Are Children Learning

Shorter, faster, smarter: How officials say Indiana’s new ILEARN test could differ from ISTEP

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

As Indiana has developed a test to replace the beleaguered ISTEP exam over the last year, one question has repeatedly come up: Will the new test really be different?

It’s a valid concern in a state where test changes have been almost an annual occurrence, bringing with them technology problems and political squabbling. But state education officials say this is a fresh start and that Hoosier educators and parents shouldn’t expect the technical glitches, scoring delays and accuracy problems of ISTEP all over again.

“This is not ISTEP 2.0,” said Charity Flores, testing director for the Indiana Department of Education. “We didn’t just take everything from the previous ISTEP, and we’re putting it in the new platform and we’re just going to rebrand it. We have taken really intentional and deliberate steps to ensure this is a new pathway.”

Read: Check out some practice questions for Indiana’s new ILEARN test

Indiana elementary and middle school students will take the new ILEARN exam next spring — marking the first time in about three decades that ISTEP is out of the picture.

For the most part.

ISTEP will linger for high school students for at least another year because of recently passed legislation that derailed earlier plans for a new batch of end-of-course exams. Now, the state is changing direction to eventually adopt a college entrance exam for high-schoolers, which officials say will better align state tests with new graduation requirements and be more meaningful for students.

In the meantime, the test for younger students is on track. And while there might be noticeable differences in some questions, the test is also set to be more accessible for students learning English, easier for schools to administer, and have a quicker turnaround.

ILEARN might feel harder for some students — but others could see fewer frustrations.

It’s not that the test itself is getting easier or more difficult, Flores said, because ILEARN will test the same academic standards as ISTEP. But because the new exam will be “computer-adaptive,” the experience will be different for students.

In a computer-adaptive test, students don’t all answer the same static group of questions. Instead, they are given questions that are easier or harder based on how they answer previous ones. This could mean that if a student thought ISTEP was pretty easy, they might be more challenged next year. But a student who has struggled with testing might find it less frustrating.

And for teachers, the computer-adaptive test method can ensure that a broader range of questions are asked so that more grade level standards are covered. That way, teachers can get more feedback on how well students have mastered those areas.

Students learning English can now take tests in another language.

For the first time, Indiana students will be able to test in Spanish. They’ll also have access to translated “glossaries” in other languages — Spanish, Burmese, Arabic, Mandarin and Vietnamese — to help explain certain words.

Teachers would help students decide which tests they should take in English or Spanish, aligning the tests with how students have been taught, Flores said. If they learned science in Spanish, for instance, it makes more sense to test in Spanish.

The test is expected to be shorter and less rigid.

The exact length of the exams hasn’t been finalized, Flores said, but she expects teachers and students will find the new test much less time-consuming than in the past — both in the frequency and administration of the test.

Overall, she expects ILEARN to be between one and two hours shorter than ISTEP. This year, students are expected to spend between seven and eight-and-a-half hours on ISTEP, depending on their grade level.

There will be fewer restrictions around how long and when kids take the test, she said, so teachers and administrators can decide to break up testing sessions as needed. They could do an entire segment at one time, for example, or decide to do half-hour sessions two days in a row — or any other arrangement. And because ILEARN is untimed, students can take the time they need, within reason.

This is possible now, Flores said, because of the computer-adaptive platform. If students aren’t all getting the same questions at the same time, there are fewer risks that there will be security problems. Teachers will get guidelines around suggested times for each segment, but they have flexibility.

The test will also only be given in one window near the end of the year, instead of the current two windows in the winter and spring.

Schools, students and parents could receive scores faster.

One of the biggest criticisms of ISTEP was how long it took for schools and parents to get students’ scores back. Some years, they weren’t reported until after students had moved to the next grade.

It looks like those delays could be coming to an end after next year. Beginning in 2020, Flores said, schools will be able to get preliminary score reports from ILEARN tests within 12 days of students completing the exams.

Some questions, such as essay questions, will still need to be scored by hand and might take longer, but most items can be scored by computers and returned quickly.


How will Chicago repair the harm from special-education neglect?

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel / Chalkbeat
Laurel Henson, at the podium, told the Illinois State Board of Education on Nov. 16, 2018, about her 2-year struggle to get a school nurse on staff to help her son, who suffers from seizures.

Illinois may be forcing Chicago Public Schools to repair its broken special education program, but the ambitious effort still begs a critical question: What happens to hundreds of Chicago children who were harmed by the district refusing them services that would  help them learn?

Neither the state nor the school district is saying yet, even as advocates for students in special education have pressed for answers.

Those children include an unnamed third-grader trapped by a tactic the district apparently used to avoid offering services required by federal law.

The child can’t read the word cat or dog, health-legal advocate Barbara Cohen said, but his teacher didn’t believe in giving low grades. So the third grader received a B in English. Then, she told the State Board of Education on Friday, when the child’s mother sought an evaluation for special education services, school officials denied the request based on his having a good grade.

Laura Boedeker, the state’s monitor overseeing special-education reforms,  acknowledged that schools vary in understanding the laws and best practices. Her job, she said, “is to have those discussions and explain what good practices look like.”

That’s not likely to satisfy parents and advocates pushing for quicker action that would help families like the third-grader’s. On Friday, they pressed authorities like Boedeker, who previously served as the district’s in-house attorney.

But with a staff of just three, including herself, it’s not clear how fast Boedeker can move. In 4½ months on the job, she’s only visited 10 of the district’s 600-plus schools.

“Do you have enough boots on the ground, enough help to do this work at the rate you need to do it?” asked Illinois State Board of Education member Susie Morrison.

“We could have an army and not have enough boots on the ground,” said Stephanie Jones, the board’s general counsel.  “What we need more than anything is eyes and ears that tell us what is going on so we can take action. Unless we can put an ISBE employee in every school, which is unrealistic, we need parents and teachers and staff members to tell us what is going on.”

Recognizing the lag in responding to parents, the state board is weighing whether to extend the one-year deadline for filing complaints about denied or improper services.

It’s possible, Jones said, that “we can wave this until we have a system of corrective action in place.”

Neither the state nor district have answered questions like: How many students could be eligible? When exactly will the system go into effect?  And what roles should advocates and schools play?

Boedeker said that federal officials have insisted that teams who put together students’ individualized education programs be involved in the remedy, because “they’re the ones on the front lines with these students.” 

But lawyer Matt Cohen said he and other advocates want a process that involves more people than the IEP team.

A child who, for example, went without a one-on-one aide for many months or who didn’t get placed in therapeutic day school when needed “might have had a profound loss,” Cohen said.

How the district will compensate that family is the question.  

“They may need more than just a few hours of tutoring to make up for that, they may need months and months of additional services and a specialized process to help them catch up,” Cohen said.  “We’re encouraging families whose kids were hurt to bring their complaints to the state, and to seek action to get their individual child’s needs met.”

Jones said that board officials and the school district, federal government and special education advocates are discussing school guidelines for identifying students harmed, notifying their families, assessing damages and offering remedies.

About half a year has passed since a state probe found the school district violated students’ rights by routinely delaying and denying services — like aides, therapy, outside placement and busing — to students in what the district calls its Diverse Learners Program.

The state board’s Jones and Boedeker tried to placate critics by preaching patience.

“From the outside looking in it looks really slow,” Jones said, “but I think we’ve accomplished a great deal in the time we have had.”

Patience doesn’t sit well with parents desperately worried about their children.

Laurel Henson, whose son suffers from seizures, said she’s been pushing to get a nurse on staff at Smyser Elementary for two years, but has encountered “delays and excuses.” On Nov. 1 the school finally granted a meeting to discuss an IEP, she said.

“In that time, he’s had a significant increase in seizures at his school causing fatigue, aggression and bed wetting during the night,” she said. Despite her hopes for the monitor, “ nothing has improved for my son and it now feels like neither CPS nor the state are accountable for ensuring students like my son have a free and appropriate education.”


ethnic studies

50 years in, why the fight for Mexican-American studies in schools is still in its early stages

PHOTO: Annie Wells/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Sonia Salazar, a college student, joins over 1,000 people to commemorate the historic East LA student walkouts of 1968 earlier this year. Mexican-American Studies courses are gaining traction now in K-12 schools after years of growth in higher education, a panel concluded during a recent civil rights conference in San Antonio.

Thirteen-year-old Alejandra Del Bosque knows not everyone gets to take a class like hers.

In it, she’s learned about Mexican-American students who staged walkouts in the late 1960s and early 1970s to protest the lack of resources available to their schools. She’s also learned how her state’s school funding system has still been deemed inadequate in recent court rulings.

“There was so much to learn about my heritage that I didn’t know,” Del Bosque said. “But from what I understand, it’s a unique class that’s not everywhere. For me, as a Mexican-American, it’s exciting.”

