Are Children Learning

Gov. Pence signs ISTEP’s death warrant, kicks off two-year rush to replace exam

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students at Eagle Elementary School in Zionsville line up to for an assembly.

With the stroke of his pen today, Gov. Mike Pence put an end to the Indiana’s decades-old standardized ISTEP exam and officially started the clock on a plan to replace it.

The ISTEP will be administered just one more time — in 2017 — giving the state a little more than 700 days to figure out something new.

“We’re going to make a new test that works better for our kids, better for our teachers, better for our families,” Pence said. “I think there’s just been a growing sense that we can do better than ISTEP. This is a test that has been around in Indiana for more than a generation.”

Signing the bill at Eagle Elementary School in Zionsville, Pence told the children gathered for the bill ceremony that they shouldn’t get too excited about ISTEP’s departure.

The “good news” was that ISTEP would be no more, he said, but the “bad news,” is that there will still be a test. That comment was met with groans from the kids.

Now, Pence and other lawmakers have until May to decide which policymakers and educators should help lead efforts to create a new test.

Read “Junking Indiana’s ISTEP test: What might come next and at what cost?

The bill Pence signed into law, House Enrolled Act 1395, passed by the Indiana General Assembly earlier this month, calls for a 23-member panel composed of teachers, principals, community members, legislators, parents and other stakeholders to figure out what ISTEP alternatives can be reasonably accomplished before a new test must be given in 2018.

“I think this panel that we’ve assembled … will give us the tools and expertise to make a test that will work for the next generation of Hoosiers,” Pence said. “I feel the panel is very well balanced … There’s a real emphasis on people with practical experience in education — teachers, superintendents and administrators are part and parcel of the panel.”

He declined to say who is in line to be named to the panel but said he and his staff are taking time to put appointments together before the May 1 deadline.

One concern raised by educators and and test experts this year is whether Indiana has enough time to develop a new test. The state has a contract with British-based test company Pearson for this year’s and next year’s test, and the Indiana Department of Education is already working on the specifics of the 2017 test.

An overhaul at this point in the timeline could put the state in much the same situation it found itself in two years ago when Indiana abandoned the Common Core standards and a test that was tied to those standards. The state was forced to hastily write new standards and come up with a new test. The exam became so problematic that it was part of what ignited this year’s debate about getting rid of ISTEP altogether.

“When I read about the legislature forming a task force, it could happen all over again,” said Ed Roeber, a testing expert who is advising Indiana. “It takes time to write the (test questions), to prepare them for field testing, to review them for bias. You have to shortcut a lot of stuff if you have to do it in under a year.”

Pence said he thinks the state has enough time to develop a new test, and he’s working now to determine who he might appoint to the panel

The panel must report back to the legislature by December of this year. The goal would be for the General Assembly to propose legislation on the state’s new testing system in 2017.

“My understanding is that we do (have enough time),” Pence said. “I really would want to rely on the panel’s recommendations and the expertise of the State Board of Education to make these transitions. We certainly want an orderly transition whether it’s a new test or it’s simply a different test.”

Pence said the U.S. Department of Education’s new Every Student Succeeds Act, which officially replaces the No Child Left Behind law this summer, could give states more flexibility when it comes to testing.

“As someone who believes that education is a state and local function … I was enthusiastic to see leaders in Washington D.C. give us that new flexibility,” Pence said. “That’s why in January of this year when I spoke to the General Assembly I said with all that new flexibility I thought it was time for us to take a step back from ISTEP.”

But until the federal government releases more details about what would be possible under the new test later this year, states don’t really know exactly what would be allowed and what wouldn’t. What hasn’t changed is that Indiana is still required to test students each year from grades 3-8 in English and math, and for certain grades, science and social studies.

Federal law also still requires statewide tests that capture student scores at one moment in time, known as a “summative exam,” much like ISTEP does now.

