Are Children Learning

House Speaker Brian Bosma: Dump ISTEP for a new exam

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Frustrations with repeated problems with ISTEP have lawmakers looking for solutions.

An idea to scrap Indiana’s state standardized test in favor of an “off-the-shelf” test could make a comeback during this year’s legislative session.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, resurrected a call for a cheaper, more widely used test that turns over results to educators faster.

“It’s time for a new brand,” Bosma said. “The Senate was on that wagon last year, we didn’t really have the flexibility to do that last year, but with the change to the (No Child Left Behind Law), we have time to explore those.”

Citing recurring problems, several lawmakers today said action on ISTEP was needed. Last year’s ISTEP scores, normally released in the summer, are still delayed after repeated problems with scoring by the company Indiana hired to create and administer the exam.

Last week the Indianapolis Star reported supervisors who work at the company blew the whistle that it failed to fix another technical glitch that could mark some right answers as wrong for some students.

Legislative leaders spoke today on a panel at a legislative conference hosted by a law firm Bingham Greenebaum Doll.

“I think we’ve discussed enough,” said Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek. “I think it’s time to make a fundamental change, and on a lot of this I think we’re in broad agreement.”

Last year’s overhauled ISTEP, tied for the first time to Indiana’s tougher new standards, caused student test scores to drop sharply. That could mean schools earn far fewer A-grades and more F’s. It also could hurt pay raises for teachers, many of which are based in part on ISTEP scores.

The call to dump ISTEP is surprising for several reasons.

First, it was the legislature that derailed Indiana’s plan to adopt shared standards with other states and use an off-the-shelf test, known as PARCC, to measure student learning. That move gave ISTEP new life in 2014.

But then last year, key Senate Republicans raised concerns that the overhauled ISTEP was too costly. Led by Sen. Luke Kenley, a Noblesville Republican and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, the Senate made a push for Indiana to dump ISTEP and replace it with a different “off-the-shelf” exam. Kenley frequently suggested that an exam created by the Northwest Evaluation Association, now used to prepare students for ISTEP, could serve the state’s needs instead of ISTEP.

But that idea did not catch on, especially in the Indiana House.

After months of back-and-forth between House and Senate Republicans over how to curtail testing costs, the two-year state budget included money to pay for two more years of ISTEP, this time switching to British-based testing company Pearson to create the exam.

But in 2016, it sounds like the House leadership could jump on board with the plan to ditch ISTEP in the future. However, it’s not yet clear what kind of test flexibility will be allowed under the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which transitions over from No Child Left Behind in August 2016. The ESSA’s language says once-per-year statewide tests must be “summative,” which are tests that capture student scores at one moment in time. Formative tests, like NWEA, measure student growth over time.

Bosma said last year he didn’t want to move too quickly to make testing changes, but he was open to ideas for other tests. He echoed those same sentiments today in light of the problems with the 2015 test, which include not one, but two, scoring problems and disparities between difficulty in online and paper versions.

The issues have led to delays in the public release of ISTEP scores, now expected in January, which also holds up teacher pay decisions and school A-F grades. New more challenging academic standards rolled out last year also mean passing rates are expected to drop about 16 percentage points in English and 24 percentage points in math.

Under current law, schools that receive F-grades can face serious consequences, including being taken over by the state if they can’t raise grades after four years. Teachers who repeatedly see low ratings can face dismissal and might not be eligible for pay raises.

Although Bosma said he didn’t think an ISTEP solution could be finalized this year, he thought legislators could “set the stage” for a change in 2017.

“There is a solution that still measures Indiana’s rigorous standards appropriately, whether it’s a supplement to an off-the-shelf test … but we’ve got to put a framework together,” he said.

Democrats on the panel pointed out that they already proposed a solution to relieve schools from the effects of ISTEP score drops last month on Organization Day, the symbolic start of the session. But the plan received no support from Republican leaders, who hold super-majority control in the legislature and can pass bills without any Democratic support.

