Are Children Learning

Explaining the ISTEP debate: 6 reasons why the test ballooned

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

The Indiana legislature is moving fast to cut at least three hours from the state ISTEP after two weeks of sharp words and behind-the-scenes negotiations over its length. Lawmakers are expected to rush a bill through both houses for the governor to sign next week to make the changes.

But with kids just days away from taking the exam, some are still asking: what caused the blow up?

The answer is a little complicated, but here are six reasons why ISTEP more than doubled in length from last year:

1. When standards change, tests must also change.

A big fight over Indiana’s academic standards last year ended when the state rapidly changed course and adopted quickly assembled new standards.

That disrupted a carefully coordinated plan in place since 2010 for the Indiana to adopt Common Core Standards along with 45 other states and use a shared exam that would test student knowledge with results that would be comparable across the country.

When Gov. Mike Pence and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz took office in 2012, Indiana had already adopted Common Core. Schools were putting it in place grade by grade, and a new Common Core-linked exam was scheduled to replace ISTEP this year.

But Pence was wary of the shared test — called the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers or PARCC — and ordered the state to withdraw from the consortium creating the test in 2013. Six months later, both Pence and Ritz supported the idea of Indiana dropping out of Common Core and endorsed new locally made standards that were adopted last April.

Like Common Core,  Indiana’s new academic standards are more in-depth and ask students to do more analysis and critical thinking.

A test matching those expectations was needed in a hurry. Instead of taking years to adapt to the new standards and create the new exam, Indiana tried to do the whole process in a matter of months. That meant asking a lot of the 2015 ISTEP.

2. This year’s test had two extra goals — add questions to match the new standards and help create a test to replace ISTEP in 2016.

More difficult standards naturally meant Indiana needed a more difficult test. But there wasn’t time to completely overhaul ISTEP this year.

Instead, ISTEP was modified for this year to add several extra features. Many of the new standards were similar to the old standards, so many questions roughly matched the style and difficulty of past ISTEP exams. But new questions were added to also test students on new, tougher concepts included in the new standards, which were designed to make sure they graduate high school ready for college and careers.

The online version of ISTEP, for example, includes more advanced testing methods that ask kids to not only answer multiple-choice questions, but also answer questions in new ways, such as by dragging and dropping points on a graph or using drop-down menus.

Finally, this year’s ISTEP had one more job: Try out some questions that could be used on the 2016 exam.

But there was a problem. Indiana law requires release each year of all essay or short-answer test questions that are used in scoring. This would turn out to be a big factor in the length of the test.

3. A huge number of questions on this year’s test actually don’t count in a student’s score.

When test questions are released to the public they are effectively retired. They can never be used again on ISTEP.

So for this year’s exam, there were two big sets of essay and short answer questions: one group that counted toward each student’s score and must be released plus a large second set being tried out for use in 2016 that wouldn’t count.

Trying out questions is important. Test makers examine how students score on them to look for unexpected surprises. Questions they ask include: Was the question harder or easier for students than predicted? Was there reason to believe it was confusing to children? Was there any evidence the question was unfair to certain groups of students?

Trying out enough questions to be able to make a completely new test for 2016 was the main factor that caused what is normally a six-hour test to swell to more than 12 hours this year. All along, however, this was intended as a one-year problem. Future state exams are expected to be only slightly longer than the six-hour tests of the past.

The legislature appears poised to waive for one year the requirement that all essay and short-answer questions be released. This would allow some of this year’s questions to be reused so there could be far fewer extra questions that don’t count.

4. A longer test means more school days devoted to testing.

Indiana students don’t take all of ISTEP at once. They take sections of the exam in smaller doses over several days.

At its Feb. 4 meeting, the state board increased the number of days schools are allowed to use to give the test. The tests will be given over the course of almost a month, beginning Feb. 25 and ending in late March, followed by another set of testing days over three weeks at the end of April into May.

Schools can choose how to split up the parts of the test. Students might take just one section per day or do more depending on what teachers and principals decide. Danielle Shockey, the state’s deputy superintendent, said a testing day could take many shapes. In some schools, student take one 35-minute test section each day. In some schools, they spend an hour each day on testing. Other schools may do more.

“They have a long window of time,” Shockey said. “They can take one session a day if they so choose. It’s a local choice.”

5. Test makers had to consider that ISTEP is plays a critical role in school A-to-F grades and teacher evaluation ratings.

ISTEP is used to measure two things: how much students know of the content they were expected to learn this year, and how much they’ve improved from a previous year. Both factor into how Indiana measures the quality of schools with its A-to-F grading system, as well as how it evaluates teachers.

To determine a school’s A-to-F grade, the state considers both the percentage of students who pass ISTEP and how much students improved from last year. For teachers, the state expects to see their students’ test scores improve over the prior year.

When tests are roughly the same each year — measuring the same standards and using similar types of questions — it is easier to gauge how much students improved from the prior year. But when the standards change and the questions are crafted differently, test makers have to add extra questions to help determine each student’s improvement from the last test.

This spring’s test will include a few questions in English and math that are specifically designed to estimate roughly on what grade level each student best fits. For example, a fourth grade test might include a few third grade level questions and a few fifth grade level questions. Some students might do well on only the third grade questions but poorly on harder questions. Others might do well on all the questions, even the more challenging fifth grade questions.

Those extra questions help the test makers better estimate whether the student improved a little, a lot or not at all over the prior year. However, those extra questions also lengthen the test, but only by minutes, not hours, Michele Walker, testing director for the education department, said. The legislature agreed they were worth keeping — those questions will remain under the plan to shorten ISTEP.

6. Then, there’s the social studies question.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law by President Bush in 2002, requires states to test students in English and math each year in grades 3 to 8, and once in high school, and also in science once during elementary, middle and high school.

Noticeably absent? Social studies.

Although Indiana’s social studies ISTEP test is only given to fifth- and seventh-graders each year, accounting for about an hour of testing for those grades, Pence’s test consultants recommended cutting that subject to reduce testing time further since it is only required by state law. That means the legislature could make an exception for this year.

State board members were divided on this idea. Some worried that it would send the message that social studies is not important. Others argued one hour for just two grades doesn’t add much test taking time.

But the legislature liked the idea of reducing test time further this way, so the Indiana Department of Education has told schools to expect the social studies exam to be optional this year. That means some students will take it, if the school decides they should, and others will be allowed to drop it for this year only.

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.