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.”

Surprising report

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

PHOTO: TN.gov
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.”

heads up

Tennessee will release TNReady test scores on Thursday. Here are five things to know.

PHOTO: Getty Images/Kali9

When Tennessee unveils its latest standardized test scores on Thursday, the results won’t count for much.

Technical problems marred the return to statewide online testing this spring, prompting the passage of several emergency state laws that rendered this year’s TNReady scores mostly inconsequential. As a result, poor results can’t be used to hold students, educators, or schools accountable — for instance, firing a teacher or taking over a struggling school through the state’s Achievement School District.

But good or bad, the scores still can be useful, say teachers like Josh Rutherford, whose 11th-grade students were among those who experienced frequent online testing interruptions in April.

“There are things we can learn from the data,” said Rutherford, who teaches English at Houston County High School. “I think it would be unprofessional to simply dismiss this year’s scores.”

Heading into this week’s data dump, here are five things to know:

1. This will be the biggest single-day release of state scores since the TNReady era began three years ago.

Anyone with internet access will be able to view state- and district-level scores for math, English, and science for grades 3-12. And more scores will come later. School-by-school data will be released publicly in a few weeks. In addition, Tennessee will unveil the results of its new social studies test this fall after setting the thresholds for what constitutes passing scores at each grade level.

2. Still, this year’s results are anticlimactic.

There are two major reasons. First, many educators and parents question the scores’ reliability due to days of online testing headaches. They also worry that high school students stopped trying after legislators stepped in to say the scores don’t necessarily have to count in final grades. Second, because the scores won’t carry their intended weight, the stakes are lower this year. For instance, teachers have the option of nullifying their evaluation scores. And the state also won’t give each school an A-F grade this fall as originally planned. TNReady scores were supposed to be incorporated into both of those accountability measures.

3. The state is looking into the reliability of the online test scores.

In addition to an internal review by the Education Department, the state commissioned an independent analysis by the Human Resources Research Organization. Researchers for the Virginia-based technical group studied the impact of Tennessee’s online interruptions by looking into testing irregularity reports filed in schools and by scrutinizing variances from year to year and school to school, among other things.

4. The reliability of paper-and-pencil test scores are not in question.

Only about half of Tennessee’s 600,000 students who took TNReady this year tested on computers. The other half — in grades 3-5 and many students in grades 6-8 — took the exams the old-fashioned way. Though there were some complaints related to paper testing too, state officials say they’re confident about those results. Even so, the Legislature made no distinction between the online and paper administrations of TNReady when they ordered that scores only count if they benefit students, teachers, and schools.

5. Ultimately, districts and school communities will decide how to use this year’s data.

Even within the same district, it wasn’t uncommon for one school to experience online problems and another to enjoy a much smoother testing experience. “Every district was impacted differently,” said Dale Lynch, executive director of the state superintendents organization. “It’s up to the local district to look at the data and make decisions based on those local experiences.”

District leaders have been reviewing the embargoed scores for several weeks, and they’ll share them with teachers in the days and weeks ahead. As for families, parents can ask to see their students’ individual score reports so they can learn from this year’s results, too. Districts distribute those reports in different ways, but they’re fair game beginning Thursday. You can learn more here.