“The ISTEP situation has to be resolved,” Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said. “We think that it would do well to either do a hold harmless type of approach in terms of the using those tests for the things that we use them for or to simply do a pause because we think that this year’s test wasn’t valid.”

Bosma and other Republican leaders haven’t supported such a pause, but he mentioned the state might consider using a two- or three-year average of past grades for 2015 instead. He said he isn’t sure such a measure would be allowed under Indiana’s waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Law, but his team is actively talking with federal education officials.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, has long supported the “hold harmless” approach, which would only require schools to publicize 2015 A-F grades if they are better or the same as 2014 grades. Samantha Hart, Ritz’s spokeswoman, has said such one-year pauses are “consistent with the spirit of the flexibility (the U.S. Department of Education) has offered.”

Hart said ISTEP score or other letter grade adjustments may or may not fall into that category.

“(Federal officials) have told us that anything outside of hold harmless will have to go through the peer review process,” Hart said in an email. “And we do not know if that would be approved or not, or how long that process could take.”

Gov. Mike Pence announced last month that he backed a proposal to “decouple” student scores from teacher evaluations and bonus pay. Bosma said a bill with such language protecting teachers from the sting of lower test scores would be fast-tracked when the session begins in January.

But so far, Pence has not said what approach he would support to adjust A-F grades.

“Governor Pence has committed to and continues to work with legislative leadership to ensure that test results will not negatively impact teacher bonuses,” Pence’s spokeswoman, Kara Brooks, said in a statement. “And that the A-F system fairly reflects the efforts of our students and teachers this year.”

more digging

Kingsbury High added to list of Memphis schools under investigation for grade changing

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Kingsbury High School was added to a list of schools being investigated by an outside firm for improper grade changes. Here, Principal Terry Ross was featured in a Shelby County Schools video about a new school budget tool.

Another Memphis high school has been added to the list of schools being investigated to determine if they made improper changes to student grades.

Adding Kingsbury High School to seven others in Shelby County Schools will further delay the report initially expected to be released in mid-June.

But from what school board Chairwoman Shante Avant has heard so far, “there haven’t been any huge irregularities.”

“Nothing has surfaced that gives me pause at this point,” Avant told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

The accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman is conducting the investigation.

This comes about three weeks after a former Kingsbury teacher, Alesia Harris, told school board members that Principal Terry Ross instructed someone to change 17 student exam grades to 100 percent — against her wishes.

Shelby County Schools said the allegations were “inaccurate” and that the grade changes were a mistake that was self-reported by an employee.

“The school administration immediately reported, and the central office team took the necessary actions and promptly corrected the errors,” the district said in a statement.

Chalkbeat requested a copy of the district’s own initial investigation the day after Harris spoke at the board’s June meeting, but district officials said they likely would not have a response for Chalkbeat until July 27.

Harris said that no one from Dixon Hughes Goodman has contacted her regarding the investigation as of Thursday.

The firm’s investigation initially included seven schools. Kingsbury was not among them. Those seven schools are:

  • Kirby High
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Bolton High
  • Westwood High
  • White Station High
  • Trezevant High
  • Memphis Virtual School

The firm’s first report found as many as 2,900 failing grades changed during four years at nine Memphis-area schools. At the request of the board, two schools were eliminated: one a charter managed by a nonprofit, and a school outside the district. The firm said at the time that further investigation was warranted to determine if the grade changes were legitimate.

The $145,000 investigation includes interviews with teachers and administrators, comparing teachers’ paper grade books to electronic versions, accompanying grade change forms, and inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades.

Since the controversy started last year, the district has restricted the number of employees authorized to make changes to a student’s report card or transcript, and also requires a monthly report from principals detailing any grade changes.

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.

The three charts below illustrate, by subject, the percentages of students who performed on track or better in elementary, middle, and high schools within Shelby County Schools. The blue bars reflect the district’s most recent scores, the black bars show last year’s scores, and the yellow bars depict this year’s statewide averages.

Hopson said he was unsure how much the 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.

Chalkbeat illustrator Sam Park contributed to this story.