turnover that some schools have had. And so (teachers within every grade) are becoming content and curricular experts. When you put smart people in the room together talking about how they teach something, they are able to share lots of great ideas.

To see that pan out in improved performance — that’s what you’re so excited about. That’s why you put all that effort and time and energy and debating and conversation in, because then our hard work paid off, and that’s rewarding for teachers.

What is your school community like?

We are about 52 to 53 percent free and reduced lunch this year. We’re about 50 percent white, about 35 to 40 percent African American and about 10 percent Hispanic.

It feels almost neighborhood- or community-like being back here. I think families know that they can come here and they can partner with staff members to try to find the best ways to help their children. We serve rural families and out-of-district families who choose to come to Robey, and we take pride in that fact.

What is your approach to leadership?

I think we have very talented, dedicated, smart people, and so I feel like my job is to get them the resources that they need. I trust the decisions that teachers make. So I want them to feel empowered to make those decisions and suggest those changes and improvements that help us move forward as a school.

I talked about staff continuity already. I think that is something I maybe even initially underestimated how important it was. It fosters a sense of collegiality. They know they’ve got each others’ backs.

It also just gives them time to wrap their minds around our curriculum. The first time you teach it, that’s a big undertaking. It’s overwhelming. And so to have consistency (with our teaching staff) from year to year … was critical to our success.