Are Children Learning

State board to lawmakers: Pay up for new ISTEP

The Indiana State Board of Education is calling on the legislature to find the money to fund a pricier future state testing program — whatever the cost.

Money alone shouldn’t be the driving factor in developing new tests, some board members said, and could potentially reduce the quality of the tests.

“I think we need to pose that to our legislature,” board member David Freitas said. “There’s a great price that we pay at some point when we get below a certain threshold, and frankly, I don’t want price to get in the way of our decision.”

The state board today passed a resolution from board member and Avon teacher Sarah O’Brien, which sets out specific guidelines under which the Indiana Department of Education must develop next year’s ISTEP tests. Two items from the resolution were tabled, but it otherwise passed as-is 6-3, with state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, principal Troy Albert and teacher Andrea Neal voting no.

The Indiana Department of Education estimated the cost of the test outlined by the resolution at $100 million over two years, although O’Brien disputed that figure. A proposal Ritz presented to the Senate Appropriations Committee earlier this month would cost about $75 million, down from a $134 million estimate back in December. Board member Dan Elsener said squabbling over cost is ridiculous — the tests are necessary, he said, and the money spent wouldn’t be wasted.

“If you have an $11 billion to $12 billion enterprise, which K-12 schools are, and you spend on an annual basis less than half of a percent to know where students are on essential skills we actually should be teaching … this isn’t a waste of your money,” Elsener said.

Ritz had concerns about some of the board’s ISTEP proposals, such as paying for optional practice tests for grades 3 to 10 in science and social studies. Ritz said that piece could cost $23 million, but there’s not proof they are widely used in schools. Science and social studies scores are not counted as part of the calculation for school A to F grades, only English and math scores are.

“When we spend $23 million on science and social studies that’s not really going to be measured, you would want people to use it,” Ritz said.

The board wants to keep similar optional practice tests for grades K to 2 in English and math, which Ritz also opposed but put a decision about that on hold. It also held off making a decision about whether students below 10th grade who have passed the Algebra end-of-course exam would still have to take the new ninth-grade ISTEP math test. A proposal to require that was tabled.

O’Brien said the practice tests in grades K to 2 are important for schools that might not be able to pay for their own practice tests.

“I like the idea of having resources available,” she said. “But I am not endorsing that schools should use it.”

Another contentious part of ISTEP negotiations focused on reading.

Board members believe a check on reading skills should be focused on Indiana’s third-grade reading test, IREAD. Ritz has long said she’d prefer using reading questions on ISTEP to produce a numerical reading level for all students tested. O’Brien said she was concerned the department’s cost estimates were inaccurate because she believed the tests would be designed to have extra reading questions in them.

Michele Walker, the state’s testing chief, said no extra questions would be added. But because Indiana’s new standards put more emphasis on reading than writing, there will be more reading questions on the test anyway. So that’s why the company that won the contract to create the new ISTEP — the British testing company Pearson — proposed more reading questions.

“There really is not any fluff in the Pearson proposal,” Walker said. “The challenge is that there are so many more reading standards than there are writing standards it looks like it’s more inflated, but actually there are no additional items in there.”

Neal argued that no specific ISTEP decisions should be made until we know what might happen in the legislature.

Senate Bill 566, which passed the Senate and is expected to soon be considered by the House, proposes Indiana use a national “off-the-shelf” test in place of ISTEP. However, that would not begin until 2016-17 under the bill, so ISTEP would remain in 2015-16 even if it passes.

Another reason Neal gave to hold off on any testing decisions were complaints about the bidding process that led to Pearson winning the right to make ISTEP going forward. The exam was previously made by California-based CTB/McGraw-Hill.

Attorney Tom Wheeler, representing the failed bidder Data Recognition Corporation, started the meeting by complaining that Pearson and the Indiana Department of Administration broke state law during the bidding, in multiple ways. Speaking during the public comment period, he asked the board to override the decision and award the contract to Data Recognition Corporation.

Wheeler said Pearson was unfairly rated higher under state bidding rules that give extra credit to companies that can demonstrate they would provide a positive economic impact to the state. But Wheeler charged that Pearson manipulated its number of full-time employees living in Indiana and wasn’t clear that it intended to redirect much of the work to create ISTEP to a subsidiary company.

The Department of Administration, Wheeler said, also communicated with Pearson after the deadline for final bids and allowed Pearson make changes to its bid. Data Recognition Corporation should have also been allowed to make changes to its final bid, he argued.

“We want a level playing field,” Wheeler said.

Ritz said she didn’t know about the company’s complaint but said the Department of Administration, not the education department, exclusively manages the bidding process.

Neal said she wanted an explanation of what happened in the bidding process before a final ISTEP contract was signed and urged the board to delay even setting guidelines for the new ISTEP test.

“I want to wait to hear answers,” Neal said. “I agree completely with the spirit of Sarah’s resolution, but I think we need to delay the discussion of this process.”

Although the resolution passed, Ritz said the discussion about the future of ISTEP is far from over.

“I consider the resolution to be really just part of the process,” Ritz said. “I wanted to make sure that every member of the board knew the implications of what it is they might be recommending as the assessment system.”

 

Silver Lining Playbook

Memphis’ youngest students show reading gains on 2018 state tests — and that’s a big deal

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A student works on reading comprehension skills at Lucie E Campbell Elementary School in Memphis and Shelby County Schools.

Those working to improve early literacy rates in Shelby County Schools got a small morale boost Thursday as newly released scores show the district’s elementary school students improved their reading on 2018 state tests.

The percentage of Memphis elementary-age students considered proficient in reading rose by 3 points to almost one-fourth of the district’s children in grades 3 through 5. That’s still well below the state average, and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said “we obviously have a long way to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has overseen Tennessee’s largest public school district since 2013.

Strengthening early literacy has been a priority for the Memphis district, which views better reading skills as crucial to predicting high school graduation and career success. To that end, Shelby County Schools has expanded access to pre-K programs, adjusted reading curriculum, and made investments in literacy training for teachers.

Hopson said the payoff on this year’s TNReady scores was a jump of almost 5 percentage points in third-grade reading proficiency.

“It was about five years ago when we really, really, really started pushing pre-K, and those pre-K kids are now in the third grade. I think that’s something that’s really positive,” Hopson said of the gains, adding that third-grade reading levels are an important indicator of future school performance.

TNReady scores for Shelby County Schools, which has a high concentration of low-performing schools and students living in poverty, were a mixed bag, as they were statewide.

Math scores went up in elementary, middle, and high schools in Tennessee’s largest district. But science scores went down across the board, and the percentage of high school students who scored proficient in reading dropped by 4 percentage points.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools

Hopson said he was unsure how much the reading scores of older students — all of whom tested online — were affected by technical problems that hampered Tennessee’s return this year to computerized testing.

“From what people tell me, kids either didn’t try as hard in some instances or didn’t take it seriously,” Hopson told reporters. “We’ll never know what the real impact is, but we have to accept the data that came from these tests.”

But students in two of the district’s school improvement initiatives — the Innovation Zone and the Empowerment Zone — showed progress. “We’re going to double down on these strategies,” Hopson said of the extra investments and classroom supports.

In the state-run Achievement School District, or ASD, which oversees 30 low-performing schools in Memphis, grades 3 through 8 saw an uptick in scores in both reading and math. But high schoolers scored more than 3 percentage points lower in reading and also took a step back in science.

The ASD takes over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent and assigns them to charter operators to improve. But in the five years that the ASD has been in Memphis, its scores have been mostly stagnant.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said she and new ASD Superintendent Sharon Griffin are reviewing the new data to determine next steps.

“We are seeing some encouraging momentum shifts,” McQueen said.

Scores in

After a wild testing year, Tennessee student scores mostly dip — but there are a few bright spots

PHOTO: Getty Images/Sathyanarayan

Student test scores were mostly flat or dipped this year in Tennessee, especially in middle school where performance declined in every subject, according to statewide data released on Thursday.

But there were a few bright spots, including improvement in elementary school English and high school math — both areas of emphasis as the state tries to lift its proficiency rates in literacy and math.

Also, performance gaps tightened in numerous subjects between students in historically underserved populations and their peers. And scores in the state’s lowest-performing “priority” schools, including the state-run Achievement School District, generally improved more than those in non-priority schools.

But in science, students across the board saw declines. This was not expected because Tennessee has not yet transitioned to new, more difficult standards and a new aligned test for that subject. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the drops reinforce the need to support science teachers in the shift to higher expectations beginning this fall.

The mixed results come in the third year of the state’s TNReady test, which measures learning based on academic standards that have undergone massive changes in the last five years. The 2017-18 school year was the first under new math and English standards that are based on the previous Common Core benchmarks but were revised to be Tennessee-specific. And in addition to new science standards that kick off this fall, new expectations for social studies will reach classrooms in the 2019-20 school year.

In an afternoon press call, McQueen said “stability matters” when you’re trying to move the needle on student achievement.

“It takes time to really align to the full depth and breadth of these expectations,” she said.

The three charts below illustrate, by subject, the percentage of students statewide who performed on track or better, both this year and last year, in elementary, middle, and high schools. The blue bars reflect the most recent scores.

McQueen acknowledged the good and bad from this year’s results.

“While we’ve focused extensively on early grade reading and are starting to see a shift in the right direction, we know middle school remains a statewide challenge across the board,” she said in a statement.

Tennessee’s data dump comes after a tumultuous spring of testing that was marred by technical problems in the return to statewide computerized exams. About half of the 650,000 students who took TNReady tested online, while the rest stuck with paper and pencil. Online testing snafus were so extensive that the Legislature — concerned about the scores’ reliability — rolled back their importance in students’ final grades, teachers’ evaluations, and the state’s accountability system for schools.

However, the results of a new independent analysis show that the online disruptions had minimal impact on scores. The analysis, conducted by a Virginia-based technical group called the Human Resources Research Organization, will be released in the coming weeks.

Even so, one variable that can’t be measured is the effect of the technical problems on student motivation, especially after the Legislature ordered — in the midst of testing — that the scores didn’t have to be included in final grades.

“The motivation of our students is an unknown we just can’t quantify. We can’t get in their minds on motivation,” McQueen told Chalkbeat on the eve of the scores’ release.

Thursday’s rollout marked the biggest single-day release of state scores since high school students took their first TNReady tests in 2016. (Grades 3-8 took their first in 2017.) The data dump included state- and district-level scores for math, English, science, and U.S. history for grades 3-12.

More scores will come later. School-by-school data will be released in the coming weeks. In addition, Tennessee will unveil the results of its new social studies test for grades 3-8 this fall after setting the thresholds for what constitutes passing scores at each grade level.

You can find the state-level results here and the district-level results here.

Chalkbeat illustrator Sam Park contributed to this story.