Although Pence said he strongly supports local input when it comes to creating a new test, he didn’t outright reject the idea of using an “off-the-shelf” test in some way.

“I don’t want to take anything off the table from this panel,” Pence said. “Developing our standards, our testing, is best done at the state and local level. I think this panel is going to represent very broad group of perspectives on testing and education.”

Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, originally introduced the legislation signed today as proposal to rescore of the problem-plagued 2015 test. The exam was beset with scoring delays and technical glitches that Behning thought called for a full review of the scores to make sure the state can accurately determine student progress going forward. The rescore didn’t make it back in the final version of the bill.

“I hope it goes better this year,” Roeber said. “I hope that there’s consideration given to the time and money it takes to implement a new testing program.”

union power

Gutting Wisconsin teachers unions hurt students, study finds

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2015.

The high-profile fight to limit union power was replete with drama — including a recall election and state legislators fleeing to neighboring states.

In the 2011 battle in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker ultimately came out the victor. The controversial law passed, Walker won the recall, and the Democratic-aligned unions have lost much of their power.

But new research points to other losers in the fight: students in the state’s already struggling schools.

The first study to assess how Wisconsin’s high-profile weakening of unions, particularly teachers unions, affected students finds that it led to a substantial decline in test scores.

The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments for a case, known as Janus, that could dramatically scale back union power across the country — essentially taking aspects of the Wisconsin model national. And they give credence to concerns from unions and their defenders that weakening teachers bargaining power would ultimately make schools worse, not better.

A report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress released Wednesday highlights this research — and the fact that teacher pay and average experience declined in the wake of the law, known as Act 10 — to argue that weakening unions ultimately harm schools.

“Those concerned about the quality of public education — and of all public services — should understand that Wisconsin’s Act 10 and associated budget cuts have not had the positive impact on education that its proponents claimed it would,” the CAP report argues.

Still, the research, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, only assesses the short-term impact of Wisconsin’s law. It adds to a complicated set of research findings on unions that doesn’t render a clear verdict.

Short-term effect in Wisconsin is negative, especially for low-achieving schools

The new research looks at the effects of Wisconsin Act 10, which became law in 2011 and severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt of unions.

The paper’s author, Jason Baron, took advantage of what was essentially a natural experiment set up by the law. Act 10 did not affect all school districts at once — a handful of school districts were allowed to maintain union rules until their existing contract expired up to two years later. That helped isolate the immediate impact of the law.

Baron found that weakening unions led to declines in test scores, particularly in math and science. The effects were fairly large, comparable to sharply increasing class sizes. And the harm was not evenly distributed: Schools that started out furthest behind were hurt the most, while higher achieving schools saw no impact.

Other research may help explain why.

The law led to big cuts in teacher compensation, particularly for veteran teachers and especially in health insurance and retirement benefits, according to one paper. There was also a spike in teacher retirement immediately following the law’s passage.

As compensation drops, it may become harder for district and teachers to recruit and keep teachers. An increase in retirement also reduces teacher experience, which has been linked to effectiveness.

Another study found that some Wisconsin districts moved from a single salary schedule to a performance-based pay system after Act 10’s passage. Those performance pay systems were more likely to be adopted by higher-achieving districts, potentially allowing them to lure effective teachers away from struggling schools.

“Following Act 10, high-performing schools filled vacancies from teacher retirements by poaching high-quality teachers from low-performing schools through attractive compensation schemes,” the paper concludes. So while those retirements might have hit all districts equally, high-performing districts were better able to make up the difference — at the expense of low-performing schools.

There is one study that complicates the narrative in Wisconsin. As retirements spiked, it found that academic achievement actually increased in the grades that teachers left. It’s not clear what explains this.

