Are Children Learning

Is Indiana’s state ISTEP exam too easy?

PHOTO: Shannan Muskopf via Flickr
State officials are closing as many 38 Michigan schools with low rankings due to test scores but they might have trouble finding higher scoring schools nearby

Indiana’s standardized tests might have gotten so much harder last year that test scores plunged across the state, but two national testing experts say the exam might technically still be too easy according to an earlier study.

“The Indiana test was relatively low-level,” said Ed Roeber, a former Michigan testing director asked to consult on ISTEP.

The 2015 ISTEP exam might have seemed tougher to students and teachers. The state saw a 20 percentage point drop in students passing both English and math last year.

But when Roeber and another testing expert, Derek Briggs, were asked by the Indiana State Board of Education to conduct a review of that exam in January, they discovered that exam questions were not as rigorous as they should have been. The state adopted new academic standards in 2014 that were designed to better prepare kids for college and careers. The new standards were said to be much tougher.

Try it out: 18 practice questions to prepare for Indiana’s 2016 ISTEP test.

Indiana officials brought on Roeber and Briggs on to advise them on the ISTEP last year in the wake of scoring glitches, delays and accuracy questions that raised concerns about the validity and reliability of exam. After examining an earlier study of the test by the education research group WestEd, the pair noted that Indiana’s test questions do accurately reflect the standards, but suggested that they might still be too easy.

The analysis from Roeber and Briggs reached no conclusions on whether the standards themselves are meeting the state’s goals, but the pair found that too many questions on last year’s ISTEP test were too easy.

Specifically, the experts cited the WestEd study that found a majority of the questions on the 2015 exam were fact-based questions that asked students to merely to recall information rather than do higher-level thinking. More than 80 percent of questions on the English exam and every single question on the math test were found to be low-level basic questions.

The test had very few more difficult questions that would have required students to describe or explain a scenario, use evidence to back up answers or test a hypothesis and make connections beyond the facts at hand.

“The fact that (a test question) aligns with the standards is good, but it doesn’t imply that it’s measuring the standards to the same depth the standard is written at,” Roeber said.

What remains unclear is why the questions were too easy. The fault could rest with the test, which was written hastily after lawmakers voted to drop the Common Core and write Indiana-specific standards in 2014. Test questions weren’t tried out on students until the test was actually given last spring — a highly unusual practice in a testing industry in which test questions are typically piloted over several years before being used on an exam, Roeber said.

The Indiana Department of Education decided against using questions from previous tests that could have saved some time, said Cynthia Roach, the state board’s testing director.

Another possible reason for the easy test questions is the state’s standards themselves. It’s not clear just how rigorous Indiana’s standards really are. Until the standards are properly evaluated using the same metrics as the test, Roeber said, the state’s policymakers can’t really know if ISTEP is measuring what kids are expected to learn better than past tests.

It might seem technical, but the mismatch between the standards and the questions could be important. Indiana still must submit its test for review by the U.S. Department of Education for its waiver from the No Child Left Behind law, still in effect until August. Any misalignment between the test and standards could be problematic.

“That’s one of the key things that the peer reviewer will look for is the measure of the rigor of the test, and if this misstates that, then you definitely have the right to challenge the vendor,” Roeber said.

The state’s new testing advisory committee is taking the suggestions from the analysis to try to move forward, Roach said. Nothing can be addressed in time for the 2016 test, which students have already started taking, but questions should be reassessed and Indiana should look into deeper measurement of its standards, Roeber said.

The Indiana Department of Education, which administers the test, declined to make its testing director available for an interview to discuss Roeber and Briggs’ analysis, but Department spokeswoman Samantha Hart issued a statement saying the test was hard enough.

