Are Children Learning

Indiana's big test score gains prompt debate over cause

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Indiana fourth graders made big gains on a national test, which released scores today.

Indiana fourth graders made big gains on a national test of reading and math known as the “nation’s report card,” according to data released today.

Indiana’s 2013 gains were top five among the 50 states on both fourth grade reading and math. Eighth graders posted smaller gains in both reading and math. Hoosier test takers scored above the national average on all four exams administered.

““I am encouraged by the gains that Hoosier students showed on these tests, particularly their gains in the fourth grade,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz said in a statement. “This is yet another sign of the hard work and dedication exhibited by our educators, administrators, parents, and most importantly, students every day in our schools.”

The state’s success instantly renewed debate about reforms pushed by former Gov. Mitch Daniels and ex-state Superintendent Tony Bennett over four years beginning in 2008.

Bennett was defeated in the 2012 election in a stunning upset by current state Superintendent Glenda Ritz. Eric A. Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, said Bennett’s fight for reform may have cost him his job but it appears to have yielded improvements.

“I think we’re starting to see results,” said Eric A. Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. “These battles are hard-fought, and if we didn’t see any results, then we might wonder if it’s worth it.”

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, attributed the gains to standards reform in the early 2000s, specifically rejecting Bennett and Daniels’ policies as a reason for the improvement.

“The work started long before,” Meredith said. “It was prior to Tony Bennett. In my mind this does not attribute anything positive necessarily to his tenure. It doesn’t negate him it. It just doesn’t support him.”

In an interview, Bennett rejected Meredith’s analysis. The children who took the fourth grade tests weren’t born when the standards were reworked a decade ago, he said, and during that period, the state saw mostly small gains.

“My answer is, what changed?” he said. “Mitch Daniels had a vision to make Indiana’s education system a pillar of his administration, and we passed some pretty bold reforms. I think the policy framework we put in place afforded schools the opportunity to expect more of children, and I applaud the fact our children have answered that call.”

Daniel Altman, a spokesman for Ritz, said nobody should try to claim credit for the good results.

“It is disappointing but not surprising that people are trying to politicize these results,” Altman said. “Today’s news should be about celebrating the hard work put in by our teachers and students every day, not politics.”

The tests, known formally as the National Assessment of Education Progress, or NAEP, are given every two years in math and reading to a sample of fourth and eighth graders in every state. Indiana’s scores have made strong gains in math over the last decade, but mostly smaller gains in reading.

Across the country, Tennessee, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia saw the biggest across-the-board gains this year, though scores for Washington, D.C., especially still rank among the nation’s lowest. Tennessee and Washington, D.C., saw unusually dramatic gains across both grades and subjects. (See Chalkbeat Tennessee’s story on that stat’s best-in-the-nation gains here.)

U.S. Secretary of State Arne Duncan attributed the variations among states to what he called “extraordinary leadership” at the state level from officials who have “done some very difficult and courageous work” raising standards.

That praise, Hanushek said, should extend to Indiana.

“This certainly suggests strongly that some of the things they were trying to do have in fact taken hold and have in fact led to some improvement,” he said.

Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis and chair of the House Education Committee, said credit for better fourth-grade reading scores lies with the IREAD third grade reading test and a rule that prevented some kids from being promoted if they failed it.

“I think it validates that we have a lot of great teachers and hopefully the reforms can take some credit for the successes that we’ve had,” he said. “You’d have to tie IREAD to that. It’s been in place for a couple of years.”

But Meredith said when she was teaching kindergarten, it was Indiana’s new standards that made the biggest change in her classroom.

“This wasn’t just in the last two or three years,” she said. “This was long term. It made me, as a kindergarten teacher, really think about every thing I did.”

Standards are back at the center of education debates in Indiana, as legislators have asked the Indiana State Board of Education to reexamine its commitment to national Common Core standards that the state adopted in 2010.

Duncan, speaking about the national results, emphasized that none of the eight states that adopted Common Core standards earliest saw statistically significant score decreases between 2009 and 2013 — though many of those states didn’t see big increases, either.

“We’re not seeing yet the transformational change nationwide, but we are seeing meaningful, but generally modest progress,” Duncan said.

Meredith said the NAEP scores show that Indiana’s prior standards were good and some of them probably should be maintained as the state adopts Common Core.

“I think it highlights that our standards have been rigorous,” she said. “It’s not a judgement positive or negative on Common Core. We should ask what was significant to teachers, and is it in Common Core? If not, it needs to be included.”

Testing reboot

ACT do-overs pay off for 40 percent of Tennessee high school seniors who tried

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Tennessee’s $2 million investment in helping high school seniors retake the ACT test appears to be paying off for a second year in a row.

Almost three-fourths of the class of 2018 took the national college entrance test last fall for a second time, doubling the participation rate in Tennessee’s ACT Senior Retake Day for public schools. State officials announced Wednesday that 40 percent of the do-overs resulted in a higher overall score.

Of the 52,000 students who participated in the initiative’s second year, 2,333 raised their average composite to a 21 or higher, making them eligible for HOPE Scholarship funds of up to $16,000 for tuition. That’s potentially $37 million in state-funded scholarships.

In addition, Tennessee students are expected to save almost $8 million in remedial course costs — and a lot of time — since more of them hit college-readiness benchmarks that allow direct enrollment into credit-bearing coursework.

But besides the benefits to students, the early results suggest that Tennessee is inching closer to raising its ACT average to the national average of 21 by 2020, one of four goals in Tennessee’s five-year strategic plan.

After years of mostly stagnant scores, the state finally cracked 20 last year when the class of 2017 scored an average of 20.1, buoyed in part by the senior retake strategy.