Her experience remains relatively rare. Fifty years after televised civil rights hearings galvanized the Chicano movement, academics and activists agree that the push for Mexican-American studies still lacks basic resources. And though interest is increasing, in part thanks to President Trump, growth has been slow — especially in K-12 schools, since college-level programs have traditionally gotten more attention.

“That was a big mistake we made,” Juan Tejeda, a professor at Palo Alto College, said last week. “There should have always been a focus on developing culturally relevant curriculum from pre-K through 12.”

He spoke at an event commemorating the 1968 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Hearings on Mexican-Americans in the Southwest, where he and others took stock of the movement that emerged in the decades since to better engage Latino students. (Of the 58 million Latinos in the U.S., nearly two-thirds are of Mexican descent, and most were born in the U.S.)

That’s long been a challenge for schools, especially as most educators are white. Some research has suggested that when students see themselves reflected in their curriculum, test scores and graduation rates rise. Another study found that taking an ethnic studies course helped reduce dropout rates.

Not many students have access to those courses, though. There’s no solid national data on how many school districts have some form of Mexican-American studies in their schools. California is understood to have taken the lead, while Tejeda estimated that only about 38 of more than 1,000 Texas districts have started a program.

That’s partly due to ongoing political opposition.

Arizona’s ban on teaching Mexican-American studies back in 2010 was a wake-up call for the movement, Tejeda said. (Last year, a federal court ruled that the state’s move was “racist and unconstitutional,” but Tucson hasn’t reinstated its program yet.)

Over the last decade, Mexican-American professors built a network that evolved into a group called Somos MAS. The group began a push for a standard high school elective course in Texas.

After four years of lobbying, the Texas board of education approved the course last year. Battles have also turned toward materials: When the book to be used in schools for Mexican-American studies was released in 2016, it was described by many Chicano scholars as racist for its portrayal of Mexican-Americans as lazy and un-American. That book was later thrown out, as was another the board didn’t like in 2017. Then came a debate over the course’s name, which just ended in September.

Those fights were about more than details – they were about granting the topic legitimacy, and about making it easy for teachers to introduce the material, said Lilliana Patricia Saldaña, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

“There were already some teachers here or there taking upon themselves to incorporate the studies into the schools, but it was sporadic, and accurate materials weren’t always easy to find,” Saldaña said. “Approving a course that can be aligned with state standards is ideal and would allow for the programs to be more streamlined.”

Another key challenge: in many cases, limited student interest. At the college level, Our Lady of The Lake University — the host of the hearings in 1968 and the conference last week — considered nixing its Mexican-American studies program in 2012 because of the small number of participating students. It was later saved.

“That also reminded us that if we don’t fight to keep these programs, they will be lost,” Tejeda said. “But what we needed to do was focus on getting students interested while they are younger.”

Saldaña says student interest has grown more recently thanks to political rhetoric around immigration, specifically from President Donald Trump. Trump has disparaged Mexican immigrants, questioned the impartiality of a Mexican-American judge, and made wanting to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border the center of many political speeches.

“Between what we are seeing with the current administration in office, and the battle here on the ground over the course we have been fighting for, students are getting a real-time lesson,” Saldaña said.

Somos MAS now hosts an annual summit for K-12 educators to come learn about Mexican-American Studies and how to integrate lessons into their classrooms. The University of Texas at San Antonio also offers a summer training institute that has drawn nearly 100 teachers at its most recent gathering.

It’s not nearly enough, the panelists said. “What needs to happen next is a focus on building infrastructure: such as more teacher training opportunities on how to incorporate MAS in their classrooms; a teacher certificate in Mexican-American Studies, and more advanced degrees in ethnic studies so students see a future in this field of work,” Saldaña said.

Students from KIPP Camino Academy. (Photo by Francisco Vara-Orta)

One school that has moved ahead with Mexican-American studies course is KIPP Camino Academy in San Antonio. After a pilot program two years ago, the class is now an elective for seventh- and eighth-graders.

On Friday, 20 of the KIPP students watched the discussion on the 50-year fight to get Mexican-American studies in their schools with their instructor, JoAnn Trujillo.

“Some of these kids have driven by the university here and never have gotten to step foot on its grounds,” Trujillo said. “So us being here — in part because of the program, and seeing how Mexican-American studies is something special that had to be fought for many years — will plant seeds about going to college and feeling more self-worth.”