Are Children Learning

Glenda Ritz's team fires back at Pence, says no changes planned for ISTEP — yet

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Indiana State Board of Education members Cari Whicker and Brad Oliver with state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, pictured at December's meeting.

A spokesman for state Superintendent Glenda Ritz today rejected Gov. Mike Pence’s call to shorten the state ISTEP exam, calling his claims that she mishandled the test “personal and false attacks.”

Spokesman Daniel Altman said Pence had gotten bad information from the Indiana State Board of Education and its staff suggesting Ritz had failed to keep the board informed.

“It’s either politically malicious or a serious sign of staff incompetence,” Altman said. “My hope is that he was simply misinformed.”

But a state board member said the evidence suggests Pence was right.

“That’s just not true,” board member Brad Oliver said of Altman’s claims that the board understood months ago the test would be longer.

Pence on Monday blasted Ritz for leading the development of an ISTEP test that could take students twice as long to complete as last year and issued an order that it be shortened.

But Danielle Shockey, Ritz’s deputy superintendent, said the order would likely have no effect and that the test could not be significantly cut down unless the legislature changes requirements in state law or the U.S. Department of Education offered special freedom from its rules that it has so far denied.

“There is nothing in that order that would cause us to pause,” she said.

The state board will hold a special meeting Friday, but Shockey said there is no plan right now to change course on ISTEP.

“We are planning to move forward with ISTEP as planned, given that is the expectation of the state and the federal government,” she said.

The state board, however, might have other ideas. Oliver said ISTEP must be changed now.

“At this point, let’s just get it fixed,” he said. “I’m tired of this carrying on. It is unacceptable and unreasonable to do this.”

Pence today said he had hired a testing expert, Michigan State University professor Edward Roeber, for $22,000 and had contacted CTB/McGraw-Hill, the California company that makes ISTEP, to explore ways to cut the test down.

“I look forward to your cooperation as we work expeditiously to find a solution that serves Hoosier students, families and educators,” Pence wrote in a letter to Ritz today informing her of Roeber’s hiring.

An irritated Pence told reporters in a quickly arranged press conference on Monday he was shocked to learn ISTEP could take some students more than 12 hours to complete, about twice as much time as was allotted for the series of tests last year.

Pence said the state board was kept in the dark about the fact that the test would be so long, and he demanded action to reduce the testing time.

But Shockey and Altman said Ritz only learned of the time needed for testing from CTB/McGraw-Hill on Jan. 23. She notified schools on Jan. 26 and told the state board at its Feb. 4 meeting.

Shockey said although the exact time needed for ISTEP came out last month, the state board knew last August that it would be much longer. The board heard a presentation from CTB/McGraw-Hill on Aug. 6, and handouts showed a big jump in the number of test questions. The board was cautioned that more questions would make the test take longer, Shockey said.

Oliver responded that the minutes of that meeting prove Shockey wrong. He said the board was told the opposite by Michelle Walker, the state education department’s testing chief, in that August meeting: that it was too early to tell how long ISTEP would be.

The minutes from the meeting, available on the state board’s website, state: “Dr. Oliver asked how much longer the test would be this year. Dr. Michelle Walker said that this is something that they are still looking at in conjunction with CTB, and since the items are still being reviewed, there is no way to know just yet.”

Oliver said that proved what the state board has been saying — that there was no indication before last week that the test would could take twice as long.

“I did ask this question in August, they said they didn’t know,” he said. “That’s fine. This was an agenda item every month. They could have told us any time.”

ISTEP is longer this year for several reasons.

For one thing, the state changed course over the past two years on academic standards, dropping out of Common Core and creating its own standards that the state board approved last April.

That meant Indiana needed a new test test to match its more rigorous expectations for what children should know. In a way, this year’s ISTEP is three tests in one. Part of the test is similar to past exams. Another part includes new questions measuring if students learned the tougher material of the new standards. Finally, there are a series of questions on the 2015 test that won’t count but that are being tried out so they can be used in 2016.

The test also is also longer because it is designed to meet requirements in both state and federal law, Shockey said.