(The ACT testing organization will release its annual report of state-by-state scores in August, based on the most recent test taken. Tennessee will release its own report based on the highest score, which is what colleges use.)

Tennessee is one of 13 states that require its juniors to take the ACT or SAT and, in an effort to boost scores, became the first to pay for public school seniors to retake their ACTs in 2016. Only a third of that class took advantage of the opportunity, but enough students scored higher to make it worth expanding the voluntary program in its second year.

Last fall, the state worked with local districts to make it easier for seniors to participate. The retake happened during the school day in students’ own schools, instead of on a Saturday morning at an ACT testing site.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the expanded access has paid off tenfold. “Now, more Tennessee students are able to access scholarship funding, gain admission to colleges and universities, and earn credit for their work from day one,” she said.

Of the state’s four urban districts, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, which serves Davidson County, increased its average composite score the most (up .5 to 18.4), followed by Hamilton County (up .3 to 19.4), and Shelby County Schools, (up .2 to 17.1). Knox County Schools and the state-run Achievement School District, which operates high schools in Memphis, saw slight drops from their retakes and will retain their higher average scores taken earlier.

Statewide, 10 school systems logged a half point or more of growth from their junior test day to the senior retake:

  • Anderson County, up .6 to 19.3
  • Arlington City, up .6 to 22.5
  • Collierville City, up .6 to 24.3
  • Davidson County, up .5 to 18.4
  • Franklin County, up .6 to 20.1
  • Haywood County, up .5 to 17.5
  • Henderson County, up .5 to 21.2
  • Humboldt City, up .8 to 17.4
  • Maryville City, up .5 to 22.1
  • Williamson County, up .6 to 24.1

Tennessee set aside up to $2.5 million to pay for its 2017 Retake Day, and Gov. Bill Haslam is expected to fund the initiative in the upcoming year as well. The state already pays for the first ACT testing day statewide, which it’s done since 2009.

Correction: January 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to show that, while the state set aside $2.5 million for its ACT retake initiative, it spent only $2 million on the program this fiscal year.

double take

Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Students work on assignments at Indianapolis Public Schools Center For Inquiry at School 27.

Imagine a scenario where Indiana schools get not just one A-F grade each year, but two.

One grade would determine whether a school can be taken over by the state. The other would comply with federal law asking states to track student test progress and how federal aid is spent. Both would count, but each would reflect different measures of achievement and bring different consequences.

This could be Indiana’s future if a state board-approved plan moves ahead at the same time the state is working on a conflicting plan to comply with a new federal law.

If it sounds complicated, that’s because it probably would be, said state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. Originally, A-F grades were intended to be an easy way for parents and community members to understand how their school is doing.

“It’s extremely confusing to have multiple accountability systems with multiple consequences,” McCormick told board members last week. “All along our message has been to get as much alignment as we can.”

Indiana would not be the first state to consider dual accountability systems — Colorado operated separate systems for years under No Child Left Behind and is now doing so again. Virginia, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have also had two models in years past. But this move would be a big departure from Indiana’s efforts over the past several years to simplify accountability, and education officials warn it could create more problems than it would solve.

Dale Chu, an education consultant who previously worked in Indiana under state Superintendent Tony Bennett, said it’s actually not common for states to have multiple systems, and doing so for political reasons, rather than what helps students and families, is concerning.

“We all know how confusing accountability systems can be when you just have one,” Chu said. “To create a bifurcated system, I don’t see how you gain additional clarity … I would certainly hope that if that’s the direction the state is going to move in, they are very thoughtful and intentional about it.”

The changes come as Indiana works to create a plan to comply with a new federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. McCormick’s education department has been working to align the federal system with Indiana’s grading system, and is struggling to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, most notably in the area of graduation requirements and diplomas.

At the same time the Indiana State Board of Education is negotiating this alignment, it is also revamping the A-F grade system.

A new grading proposal approved by the state board last week would put more emphasis on student test scores than the A-F system that now unifies state and federal requirements. Those new rules would include extra categories for grading schools, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan.

While that proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

Officials were already expecting to issue two sets of A-F grades to schools in 2018 — one state grade, and one federal — as the state continued to work all of Indiana’s unresolved education issues into the new federal plan. Figuring out how to ensure state graduation rates don’t plummet because of other federal rule changes dictating  which diplomas count and incorporating the new high school graduation requirements, for example, will take time — and legislation — to fix.

Read: Indiana has a curious plan to sidestep federal rules — give schools two A-F grades next year.

But ultimately, officials said, if some of the state board-approved changes make it into final policy, and Indiana’s federal plan doesn’t change to accommodate it, the state and federal accountability systems could remain at odds with each other — meaning schools would continue to get two grades after 2018.

The original intent was to have all Indiana’s state grading system line up with federal requirements before the plan was sent to federal officials in September. Then, once the federal government gave feedback, the state A-F revamp could continue.

But just this past fall, after the federal plan had been submitted, some members of the state board began adding in additional measures, some of which reflect their personal interests in how schools should be rated.

Those measures were added after board members had multiple chances to discuss the federal plan with the education department, conversations that were held in an attempt to ward off such changes this late in the game. Yet even last week at the state board’s monthly meeting, where the new grading changes were approved, some board members didn’t seem to realize until after the vote that the A-F systems would not match up.

David Freitas, a state board member, said he didn’t see the conflicting A-F grade rules as a problem. The board can make Indiana’s state A-F system whatever it wants, he said, and there will be plenty of time to iron out specifics as the rulemaking process unfolds over the next several months.

“We’re not banned from having two different systems,” Freitas said. “But we need to consider the implications and consequences of that.”

Read more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.