“As with any assessment, there are going to be questions that are more and less rigorous than others — The new ISTEP+ exam is no different,” Hart wrote. “Anyone who thinks that last year’s ISTEP wasn’t hard enough should go talk to a student or a teacher or a parent. This test was clearly more rigorous, just like our standards.”

testing 1-2-3

Tennessee students to test the test under reworked computer platform

PHOTO: Getty Images

About 45,000 high school students in a third of Tennessee districts will log on Tuesday for a 40-minute simulation to make sure the state’s testing company has worked the bugs out of its online platform.

That platform, called Nextera, was rife with glitches last spring, disrupting days of testing and mostly disqualifying the results from the state’s accountability systems for students, teachers, and schools.

This week’s simulation is designed to make sure those technical problems don’t happen again under Questar, which in June will finish out its contract to administer the state’s TNReady assessment.

Tuesday’s trial run will begin at 8:30 a.m. in participating high schools statewide to simulate testing scheduled for Nov. 26-Dec. 14, when some students will take their TNReady exams. Another simulation is planned before spring testing begins in April on a much larger scale.

The simulation is expected to involve far more than the 30,000 students who will test in real life after Thanksgiving. It also will take into account that Tennessee is split into two time zones.

“We’re looking at a true simulation,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, noting that students on Eastern Time will be submitting their trial test forms while students on Central Time are logging on to their computers and tablets.

The goal is to verify that Questar, which has struggled to deliver a clean TNReady administration the last two years, has fixed the online problems that caused headaches for students who tried unsuccessfully to log on or submit their end-of-course tests.


Here’s a list of everything that went wrong with TNReady testing in 2018


The two primary culprits were functions that Questar added after a successful administration of TNReady last fall but before spring testing began in April: 1) a text-to-speech tool that enabled students with special needs to receive audible instructions; and 2) coupling the test’s login system with a new system for teachers to build practice tests.

Because Questar made the changes without conferring with the state, the company breached its contract and was docked $2.5 million out of its $30 million agreement.

“At the end of the day, this is about vendor execution,” McQueen told members of the State Board of Education last week. “We feel like there was a readiness on the part of the department and the districts … but our vendor execution was poor.”

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

She added: “That’s why we’re taking extra precautions to verify in real time, before the testing window, that things have actually been accomplished.”

By the year’s end, Tennessee plans to request proposals from other companies to take over its testing program beginning in the fall of 2019, with a contract likely to be awarded in April.

The administration of outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam has kept both of Tennessee’s top gubernatorial candidates — Democrat Karl Dean and Republican Bill Lee — in the loop about the process. Officials say they want to avoid the pitfalls that happened as the state raced to find a new vendor in 2014 after the legislature pulled the plug on participating in a multi-state testing consortium known as PARCC.


Why state lawmakers share the blame, too, for TNReady testing headaches


“We feel like, during the first RFP process, there was lots of content expertise, meaning people who understood math and English language arts,” McQueen said. “But the need to have folks that understand assessment deeply as well as the technical side of assessment was potentially missing.”

Academic Accountability

Coming soon: Not one, but two ratings for every Chicago school

Starting this month, Chicago schools will have to juggle two ratings — one from the school district, and another from the state.

The Illinois State Board of Education is scheduled to release on October 31 its annual report cards for schools across the state. This year, for the first time, each school will receive one of four quality stamps from the state: an “exemplary” or “commendable” rating signal the school is meeting standards while an “underperforming” or “lowest performing” designation could trigger intervention, according to state board of education spokeswoman Jackie Matthews.

A federal accountability law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, requires these new ratings.

To complicate matters, the city and state ratings are each based on different underlying metrics and even a different set of standardized tests. The state ratings, for example, are based on a modified version of the PARCC assessment, while Chicago ratings are based largely on the NWEA. The new state ratings, like those the school district issues, can be given out without observers ever having visited a classroom, which is why critics argue that the approach lacks the qualitative metrics necessary to assess the learning, teaching, and leadership at individual schools.

Patricia Brekke, principal at Back of the Yards College Preparatory High School, said she’s still waiting to see how the ratings will be used, “and how that matters for us,” but that parents at her school aren’t necessarily focused on what the state says.

“What our parents usually want to know is what [Chicago Public Schools] says about us, and how we’re doing in comparison to other schools nearby that their children are interested in,” she said.

Educators at Chicago Public Schools understand the power of school quality ratings.  The district already has its own five-tiered rating system: Level 1+ and Level 1 designate the highest performing schools, Level 2+ and Level 2 describe for average and below average performing schools, respectively, and Level 3, the lowest performance rating, is for schools in need of “intensive intervention.” The ratings help parents decide where to enroll their children, and are supposed to signal to the district that the school needs more support. But the ratings are also the source of angst — used to justify replacing school leaders, closing schools, or opening new schools in neighborhoods where options are deemed inadequate.

In contrast, the state’s school quality designations actually target underperforming and lowest-performing schools with additional federal funding and support with the goal of improving student outcomes. Matthews said schools will work with “school support managers” from the state to do a self-inquiry and identify areas for improvement. She described Chicago’s school quality rating system as “a local dashboard that they have developed to communicate with their communities.”

Staff from the Illinois State Board of Education will be traveling around the state next week to meet with district leaders and principals to discuss the new accountability system, including the ratings. They’ll be in Bloomington, Marion, O’Fallon, Chicago, and Melrose Park. The Chicago meeting is Wednesday, Oct. 24, at 5 p.m. at Chicago Public Schools headquarters.

Rae Clementz, director of assessment and accountability at the state board said that a second set of ratings reveals “that there are multiple valid ways to look at school quality and success; it’s a richer picture.”

Under auspices of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the state school report cards released at the end of the month for elementary schools are 75 percent based on academics, including English language arts and math test scores, English learner progress as measured by the ACCESS test, and academic growth. The other 25 percent reflects the school climate and success, such as attendance and chronic absenteeism.

Other measures are slated to be phased in over the next several years, including academic indicators like science proficiency and school quality indicators, such as school climate surveys of staff, students and parents

High school designations take a similar approach with English and math test scores but will take into account graduation rates, instead of academic growth, and also includes the percentage of  9th graders on track to graduate — that is freshmen who earn 10 semester credits, and no more than one semester F in a core course.

Critics of Chicago’s school rating system argue that the ratings correlate more with socioeconomic status and race than they do school quality, and say little about what’s happening in classrooms and how kids are learning. Chicago does try to mitigate these issues with a greater emphasis on growth in test scores rather than absolute attainment, school climate surveys, and including academic growth by priority groups, like African-American, Latino, ELL, and students in special education.

Cory Koedel, a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Missouri, said that many rating systems basically capture poverty status with a focus on how high or low students score on tests. Chicago’s approach is fairer than that of many other school systems.

“What I like about this is it does seem to have a high weight on growth and lower weight on attainment levels,” he said.

Morgan Polikoff, a professor at University of Southern California’s school of education, said that Chicago’s emphasis on student growth is a good thing “if the purpose of the system is to identify schools doing a good job educating kids.”

Chicago weights 50 percent of the rating on growth, but he’s seen 35 to as low as 15 percent at other districts. But he said the school district’s reliance on the NWEA test rather than the PARCC test used in the state school ratings was atypical.

“It’s not a state test, and though they say it aligns with standards, I know from talking to educators that a lot of them feel the tests are not well aligned with what they are supposed to be teaching,” he said. “It’s just a little odd to me they would have state assessment data, which is what they are held accountable for with the state, but use the other data.”

He’s skeptical about school systems relying too heavily on standardized test scores, whether the SAT, PARCC or NWEA, because “You worry that now you’re just turning the curriculum to test prep, and that’s an incentive you don’t want to create for educators.”

He said the high school measures in particular include a wide array of measures, including measures that follow students into college, “so I love that.”

“I really like the idea of broadening the set of indicators on which we evaluate schools and encouraging schools to really pay attention to how well they prepare students for what comes next,” he said.