For example, the state requires ISTEP to measure both the level of student skill — such as whether the student passes or fails — and how much they improved during the school year. To measure growth the test must have extra questions that are slightly above and below the student’s grade level to help gauge their gains.

Shockey said Ritz asked federal education officials last year if they could have more time to develop the test, but the answer ultimately was no. Although Indiana made a late change in direction on standards, it would have to test its new standards in 2015 as it had promised, she said Ritz was told.

During those talks, Shockey said, Ritz’s department went ahead and developed a plan to transition in stages to a new ISTEP in 2016, but in April and May both the state board and the federal education department nixed that idea, requiring a quick change of direction.

At this point, Shockey said, the only way to cut the testing time is for the legislature to act. She suggested lawmakers could suspend the third-grade reading test or state fifth- and seventh-grade social studies tests — both of which are state-required but not federally mandated.

The state education department has told schools they can cut down the practice time they had scheduled in advance of ISTEP to save some classroom time. Altman said Ritz would work with Pence, the consultant and the state board to explore other options.

But Shockey said schools should expect to administer ISTEP as planned until they hear differently, and that parents, teachers and students should’t worry.

“We should tell our kids to go in there and do their best, period,” she said.

measuring up

After criticism, Denver will change the way it rates elementary schools

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Eva Severance, a first-grader, concentrates on a reading lesson at Lincoln Elementary in Denver.

Facing criticism that its school ratings overstated young students’ reading abilities, the Denver school district announced it will change the way elementary schools are rated next year.

The district will increase the number of students in kindergarten, first, second, and third grade who must score at grade-level on early literacy tests for a school to earn points on the district’s rating scale, and decrease how many points those scores will be worth, officials said.

The changes will lessen the impact of early literacy scores on a school’s overall rating, while also raising the bar on how many students must ace the tests for a school to be considered good. Denver rates schools on a color-coded scale from blue (the highest) to red (the lowest).

“We want to see more students making more progress,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said.

Local civil rights groups, elected officials, educators, and education advocates criticized Denver Public Schools this year for misleading students and families with what they characterized as inflated school ratings based partly on overstated early literacy gains.

“At a time when this country is at war on truth, we have an obligation to Denver families to give them a true picture of their schools’ performance,” state Sen. Angela Williams, a Denver Democrat, told Boasberg and the school board at a meeting in December.

The groups had asked the district to revise this year’s ratings, which were issued in October. Boasberg refused, saying, “If you’re going to change the rules of the game, it’s certainly advisable to change them before the game starts.” That’s what the district is doing for next year.

The state requires students in kindergarten through third grade to take the early literacy tests as a way to identify for extra help students who are struggling the most to learn to read. Research shows third graders who don’t read proficiently are four times as likely to fail out of high school. In Denver, most schools administer an early literacy test called iStation.

The state also requires students in third through ninth grade to take a literacy test called PARCC, which is more rigorous. Third-graders are the only students who take both tests.

The issue is that many third-graders who scored well on iStation did not score well on PARCC. At Castro Elementary in southwest Denver, for example, 73 percent of third-graders scored at grade-level or above on iStation, but just 17 percent did on PARCC.

Denver’s school ratings system, called the School Performance Framework, or SPF, has always relied heavily on state test scores. But this year, the weight given to the early literacy scores increased from 10 percent to 34 percent of the overall rating because the district added points for how well certain groups, such as students from low-income families, did on the tests.

That added weight, plus the discrepancy between how third-graders scored on PARCC and how they scored on iStation, raised concerns about the validity of the ratings.

At a school board work session earlier this week, Boasberg called those concerns “understandable.” He laid out the district’s two-pronged approach to addressing them, noting that the changes planned for next year are a stop-gap measure until the district can make a more significant change in 2019 that will hopefully minimize the discrepancy between the tests.

Next year, the district will increase the percentage of students who must score at grade-level on the early literacy tests. Currently, fewer than half of an elementary school’s students must score that way for a school to earn points, said Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova. The district hasn’t yet settled on what the number will be for next year, but it will likely be more than 70 percent, she said. The more points a school earns, the higher its color rating.

The district will also reduce the impact the early literacy test scores have on the ratings by cutting in half the number of points schools can earn related to the tests, Cordova said. This makes the stakes a little lower, even as the district sets a higher bar.

The number of points will go back up in 2019 when the district makes a more significant change, officials said. The change has to do with how the tests are scored.

For the past several years, the district has used the “cut points” set by the test vendors to determine which students are reading at grade-level and which are not. But the discrepancy between the third-grade iStation and PARCC reading scores – and the public outcry it sparked – has caused officials to conclude the vendor cut points are too low.

District officials said they have asked the vendors and the state education department to raise the cut points. But even if they agree, that isn’t a simple or quick fix. In the meantime, the district has developed a set of targets it calls “aimlines” that show how high a student must score on the early literacy tests to be on track to score at grade-level on PARCC, which district officials consider the gold standard measure of what students should know.

The aimlines are essentially higher expectations. A student could be judged to be reading at grade-level according to iStation but considered off-track according to the aimlines.

In 2019, the district will use those aimlines instead of the vendor cut points for the purpose of rating schools. Part of the reason the district is waiting until 2019 is to gather another year of test score data to make sure the aimlines are truly predictive, officials said.

However, the district is encouraging schools to start looking at the aimlines this year. It is also telling families how their students are doing when measured against them. Schools sent letters home to families this past week, a step district critics previously said was a good start.

Van Schoales, CEO of the advocacy group A Plus Colorado, has been among the most persistent critics of this year’s elementary school ratings. He said he’s thrilled the district listened to community concerns and is making changes for next year, though he said it still has work to do to make the ratings easier to understand and more helpful to families.

“We know it’s complicated,” he said. “There is no perfect SPF. We just think we can get to a more perfect SPF with conversations between the district and community folks.”

The district announced other changes to the School Performance Framework next year that will affect all schools, not just elementary schools. They include:

  • Not rating schools on measures for which there is only one year of data available.

Denver’s ratings have always been based on two years of data: for instance, how many students of color met expectations on state math tests in 2016 and how many met expectations in 2017.

But if a school doesn’t have data for one of those years, it will no longer be rated on that measure. One way that could happen is if a school has 20 students of color one year but only 12 the next. Schools must have at least 16 students in a category for their scores to count.

The goal, officials said, is to be more fair and accurate. Some schools complained that judging them based on just one year of data wasn’t fully capturing their performance or progress.

  • Applying the “academic gaps indicator” to all schools without exception.

This year, the district applied a new rule that schools with big gaps between less privileged and more privileged students couldn’t earn its two highest color ratings, blue and green. Schools had to be blue or green on a new “academic gaps indicator” to be blue or green overall.

But district officials made an exception for three schools where nearly all students were from low-income families, reasoning it was difficult to measure gaps when there were so few wealthier students. However, Boasberg said that after soliciting feedback from educators, parents, and advocates, “the overwhelming sentiment was that it should apply to all schools,” in part because it was difficult to find a “natural demographic break point” for exceptions.

Contract review

Here’s what a deeper probe of grade changing at Memphis schools will cost

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The board of education for Shelby County Schools is reviewing another contract with a Memphis firm hired last year to look into allegations of grade tampering at Trezevant High School. Board members will discuss the new contract Feb. 20 and vote on it Feb. 27.

A proposed contract with the accounting firm hired to examine Memphis schools with high instances of grade changes contains new details on the scope of the investigation already underway in Shelby County Schools.

The school board is reviewing a $145,000 contract with Dixon Hughes Goodman, the Memphis firm that last year identified nine high schools as having 199 or more grade changes between July 2012 and October 2016. Seven of those are part of the deeper probe, since two others are now outside of the Memphis district’s control.

The investigation includes:

  • Interviewing teachers and administrators;
  • Comparing paper grade books to electronic ones and accompanying grade change forms;
  • Inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades

In December, the firm recommended “further investigation” into schools with high instances of grade changes. At that time, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson emphasized that not all changes of grades from failing to passing are malicious, but said the district needs to ensure that any changes are proper.

Based on the firm’s hourly rate, a deeper probe could take from 300 to 900 hours. The initial review lasted four months before the firm submitted its report to Shelby County Schools.

The school board is scheduled to vote on the contract Feb. 27.

You can read the full agreement below: