new testing plan

ISTEP panel proposes mostly tweaks after months of work

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in IPS School 91's multi-age first-, second- and third-grade classroom work on math activities.

After months of meandering conversation, a state committee charged with finding a replacement for the hated ISTEP exam seems to have fallen short of its goal of revamping the test and instead has only been able to propose minor changes and tweaks.

The new test program endorsed by the state’s ISTEP panel this morning calls for students in grades 3-8 to take one exam in English and math at the end of the year, and for 10th-grade, students would return to taking exams in English, Algebra I and biology at the end of the year. The main differences would be that tests are given in one period, rather than two spread throughout the winter and spring.

“It has been a long and tedious process,” said ISTEP replacement panel Chairwoman Nicole Fama, a principal in Indianapolis Public Schools. “But without everyone’s input and support we wouldn’t be where we are today.” Other panel members include lawmakers, policymakers and educators.

There was no discussion today about the recommendations, crafted mostly over email in the past week.

Read all our coverage of ISTEP and other testing issues here.

Formed by the Indiana General Assembly earlier this year, the panel was asked to address lawmakers’ concerns that ISTEP was not credible and was administered poorly. Members cited lack of public trust in the test and scoring and technical problems that have plagued ISTEP since it was retooled for 2015 to match new, more rigorous state standards.

The panel now suggests that the state consider using off-the-shelf tests or questions rather than create an entirely new test. Using existing questions from outside vendors, which could include Common Core-linked exams, is a cheaper option, and one that lawmakers have indicated they’d support.

That’s a big change from what Indiana lawmakers decided in 2013 and 2014, when they voted overwhelmingly to leave Common Core and its associated PARCC test.

“There’s no question that under current state law we have the flexibility (to use other questions or our own),” said Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, a panel member and leader of the House Education Committee. “You can use other products that are out there. PARCC, Smarter Balanced all are selling bits and pieces.”

Behning also said federal testing requirements could change under the new U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. For example, states might have more freedom to create innovative testing models like New Hampshire’s project-based local exams, which Behning has said he might support. Those tests, however, are expensive to create and take years to develop.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz and Ayana Wilson-Coles, a teacher in Pike Township, were the only two panel members who voted against the plan. Ritz has called for a completely different kind of test that would be given in multiple parts throughout the year and rely heavily on computer-based technology. She says such a test would be more helpful to educators and students.

The committee made no move to address the state’s third grade reading test, which is currently given in addition to ISTEP.

In order to graduate, students would still be expected to pass tests in English and math. The state would, for the first time, pay for students to take a college or a career readiness test, such as the SAT, ACT or military entrance exam.

The recommendations next go to the legislature, which goes into session in January. But lawmakers are not required to follow them. Behning wasn’t specific about how the panel’s work might be used in a future bill.

“We haven’t discussed it,” Behning said. “There’s no question I’ll probably have some language (for a bill), yes, at some point in time.”

Sharing Stories

Tell us your stories about children with special needs in Detroit

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Parents of students with special needs face difficult challenges when trying to get services for their children. Understanding their children’s rights, getting them evaluated and properly diagnosed, and creating an educational plan are among the many issues families face.

Chalkbeat Detroit wants to hear more about those issues to help inform our coverage. We are kicking off a series of conversations called a “listening tour” to discuss your concerns, and our first meeting will focus on children with special needs and disabilities. We’re partnering with the Detroit Parent Network as they look for solutions and better ways to support parents.

Our listening tour, combined with similar events in other communities Chalkbeat serves, will continue throughout this year on a variety of topics. In these meetings, we’ll look to readers, parents, educators, and students to help us know what questions we should ask, and we’ll publish stories from people who feel comfortable having their stories told. We hope you’ll share your stories and explore solutions to the challenges parents face.

Our special education listening tour discussion will take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m., Tuesday July 24, at the Detroit Parent Network headquarters, 726 Lothrop St., Detroit.

As our series continues, we’ll meet at locations around the city to hear stories and experiences parents have while navigating the complexities of getting children the education and services they deserve.

Next week’s event includes a panel discussion with parents of children with special needs, responses from parent advocates, and an open discussion with audience members.

Those who are uncomfortable sharing stories publicly will have a chance to tell a personal story on an audio recorder in a private room, or will be interviewed by a Chalkbeat Detroit reporter privately.

The event is free and open to anyone who wants to attend, but reservations are required because space is limited. To register, call 313-309-8100 or email frontdesk@detroitparentnetwork.org.

If you can’t make our event, but have a story to share, send an email to tips.detroit@chalkbeat.org, or call or send a text message to 313-404-0692.

Stayed tuned for more information about listening tour stops, topics and locations.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.