ISTEP results are a non-story

It’s a lousy week to be an education reporter in Indiana. ISTEP-Plus test results were released Wednesday by the State Board of Education, so editors are assigning – and readers are expecting – the usual stories. Which schools did best? Which did worst? Which improved, and which didn’t?

Reporters who spend their work lives visiting schools and talking to educators and experts know this is the epitome of a non-news story. They know that years of experience and research tell us that affluent schools will have higher test scores than schools serving mostly poor students. But the stories have to be written.

It’s no surprise that low-poverty schools in the suburbs have the highest passing rates in the Indianapolis metropolitan area. They do every year. And it’s disturbing but not really shocking that barely 5 percent of Indianapolis Public Schools 10th-graders passed their tests. Three of their high schools were about to close; the tests had no consequences for the schools or their students.

That’s not to say test scores or meaningless, or that they should be ignored altogether.

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Don’t look! It’s ISTEP time

It’s been said that Indiana’s ISTEP testing program is a train wreck. It’s also something like a car crash that you pass on the highway. You know you shouldn’t stare, but you can’t avert your eyes.

Scores from the spring 2017 tests were released Wednesday, and newspapers and digital news sites have already posted stories about how local and state schools fared. Admit it – we’re going to read them, even though we know in advance which schools will do well and which schools won’t.

I’ll leave the scorekeeping and analysis to others, but here are a few observations: Continue reading

Quick takes on the 2017 legislative session

A session of the Indiana General Assembly is kind of like a tornado. When it’s over, you crawl out of your shelter, look around and assess the damage.

Lawmakers finished their business and left the Statehouse on Saturday morning. Here’s a quick look at some of the wreckage they left on the education front.

School funding

The most important thing the legislature does for education is to allocate funding for schools. Education funding is the lion’s share of the state budget, but you can’t say lawmakers were very generous.

On average, per-pupil funding will increase by only 1.1 percent in 2017-18 and 1.3 percent in 2018-19. That’s not good enough. School funding in Indiana has never caught up to what it was before the Great Recession, and private school vouchers account for an ever-growing slice of the school funding pie.

The funding formula continues a recent trend of directing bigger funding increases to growing suburban schools and less money to urban and rural schools. Funding is down a lot for the complexity index, the part of the formula that boosts support for schools serving more poor children.

Appointed superintendent

Lawmakers delivered on a priority for Gov. Eric Holcomb: making superintendent of public instruction an appointed rather than an elected position. In a compromise between the House and Senate, the new system won’t take effect until 2025 and the appointed superintendent must be an Indiana resident.

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Teacher bonus inequity shouldn’t be a surprise

State legislators suggest they’re shocked – shocked! – to learn the $40 million Teacher Performant Grant program they created is mostly rewarding teachers who work in wealthy school districts.

“The original concept was to recognize outstanding teachers, not just outstanding districts,” House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, told the Indianapolis Star. “When we drafted it we didn’t think the gap would be as large,” Sen. Ryan Mishler, R- Bremen, who helped create the program, told WFYI News.

Really? Because it was entirely predictable that this would happen.

Gov. Mike Pence proposed the program, and legislators approved the formula that spells out how the grants are distributed. The primary way that schools qualify for the grants is if at least 75 percent of their students pass the state’s ISTEP exams. If at least 90 percent of students pass, they get larger grants. If schools qualify, they get money for each student who passes a test.

We’ve known for a long time that passing rates on standardized tests are much higher in affluent schools than in schools that serve lots of poor students. For high-poverty Indiana schools, a 75 percent passing rate is something to dream about – especially since ISTEP got a lot tougher in 2014-15.

Schools can also qualify on the basis of graduation rates or year-to-year improvement in ISTEP passing rates. Using improvement is supposed to help equalize funding, but it doesn’t have much effect. Continue reading

Testing expert: ‘Be careful what you wish for’ in replacing ISTEP

It’s one thing for Indiana officials to say they’re getting rid of the hated ISTEP exam. It’s quite another to figure out what to do next. That’s the dilemma that’s playing out as a 23-member state panel tries to craft recommendations on the future of standardized testing.

“The task is a significant one,” said Ed Roeber, a Michigan testing expert and a member of the technical advisory committee that the State Board of Education appointed to advise the ISTEP replacement panel.

Ed Roeber

Ed Roeber

But the plain truth is, Indiana is likely to have an end-of-year state test for accountability well beyond July 2017, when the law says ISTEP is supposed to expire. The test may have a new name and it may be created by a new vendor. But annual testing isn’t going away.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, Roeber said in a telephone interview – as long as the test is properly designed and implemented, and it is part of a balanced system of assessment.

“I personally didn’t think ISTEP needed to be dropped,” he said. “I thought it could be done a whole lot better.”

The task before the ISTEP replacement panel, meanwhile, is complicated by politics. Lawmakers took credit this year for repealing ISTEP, and Republican Gov. Mike Pence signed the measure to great fanfare. Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz has long called for moving away from high-stakes standardized tests.

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If we’re grading schools, why not just use growth?

The Indiana State Board of Education took a step toward fairness when it decided test-score growth should count as much as test-score performance for calculating school grades. But we’re not there yet. The new A-to-F grading system will still favor affluent schools. Like the old system, it will label some schools as failing largely because of how many poor children they serve.

The board wrapped up work on the new system Friday when it approved a “growth to proficiency table” that specifies how many points students will earn for various levels of growth. The board rejected an earlier proposal that favored high-scoring students and approved a more equitable approach.

A chart copied from a staff presentation to the board tells us a whole lot about grading schools on test scores. It shows that, when it comes to performance – the percentage of students who score “proficient” on state exams – there’s a huge gap in Indiana between black and white students, between poor and non-poor students, and between special-needs and general-education students.

Growth_Model_Summary_Presentation-12---cropped

Source: State Board of Education

The proficiency gap between white and black students is 26 percentage points in English/language arts and 32 points in math. The gap between students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and those who don’t is about 25 percentage points. That’s cause for serious concern.

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Afflicting the afflicted

Indiana lawmakers are rushing to prevent schools from getting lower accountability grades as a result of this year’s big drop in ISTEP scores. But in their haste, they are making a serious mistake.

Senate Bill 200, which they are about to pass, says schools’ grades for 2014-15 can’t be any lower than their 2013-14 grades. The new grades are set to be issued this month by the State Board of Education.

Here’s the problem. The legislation doesn’t do anything for schools that got an F in 2013-14 and that didn’t improve in 2014-15. And improving was a long shot because passing rates for ISTEP, the major component in school grades, declined by over 20 percentage points statewide.

Indiana schools that get successive Fs face increasingly severe state sanctions. Schools that reach six Fs in a row – and apparently there are three that could this year – face state takeover.

This doesn’t make any sense. The only reason for SB 200 in the first place is that the spring 2015 ISTEP tests were so difficult that it would be unfair to base grades on those results. But if that’s the case for schools that got an A, B, C or D in 2013-14, it should be just as true for schools that got an F.

Journalists like to say their job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. With SB 200, the legislature is turning that adage on its head. And that’s just wrong. Continue reading