Less than meets the eye to ISTEP results

There’s not much to say about Indiana’s 2015 ISTEP scores, released this week, except that they went down. Way down.

In the spring of 2014, 74.7 percent of Hoosier students in grades 3-8 were able to pass both the math and English/language arts sections of the test. In the spring of 2015, that fell to 53.5 percent.

Of course, it was a different test, tied to a different set of standards, and with very different “cut scores” for passing set by the Indiana State Board of Education. Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz and other officials warned the passing rates would drop dramatically, and they were right.

And the scores fell pretty much across the board. Every one of Indiana’s 289 public school corporations saw its overall passing rate decline by 10 percentage points or more.

Yes, some dropped more than others. It’s tempting to focus on which districts saw their passing rates drop a lot and which dropped a little and to think that would tell us something about school performance. But it may not.

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Election-year conversion on school grading pause

Everyone at the Statehouse was singing Kumbaya this week over the idea that Indiana should pause A-to-F school accountability as a result of the more demanding ISTEP exams that students took last spring.

Gov. Mike Pence announced that he was in favor of holding schools harmless for any drop in their grades. House Speaker Brian Bosma and Senate President Pro Tem David Long issued a statement saying they were on board with the plan.

So did Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, who declared her “strong support” for Republican-sponsored legislation to suspend school grades for the year.

Their vehicle of choice is Senate Bill 200, authored by Sen. Dennis Kruse, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, and scheduled for a committee hearing Wednesday. The measure says the State Board of Education, which issues grades for schools, can’t give any school a lower grade for 2014-15 than it received for 2013-14. The school grades are scheduled to be announced this month.

Kruse’s approach sounds reasonable. ISTEP scores plummeted in 2015 as a result of a shift to new state standards and a tougher test, and school officials across the state insist the resulting grades aren’t fair.

But it will be terribly disappointing if the state board doesn’t report the scores that schools would have received if accountability weren’t paused. At the very least, the public should know how much difference the testing changes made – and for which schools. We can expect that much transparency.

Remember that Ritz first called for an accountability pause a year and a half ago, knowing the new test would produce lower scores and worse grades. But Pence and legislative leaders would have none of it.

Their attitude started to change this fall when it sank in that over a quarter of Indiana schools could receive Ds and Fs. It’s an election year, after all, and the prospect of hundreds of thousands of parents, teachers and community members outraged that their previously exemplary schools would now struggle to get a passing grade … Well, it’s bound to concentrate a politician’s mind wonderfully.

 

An ambivalent farewell to No Child Left Behind

Nearly everyone from the White House to conservative Republicans to teachers’ unions has been celebrating the new federal education law, called the Every Student Succeeds Act.

At long last No Child Left Behind is being left behind.

The simplified version is that ESSA reverses federal education policy by leaving it to the states to set standards, adopt curriculum and design systems for holding schools accountable and turning around low-performing schools. As if the states weren’t already doing most of that.

Yes, the U.S. Department of Education created leverage for certain accountability and teacher evaluation schemes when it began approving waivers because states could no longer comply with NCLB. But the real education action has always been in the Statehouse, not the Capitol.

No Child Left Behind, which took effect in 2002, required annual testing and determinations of whether schools were approaching the goal of 100 percent proficiency. But it wasn’t the testing that made the law unpopular; it was the conditions that states attached. High stakes led to tense debates over test prep, accountability and who was really looking out for children.

Here in Indiana, the big changes in education policy – vouchers, charter school expansion, A-to-F grades for schools, a third-grade retention test, mandatory teacher evaluations, limits on collective bargaining – were pushed through the legislature by then-Gov. Mitch Daniels, then-state Superintendent Tony Bennett and the advocacy group now called Hoosiers for Quality Education. Continue reading

Board faces weighty decision on rewarding test-score growth

Like it or not, the Indiana State Board of Education will be picking winners and losers in the A-to-F grades sweepstakes when it adopts a table early next year for awarding points for student test-score growth.

