Cheating on tests: Is it widespread? Is it the wrong issue?

Indiana and other states should be doing more to detect schools that are cheating on standardized tests, according to a nationwide reporting project led by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper.

But education officials and at least one researcher have questioned the AJC’s methodology and conclusions, suggesting they focus suspicion on schools that probably haven’t done anything wrong.

The newspaper looked at test scores in schools across the country to try to identify anomalies like those that touched off an investigation of cheating in Atlanta schools. That probe found that at least 178 Atlanta educators tampered with tests.

AJC reporters flagged schools with year-to-year test scores changes that seemed too big to result from chance or good or bad teaching. For example, if test scores for a school’s fifth-graders in 2010 were markedly different from those of the same school’s fourth-graders in 2009, suspicions were aroused.

“The analysis doesn’t prove cheating,” the newspaper said. “But it reveals that test scores in hundreds of cities followed a pattern that, in Atlanta, indicated cheating in multiple schools.”

According to the article, a school should expect to have up to 5 percent of its classes experience unusual changes in test scores from one year to the next. Districts that consistently have more than 10 percent of their classes flagged for unusual changes merit further scrutiny, it said.

But Western Michigan University researcher Gary Miron, writing for The Answer Sheet blog at the Washington Post, argues that the AJC’s methodology is flawed, and what may look like cheating, on further examination, probably isn’t.

Miron consulted with USA Today on its prize-winning investigation of possible cheating in Washington, D.C., schools, which looked at year-to-year changes in test scores for individual students as well as rates of erasures on the tests. He said the AJC’s approach – relying on class-level data, not individual scores – probably results in comparing test scores for different groups of students. Continue reading

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Voucher lawsuit headed to Indiana Supreme Court

The Indiana Supreme Court agreed last week to take up the lawsuit over Indiana’s voucher law, which provides public funding for students who attend private schools.

That should be welcome news for everyone, whether we support or oppose vouchers. At last the state’s highest court will decide what the state constitution means when it says that “no money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution.”

The voucher law, arguably the most radical in the country, provides state funding for low- and middle-income parents who transfer their kids from public to private schools. Families are eligible if they make up to 277 percent of the federal poverty level — that’s about $75,000 for a family of five, for example. Taxpayers are spending $16.2 million this year on vouchers.

The lawsuit, Meredith v. Daniels, was organized and supported by the Indiana State Teachers Association. But the plaintiffs include parents, teachers, school officials and clergy members, and the effort is supported by groups ranging from the Indiana School Boards Association to Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Marion Superior Court Judge Michael D. Keele ruled last August that the voucher program doesn’t violate the constitution. He reasoned, in part, that it’s OK for state money to be given to religious institutions as long as parents, not the state, decide which institutions get the money.

Of the 250 private schools that are receiving vouchers this year, all but a half dozen or so are religious schools. Most are Catholic schools. Many are evangelical Christian schools, some of which teach a mix of fundamentalism, far-right politics and anti-government extremism. At least one is a Muslim school.

Of all the controversial reforms adopted in the 2011 Indiana legislative session, the voucher bill was the most bitterly partisan. It’s an interesting coincidence that the Indiana Supreme Court will consider this case as the U.S. Supreme Court takes up the partisan dispute over President Obama’s health-care law.

Legislative oversight for the Indiana Department of Education

School Matters’ recap last week of Indiana’s 2012 education legislation missed this interesting and potentially significant item: Lawmakers voted to create a “select commission on education” to evaluate certain operations of the Indiana Department of Education and the State Board of Education.

The measure, added late in the process to House Enrolled Act 1376, a catch-all education and public administration bill, calls for specific focus on two areas: 1) the process and content of creating new metrics for giving schools A-to-F grades; and 2) the implementation of the new teacher evaluation system that the legislature approved last year. It adds that the commission may also take up any other education issue that members and legislative leaders deem necessary.

Why might lawmakers think that the Department of Education and State Board of Education could use some oversight? We can speculate:

// In 2010, Gov. Mitch Daniels and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett pushed for a law that said third-graders who don’t pass a state reading test wouldn’t be promoted to fourth grade. After considerable debate, the legislature declined to approve the law. Instead, it passed a compromise measure that called for taking steps to ensure that all third-graders can read at grade level, “including retention as a last resort, after other methods of remediation have been evaluated or used, or both …(emphasis added).” The State Board of Education then adopted a rule that exactly mirrors the failed 2010 legislation: It says third-graders who don’t pass a state reading test won’t be promoted.

// In a classic case of putting the cart before the horse, the State Board of Education in November 2011 voted to let the state take over schools that get an F on state ratings for four consecutive years or a D or F for five straight years. Continue reading

Recapping the legislative session – sometimes inaction is OK

When it comes to education, the 2012 session of the Indiana General Assembly may be best remembered for the bills that died, not for the ones that passed.

