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.

To Do

Tennessee’s new ed chief says troubleshooting testing is first priority

PHOTO: (Caiaimage/Robert Daly)

Penny Schwinn knows that ensuring a smooth testing experience for Tennessee students this spring will be her first order of business as the state’s new education chief.

Even before Gov.-elect Bill Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, she was poring over a recent report by the state’s chief investigator about what went wrong with TNReady testing last spring and figuring out her strategy for a different outcome.

“My first days will be spent talking with educators and superintendents in the field to really understand the scenario here in Tennessee,” said Schwinn, who’s been chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas since 2016.

“I’ll approach this problem with a healthy mixture of listening and learning,” she added.

Schwinn’s experience with state assessment programs in Texas and in Delaware — where she was assistant secretary of education — is one of the strengths cited by Lee in selecting her for one of his most critical cabinet posts.

The Republican governor-elect has said that getting TNReady right is a must after three straight years of missteps in administration and scoring in Tennessee’s transition to online testing. Last year, technical disruptions interrupted so many testing days that state lawmakers passed emergency legislation ordering that poor scores couldn’t be used to penalize students, teachers, schools, or districts.

Schwinn, 36, recalls dealing with testing headaches during her first days on the job in Texas.

“We had testing disruptions. We had test booklets mailed to the wrong schools. We had answer documents in testing booklets. We had online administration failures,” she told Chalkbeat. “From that, we brought together teachers, superintendents, and experts to figure out solutions, and we had a near-perfect administration of our assessment the next year.”

What she learned in the process: the importance of tight vendor management, including setting clear expectations of what’s expected.

She plans to use the same approach in Tennessee, working closely with people in her new department and Questar Assessment, the state’s current vendor.

“Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

The test itself has gotten good reviews in Tennessee; it’s the online miscues that have many teachers and parents questioning the switch from paper-and-pencil exams. Schwinn sees no choice but to forge ahead online and is quick to list the benefits.

“If you think about how children learn and access information today, many are getting that information from hand-held devices and computers,” she said, “so reflecting that natural experience in our classrooms is incredibly important.”

Schwinn said computerized testing also holds promise for accommodating students with disabilities and provides for a more engaging experience for all students.

“When you look at the multiple-choice tests that we took in school and compare that to an online platform where students can watch videos, perform science experiments, do drag-and-drop and other features, students are just more engaged in the content,” she said.

“It’s a more authentic experience,” she added, “and therefore a better measure of learning.”

Schwinn plans to examine Tennessee’s overall state testing program to look for ways to reduce the number of minutes dedicated to assessment and also to elevate transparency.

She also will oversee the transition when one or more companies take over the state’s testing program beginning next school year. Former Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered a new request for proposals from vendors to provide paper testing for younger students and online testing for older ones. State officials have said they hope to award the contract by spring.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee plan to provide another layer of oversight.

Spring testing in Tennessee is scheduled to begin on April 15. You can learn more about TNReady on the state education department’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about problems with the handling of two education contracts in Texas. 

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

Districts here: