Are Children Learning

Senate panel nixes pricey ISTEP rescore

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Despite months of controversy over last year’s state standardized exam, Indiana legislators have effectively dropped an effort to rescore the 2015 ISTEP.

A bill that was initially introduced to force a rescore of the problem-plagued test was quietly amended today to remove language that would have made a rescore possible. The bill itself — House Bill 1395, which would trigger an ISTEP review that could lead to the state scrapping the test completely by July 2017 — moved forward with an 8-3 vote in the Senate Education Committee today.

Some legislators remain concerned about the 2015 test, which was beset with scoring delays and technical glitches, but the $8 million to $10 million price tag on the rescore made that a tougher sell.

Committee Chairman Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, said the high price of the rescore would have needed approval from the Senate Appropriations Committee. That could have doomed the bill, so the rescore was dropped.

Kruse also isn’t concerned that there’s a need for a rescore at all. He said he thinks the test itself was fine, but the problems have been with the technology used to administer and score the exam.

“It was the technical computer stuff that messed it all up,” Kruse said. “It wasn’t that the test wasn’t valid, and it wasn’t that the kids weren’t capable of answering the questions.”

The rescore measure was a big part of why the bill was introduced earlier this year. After the Indianapolis Star revealed possible scoring mistakes from test creator CTB, educators, legislators and members of the public raised concerns that scores might no longer be accurate, prompting Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, to propose the bill.

Behning said if it was up to him, he’d have kept the rescore option in, though the Indiana Department of Education’s repeated assurances that the test is OK have reduced some of his concerns.

“If the education committee, the department, everybody is going to say 100 percent with guarantee that we will have no problem using it as a baseline next year, I’m OK with that,” Behning said.

When the bill went before the Indiana House earlier this month, where it passed 86-11, Behning had already scaled back the bill’s language, instead allowing the board to rescore a smaller sample of test scores at a lower cost rather than all 500,000 tests that kids took last year.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz and state board officials have said this year that they stand by the validity of last year’s test. The board announced at its last meeting that the results of a review by independent test experts showed no major problems with the accuracy of test scores. Marc Lotter, the board’s spokesman, said the board did not have a position on removing the rescore option from the bill.

“Given the potential cost to taxpayers, we will follow the direction of the Legislature on that issue,” Lotter said in an email.

The amended bill, now focused exclusively on the future of ISTEP, will next advance to the full Senate.

Other changes to the bill made today include new rules for selecting who will serve on the committee charged with deciding ISTEP’s fate, as well as the scope of that committee. The unamended bill called for a committee to study the state’s entire testing and accountability system — the current version revolves mainly around testing. The amended bill also calls for the committee to include an expanded group of educators and policymakers appointed by Ritz, Gov. Mike Pence, and Republican legislators.

A separate amendment to make Ritz a co-leader of the committee failed.

Behning said he doesn’t agree with all the changes to the bill, but he accepts that amendments are part of the legislative process. The focus, he said, should remain on Indiana’s next generation of tests.

“This process works in such a way that we all have to negotiate,” Behning said. “Obviously it’s still my bill, there’s conference committee and we’ll continue to have the debate.”

Scores in

After a wild testing year, Tennessee student scores mostly dip — but there are a few bright spots

PHOTO: Getty Images/Sathyanarayan

Student test scores were mostly flat or dipped this year in Tennessee, especially in middle school where performance declined in every subject, according to statewide data released on Thursday.

But there were a few bright spots, including improvement in elementary school English and high school math — both areas of emphasis as the state tries to lift its proficiency rates in literacy and math.

Also, performance gaps tightened in numerous subjects between students in historically underserved populations and their peers. And scores in the state’s lowest-performing “priority” schools, including the state-run Achievement School District, generally improved more than those in non-priority schools.

But in science, students across the board saw declines. This was not expected because Tennessee has not yet transitioned to new, more difficult standards and a new aligned test for that subject. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the drops reinforce the need to support science teachers in the shift to higher expectations beginning this fall.

The mixed results come in the third year of the state’s TNReady test, which measures learning based on academic standards that have undergone massive changes in the last five years. The 2017-18 school year was the first under new math and English standards that are based on the previous Common Core benchmarks but were revised to be Tennessee-specific. And in addition to new science standards that kick off this fall, new expectations for social studies will reach classrooms in the 2019-20 school year.

In an afternoon press call, McQueen said “stability matters” when you’re trying to move the needle on student achievement.

“It takes time to really align to the full depth and breadth of these expectations,” she said.

The three charts below illustrate, by subject, the percentage of students statewide who performed on track or better, both this year and last year, in elementary, middle, and high schools. The blue bars reflect the most recent scores.

McQueen acknowledged the good and bad from this year’s results.

“While we’ve focused extensively on early grade reading and are starting to see a shift in the right direction, we know middle school remains a statewide challenge across the board,” she said in a statement.

Tennessee’s data dump comes after a tumultuous spring of testing that was marred by technical problems in the return to statewide computerized exams. About half of the 650,000 students who took TNReady tested online, while the rest stuck with paper and pencil. Online testing snafus were so extensive that the Legislature — concerned about the scores’ reliability — rolled back their importance in students’ final grades, teachers’ evaluations, and the state’s accountability system for schools.

However, the results of a new independent analysis show that the online disruptions had minimal impact on scores. The analysis, conducted by a Virginia-based technical group called the Human Resources Research Organization, will be released in the coming weeks.

Even so, one variable that can’t be measured is the effect of the technical problems on student motivation, especially after the Legislature ordered — in the midst of testing — that the scores didn’t have to be included in final grades.

“The motivation of our students is an unknown we just can’t quantify. We can’t get in their minds on motivation,” McQueen told Chalkbeat on the eve of the scores’ release.

Thursday’s rollout marked the biggest single-day release of state scores since high school students took their first TNReady tests in 2016. (Grades 3-8 took their first in 2017.) The data dump included state- and district-level scores for math, English, science, and U.S. history for grades 3-12.

More scores will come later. School-by-school data will be released in the coming weeks. In addition, Tennessee will unveil the results of its new social studies test for grades 3-8 this fall after setting the thresholds for what constitutes passing scores at each grade level.

You can find the state-level results here and the district-level results here.

Chalkbeat illustrator Sam Park contributed to this story.

Surprising report

EXCLUSIVE: Did online snafus skew Tennessee test scores? Analysts say not much

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen will release the results of Tennessee's 2017-18 standardized test this week, but the reliability of those TNReady scores has been in question since this spring's problem-plagued administration of the online exam.

An independent analysis of technical problems that disrupted Tennessee’s online testing program this spring is challenging popular opinion that student scores were significantly tainted as a result.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Wednesday that the disruptions to computerized testing had “small to no impact” on scores, based on a monthlong analysis by the Human Resources Research Organization, or HumRRO. The Virginia-based technical group has expertise in psychometrics, the science behind educational assessments.

“We do believe these are valid, reliable scores,” McQueen told Chalkbeat on the eve of releasing state- and district-level scores for TNReady, the state’s standardized test in its third year.

Here are five things to know as Tennessee prepares to release TNReady scores

The state hired the research group to scrutinize several issues, including whether frequent online testing snafus made this year’s results unreliable. For instance, during at least seven days out of the three-week testing window, students statewide reported problems logging in, staying online, and submitting their tests — issues that eventually prompted the Legislature to roll back the importance of scores in students’ final grades, teacher evaluations, and school accountability systems.

But the analysis did not reveal a dramatic impact.

“For students who experienced the disruption, the analysis did not find any systematic effect on test scores that resulted from lapses in time between signing in and submitting their tests,” McQueen told Chalkbeat.

There was, however, a “small but consistent effect” if a student had to log on multiple times in order to complete the test, she said.

“When I say small, we’re talking about an impact that would be a handful of scale score points out of, say, a possible 200 or 250 points,” McQueen said.

Analysts found some differences in test score averages between 2017 and 2018 but concluded they were not due to the technical disruptions.

“Plausible explanations could be the students just didn’t know the (academic) standards as well and just didn’t do as well on the test,” McQueen said. “Or perhaps they were less motivated after learning that their scores would not count in their final grades after the legislation passed. … The motivation of our students is an unknown we just can’t quantify. We can’t get in their minds on motivation.”

About half of the 600,000 students who took TNReady this year tested with computers, and the other half used paper materials in the state’s transition to online exams. Those testing online included all high school students.

Out of about 502,000 end-of-course tests administered to high schoolers, educators filed about 7,600 irregularity reports – about 1.4 percent – related to problems with test administration, which automatically invalidated those results.

The state asked the analysts specifically to look at the irregularity reports for patterns that could be cause for concern, such as demographic shifts or excessive use of invalidations. They found none.

TNReady headaches started on April 16 – the first day of testing – when students struggled to log on. More problems emerged during the weeks that followed until technicians finally traced the issues to a combination of “bugs in the software” and the slowness of a computerized tool that helps students in need of audible instructions. At one point, officials with testing company Questar blamed a possible cyberattack for shutting down its online platform, but state investigators later dismissed that theory.

While this year’s scores officially are mostly inconsequential, McQueen emphasized Wednesday that the results are still valuable for understanding student performance and growth and analyzing the effectiveness of classroom instruction across Tennessee.

“TNReady scores should be looked at just like any data point in the scheme of multiple data points,” she said. “That’s how we talk about this every year. But it’s an important data point.”