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.

union power

Gutting Wisconsin teachers unions hurt students, study finds

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2015.

The high-profile fight to limit union power was replete with drama — including a recall election and state legislators fleeing to neighboring states.

In the 2011 battle in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker ultimately came out the victor. The controversial law passed, Walker won the recall, and the Democratic-aligned unions have lost much of their power.

But new research points to other losers in the fight: students in the state’s already struggling schools.

The first study to assess how Wisconsin’s high-profile weakening of unions, particularly teachers unions, affected students finds that it led to a substantial decline in test scores.

The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments for a case, known as Janus, that could dramatically scale back union power across the country — essentially taking aspects of the Wisconsin model national. And they give credence to concerns from unions and their defenders that weakening teachers bargaining power would ultimately make schools worse, not better.

A report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress released Wednesday highlights this research — and the fact that teacher pay and average experience declined in the wake of the law, known as Act 10 — to argue that weakening unions ultimately harm schools.

“Those concerned about the quality of public education — and of all public services — should understand that Wisconsin’s Act 10 and associated budget cuts have not had the positive impact on education that its proponents claimed it would,” the CAP report argues.

Still, the research, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, only assesses the short-term impact of Wisconsin’s law. It adds to a complicated set of research findings on unions that doesn’t render a clear verdict.

Short-term effect in Wisconsin is negative, especially for low-achieving schools

The new research looks at the effects of Wisconsin Act 10, which became law in 2011 and severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt of unions.

The paper’s author, Jason Baron, took advantage of what was essentially a natural experiment set up by the law. Act 10 did not affect all school districts at once — a handful of school districts were allowed to maintain union rules until their existing contract expired up to two years later. That helped isolate the immediate impact of the law.

Baron found that weakening unions led to declines in test scores, particularly in math and science. The effects were fairly large, comparable to sharply increasing class sizes. And the harm was not evenly distributed: Schools that started out furthest behind were hurt the most, while higher achieving schools saw no impact.

Other research may help explain why.

The law led to big cuts in teacher compensation, particularly for veteran teachers and especially in health insurance and retirement benefits, according to one paper. There was also a spike in teacher retirement immediately following the law’s passage.

As compensation drops, it may become harder for district and teachers to recruit and keep teachers. An increase in retirement also reduces teacher experience, which has been linked to effectiveness.

Another study found that some Wisconsin districts moved from a single salary schedule to a performance-based pay system after Act 10’s passage. Those performance pay systems were more likely to be adopted by higher-achieving districts, potentially allowing them to lure effective teachers away from struggling schools.

“Following Act 10, high-performing schools filled vacancies from teacher retirements by poaching high-quality teachers from low-performing schools through attractive compensation schemes,” the paper concludes. So while those retirements might have hit all districts equally, high-performing districts were better able to make up the difference — at the expense of low-performing schools.

There is one study that complicates the narrative in Wisconsin. As retirements spiked, it found that academic achievement actually increased in the grades that teachers left. It’s not clear what explains this.

The larger question of how teachers unions affect learning remains up for debate

A number of other recent studies have examined the relationship between teachers unions and student outcomes outside of Wisconsin. The results aren’t consistent, but the trend has been more positive for unions of late. A caveat: Some of these studies have not been published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

  • On recent efforts to weaken unions: Research in Tennessee found that it led to a drop in teacher pay, but had no effect on student test scores. But a study of four states, including Wisconsin, that recently weakened unions found evidence of reduced teacher quality as a result.
  • On what happens when charter schools unionize: Two studies in California came to differing conclusions. One found that when charters unionize, student test scores go up, but the other showed no impact.
  • On the initial rise of collective bargaining: Another paper finds that students who went to schools where districts negotiated with unions earned less money and were more likely to be unemployed as adults. But this study looks at a fairly old data set — examining those who attended schools between 1965 and 1992.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if any of this research is likely to influence the Supreme Court, as it considers the Janus case that could make life more difficult for unions. Last month, Chief Justice John Roberts called empirical studies on political gerrymandering “sociological gobbledygook.”

study up

Trump education nominee pleads ignorance about high-profile voucher studies showing negative results

At his confirmation hearing, Mick Zais, the nominee to be second-in-command at the Department of Education, said that he was not aware of high-profile studies showing that school vouchers can hurt student achievement.

It was a remarkable acknowledgement by Zais, who said he supports vouchers and would report to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose signature issue has been expanding publicly funded private school choice programs.

The issue was raised by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who asked whether Zais, who was previously the South Carolina schools chief, was “aware of the research on the impact of vouchers on student achievement.”

He replied: “To the best of my knowledge, whenever we give parents an opportunity to choose a school that’s a good fit for their child the result is improved outcomes.”

Franken responded, “No, that’s not true. The academic outcomes for students who used vouchers to attend private school are actually quite abysmal.”

Franken proceeded to mention recent studies from Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, and Washington, DC that showed declines in test scores after students move to private schools with a voucher.

Zais responded: “Senator, I was unaware of those studies that you cited.”

Franken then asked if Zais’s initial response expressing confidence in school choice was anecdotal, and Zais said that it was.

What’s surprising about Zais’s response is that these studies were not just published in dusty academic journals, but received substantial media attention, including in the New York Times and Washington Post (and Chalkbeat). They’ve also sparked significant debate, including among voucher supporters, who have argued against judging voucher programs based on short-term test scores.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the research confusion was a bipartisan affair at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing.

Although Franken, who referred to a New York Times article on voucher research in his question, was broadly accurate in his description of the recent studies, he said that a DC voucher study showed “significantly lower math and reading scores”; in fact, the results were only statistically significant in math, not reading.

Franken also did not mention evidence that the initial negative effects abated in later years in Indiana and for some students in Louisiana, or discuss recent research linking Florida’s voucher-style tax credit program to higher student graduation rates.

In a separate exchange, Washington Sen. Patty Murray grilled Jim Blew — the administration’s nominee for assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development — on the performance of Michigan’s charter schools. Murray said that DeVos was “one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system,” describing the results as “disastrous for children.”

Blew disputed this: “The characterization of the charter school sector in Detroit as being a disaster seems unfair. The most reliable studies are saying, indeed, the charter school students outperform the district students.”

Murray responded: “Actually, Michigan’s achievement rates have plummeted for all kids. In addition, charter schools in Michigan are performing worse than traditional public schools.”

(Murray may be referring to an Education Trust analysis showing that Michigan ranking on NAEP exams have fallen relative to other states. The study can’t show why, or whether school choice policies are the culprit, as some have claimed.)

Blew answered: “The most reliable studies do show that the charter school students in Detroit outperform their peers in the district schools.”

Murray: “I would like to see that because that’s not the data that we have.”

Blew: “I will be happy to get if for you; it’s done by the Stanford CREDO operation.”

Murray: “I’m not aware of that organization.”

CREDO, a Stanford-based research institution, has conducted among the most widely publicized — and sometimes disputed — studies of charter schools. The group’s research on Detroit does show that the city’s charter students were outperforming similar students in district schools, though the city’s students are among the lowest-performing in the country on national tests.