Lawmakers did accomplish one notable deed, boosting state funding for full-day kindergarten to where parents will no longer have to pay for the privilege. To which we say: It’s about time.

As for what lawmakers didn’t do, the following measures were apparently given serious consideration but died a merciful death:

— Allowing school boards to mandate the teaching of “creation science”
— Prescribing standards for the singing of the National Anthem at school events
— Barring schools from starting fall classes before Labor Day
— Ordering a return to a single-class high school basketball tournament
— Requiring schools to teach cursive writing as part of the curriculum

You have to think that some legislators must have too much time on their hands to come up with such ideas.

Full-day kindergarten was part of House Enrolled Act 1376, which passed right before lawmakers adjourned early Saturday morning. It increased the state grant for full-day kindergarten to $2,400 per child – up from $1,190.60. Schools should no longer have to charge full-day kindergarten fees, which in some districts have exceeded $1,000. In fact, the bill prohibits such fees starting this fall.

Gov. Mitch Daniels identified full-day kindergarten as a priority six years ago, but it got sidetracked by economic difficulties and, some would argue, other priorities. Continue reading

Tax season: in Indiana, private schools reign supreme

There’s nothing like doing your Indiana taxes to bring home the extent to which this state has tilted tax policy to benefit private schools. The state offers generous credits and deductions to taxpayers who spend money on the private K-12 schooling of their own or other people’s children — but not those who support public education.

There’s the private school/homeschool deduction, which lets taxpayers deduct $1,000 per child for the cost of “tuition, fees, computer software, textbooks, workbooks, curricula, school supplies … and other written materials” for children who are homeschooled or enrolled in private elementary or secondary schools.

Of course, parents who send their kids to public schools can’t deduct the often considerable costs that they pay for books, fees and supplies. Indiana remains one of a few states that require most public-school parents to pay for their children’s textbooks.

There’s also the school scholarship credit, good for 50 percent of any contribution to an organization that awards scholarships for students to attend private K-12 schools – with no limit on the amount of the credit per individual. An attempt by lawmakers to provide a similar credit for donations to foundations that support public schools was rejected by the Republican majority.

And the $250 federal tax deduction for money that educators spend out of their own pockets to provide books and supplies for their classrooms? Indiana doesn’t allow it. You have to “add back” that deduction before calculating your Indiana income taxes.

State Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, and state Sen. Vi Simpson, D-Ellettsville, unloaded on the way state tax policy has shifted at a recent legislative update sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Monroe County, according to the Bloomington Herald-Times (subscription required).

“It is now the policy of the state of Indiana that private education is in front of public education,” Pierce said. “Read it in the tax policy.” Continue reading

Indiana to retain students based on test scores despite lack of research support

Indiana schools are embarking this month on a massive experiment, one with potentially far-reaching consequences for thousands of young students.

Third-graders will be taking a new standardized test called IREAD-3, designed to measure whether they are reading at grade level. Most students who don’t pass – either now or in a re-test in the summer – will be forced to repeat the third grade.

That’s a lot of pressure to put on 8- or 9-year-old kids. And it’s not at all clear from the research that holding slow readers back will help them in the long run.

The Indiana reading program, given final approval in February by the State Board of Education, is modeled on an initiative that Florida adopted in 2002. Emily Richmond reports in The Atlantic that several other states, including Arizona and Oklahoma, are starting down the same path.

Indiana’s approach is even tougher than Florida’s, however. Indiana allows only three categories of good-cause exemptions from the no-pass, no-promotion rule: students with disabilities, students who aren’t proficient in English and students who have already been retained twice.

In Florida, there’s also an exemption for third-graders who can demonstrate, through a teacher-selected portfolio of written work, that they can read at grade level. In effect, Florida teachers may put a thumb on the scale for children who are ready for fourth grade but bomb the test. Not so in Indiana.

The state Department of Education has said that students who don’t pass could be promoted to fourth grade in other subjects; they just have to be retained in reading. But as a practical matter, that’s not likely to happen. The students will be coded by the state as third-graders, and they will be required to retake third-grade ISTEP-Plus exams in math and language arts the following year, even if they passed those tests the first time around.

Retention vs. ‘social promotion’

Supporters of test-based retention argue that “social promotion,” passing students to the next grade regardless of how much they’ve learned, causes them to fall farther behind their peers, until they have no hope of catching up. That’s especially true, they say, for students who don’t learn basic reading skills by third grade, after which they should move from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.”

But even if you think social promotion is misguided, it doesn’t necessarily follow that retention should be based on a single test, ignoring the judgment of teachers and parents. Continue reading