The larger question of how teachers unions affect learning remains up for debate

A number of other recent studies have examined the relationship between teachers unions and student outcomes outside of Wisconsin. The results aren’t consistent, but the trend has been more positive for unions of late. A caveat: Some of these studies have not been published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

  • On recent efforts to weaken unions: Research in Tennessee found that it led to a drop in teacher pay, but had no effect on student test scores. But a study of four states, including Wisconsin, that recently weakened unions found evidence of reduced teacher quality as a result.
  • On what happens when charter schools unionize: Two studies in California came to differing conclusions. One found that when charters unionize, student test scores go up, but the other showed no impact.
  • On the initial rise of collective bargaining: Another paper finds that students who went to schools where districts negotiated with unions earned less money and were more likely to be unemployed as adults. But this study looks at a fairly old data set — examining those who attended schools between 1965 and 1992.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if any of this research is likely to influence the Supreme Court, as it considers the Janus case that could make life more difficult for unions. Last month, Chief Justice John Roberts called empirical studies on political gerrymandering “sociological gobbledygook.”

study up

Trump education nominee pleads ignorance about high-profile voucher studies showing negative results

At his confirmation hearing, Mick Zais, the nominee to be second-in-command at the Department of Education, said that he was not aware of high-profile studies showing that school vouchers can hurt student achievement.

It was a remarkable acknowledgement by Zais, who said he supports vouchers and would report to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose signature issue has been expanding publicly funded private school choice programs.

The issue was raised by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who asked whether Zais, who was previously the South Carolina schools chief, was “aware of the research on the impact of vouchers on student achievement.”

He replied: “To the best of my knowledge, whenever we give parents an opportunity to choose a school that’s a good fit for their child the result is improved outcomes.”

Franken responded, “No, that’s not true. The academic outcomes for students who used vouchers to attend private school are actually quite abysmal.”

Franken proceeded to mention recent studies from Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, and Washington, DC that showed declines in test scores after students move to private schools with a voucher.

Zais responded: “Senator, I was unaware of those studies that you cited.”

Franken then asked if Zais’s initial response expressing confidence in school choice was anecdotal, and Zais said that it was.

What’s surprising about Zais’s response is that these studies were not just published in dusty academic journals, but received substantial media attention, including in the New York Times and Washington Post (and Chalkbeat). They’ve also sparked significant debate, including among voucher supporters, who have argued against judging voucher programs based on short-term test scores.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the research confusion was a bipartisan affair at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing.

Although Franken, who referred to a New York Times article on voucher research in his question, was broadly accurate in his description of the recent studies, he said that a DC voucher study showed “significantly lower math and reading scores”; in fact, the results were only statistically significant in math, not reading.

Franken also did not mention evidence that the initial negative effects abated in later years in Indiana and for some students in Louisiana, or discuss recent research linking Florida’s voucher-style tax credit program to higher student graduation rates.

In a separate exchange, Washington Sen. Patty Murray grilled Jim Blew — the administration’s nominee for assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development — on the performance of Michigan’s charter schools. Murray said that DeVos was “one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system,” describing the results as “disastrous for children.”

Blew disputed this: “The characterization of the charter school sector in Detroit as being a disaster seems unfair. The most reliable studies are saying, indeed, the charter school students outperform the district students.”

Murray responded: “Actually, Michigan’s achievement rates have plummeted for all kids. In addition, charter schools in Michigan are performing worse than traditional public schools.”

(Murray may be referring to an Education Trust analysis showing that Michigan ranking on NAEP exams have fallen relative to other states. The study can’t show why, or whether school choice policies are the culprit, as some have claimed.)

Blew answered: “The most reliable studies do show that the charter school students in Detroit outperform their peers in the district schools.”

Murray: “I would like to see that because that’s not the data that we have.”

Blew: “I will be happy to get if for you; it’s done by the Stanford CREDO operation.”

Murray: “I’m not aware of that organization.”

CREDO, a Stanford-based research institution, has conducted among the most widely publicized — and sometimes disputed — studies of charter schools. The group’s research on Detroit does show that the city’s charter students were outperforming similar students in district schools, though the city’s students are among the lowest-performing in the country on national tests.