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.”

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on, where this post first appeared.

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.”