Under a new accountability system that the board adopted early this year, growth is supposed to count the same as performance – the percentage of students who pass the tests – in calculating school grades. And growth points will be awarded according to where students fall on a Growth to Proficiency Table.

The question for the board is what that table will look like. Will it award more growth points to students who passed the tests the previous year than to those who didn’t? Or will it award the same points to high-scoring and low-scoring students who show comparable growth on the current year’s tests?

According to discussion at last week’s state board meeting, staff from the board and the Indiana Department of Education will present up to four tables for members to consider in January. The board will give preliminary approval to the option it favors, touching off a 30-day public comment period.

Department of Education staff will then let local school officials know how their schools are likely to be affected. And when the comment period ends, the board will adopt the table of its choice at its next meeting, probably in March or April 2016.

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Scholarships a sweet deal at taxpayer expense

Indiana’s School Scholarship Tax Credit program is “almost too good to be true,” the head of the state’s Lutheran Scholarship Granting Organization tells the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette.

That may be true if you’re one of the rich people getting a 50 percent kickback from the state on your contributions to private K-12 schools. Two-thirds of the credits go to Hoosiers who make more than a half million dollars a year, the JG’s Niki Kelly reports.

And it’s also a good deal for private schools like those represented by the Lutheran group and the other four Scholarship Granting Organizations that dispense the tax credits. No one else gets such generous help from the state to help with their fundraising.

But it’s arguably not so good for the Indiana taxpayers who are paying more and more money every year to fund private schools, most of them religious. And it’s not a good deal for public schools that struggle as the state sends more money to private schools.

Betsy Wiley, president and CEO of the Institute for Quality of Education, another of the Scholarship Granting Organizations, suggests that paying for the program is a wash because the state isn’t paying to educating students who might otherwise be in public school.

But that’s bogus. It’s likely that most of the scholarships are going to students who would never have attended public schools. So their schooling is an added-on cost for the state.

More significantly, any student who receives a scholarship from a Scholarship Granting Organization for one year becomes eligible for taxpayer-funded vouchers for as long as his or her family remains income-eligible. And the student’s siblings get vouchers too.

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How will Indiana factor growth in school grades?

An easily overlooked report on Wednesday’s State Board of Education meeting agenda will point the way to significant changes in Indiana’s school accountability system. At issue is the awarding of points for student growth on standardized tests.

The board will get an update on the matter this week, but it won’t resolve the issue just yet. A decision will come in early 2016.

Indiana’s current system of awarding A-to-F grades to elementary and middle schools relies primarily on the percentage of students who pass the grade 3-8 ISTEP exams. Schools can get bonus points for student growth or be penalized for “negative growth,” but test scores are the main factor.

Under a new system scheduled to take effect in 2016, performance and growth are supposed to be weighted 50-50. And growth will be measured in a new way: on the basis of how many students show positive, static or negative growth according to a “growth to proficiency table.”

An issue the board must address is how to divvy up points for categories of growth.

Board spokesman Marc Lotter said it’s possible but not likely the board will discuss its preferences this week. He said the state’s independent testing experts will develop recommendations for how to weight test-score growth “based on the data and best practices.”

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Selective outrage about testing

Indiana schools have finally received their preliminary 2015 ISTEP test results, and school officials aren’t happy. Superintendents, especially, are pushing back hard.

In media stories and statements to the public, they have called aspects of this year’s tests “not fair,” “a complete fiasco” and “almost unfathomable.” The setting of grades, they said, was arbitrary and invalid.

On the one hand, good for them. On the other, where were they when test scores and a similarly arbitrary process were being used to label other people’s schools as failing?

Were they pushing back against a state accountability system that was stacked against high-poverty schools? Or were administrators and school board members content with a system that delivered high grades and let them boast of running an A school corporation.

Yes, this year’s ISTEP exams were more difficult and stressful than in the past, with a new set of state standards and new tests to measure what students were learning. But the real issue seems to be the passing scores that the State Board of Education approved last month.

Under the new cut scores, the number of students who pass the tests is expected to drop by 20-25 percentage points. Lower tests scores will result in lower school grades. Continue reading