PDK poll offers answers but leaves questions

Parents and the public favor racially and socioeconomically diverse schools, and they don’t put much stock in using standardized tests to measure school quality. At least that’s what they told the pollsters who conducted the 49th annual Phi Delta Kappa Poll of the Public’s Attitudes toward the Public Schools.

But if that’s the case, why do so many affluent parents get up in arms over proposals to desegregate their neighborhood schools. Why do we accept the idea that property values are higher where schools are whiter and test scores are better?

Are the poll respondents just giving answers that make them sound reasonable? Or do a majority really embrace values of tolerance and diversity. As always, the poll provides a lot of information but leaves plenty of questions for us to debate.

Results of the PDK poll were released this week. On diversity, it found that 70 percent of parents say they would prefer for their child to attend a racially diverse school, and 61 percent prefer an economically mixed school. A majority of the public said racial and economic diversity is good for schools.

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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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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

Live by the test, die by the test – but don’t teach to the test?

President Barack Obama seemed to give a nod to both supporters and opponents of test-based teacher evaluations in his State of the Union address Tuesday night.

“Teachers matter,” he said. “So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let’s offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. In return, grant schools flexibility: To teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.”

Obama said a good teacher “can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000,” a reference to a recent study by economists at Harvard and Columbia, who concluded that effective teachers have a long-lasting positive impact on the life prospects of their students.

Here’s the problem. Most of the proposals to “reward the best” and “replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn” rely on student test scores to determine which teachers are effective. The administration has pushed that approach through its Race to the Top grants and, more recently, through waivers to No Child Left Behind Act requirements. It’s the entire premise behind the economists’ study that Obama cited.

As Dana Goldstein writes in the Nation, “It can be difficult to balance test-based accountability with the sort of ‘creative, passionate’ teaching the president says he supports, especially if teachers are so worried about raising test scores that they teach-to-the-test or — as we’ve unfortunately seen around the country — cheat, or are pressured by administrators to do so.”

Of course, it’s easy to bash teaching to the test; almost as easy as bashing teachers. Let’s just say this: Starting this spring, Indiana students will be retained in third grade if they don’t pass the new test called IREAD-3. Let’s hope third-grade teachers are teaching students the skills they need to pass that test.

The president didn’t describe any new programs to improve teaching, and the blueprint released by the White House with the speech was similarly vague. Continue reading

Cheating scandals: Who will be next?

The news about the cheating scandal in Atlanta’s public schools just keeps getting worse. Teachers changed students’ answers on standardized tests from wrong to right, according to a state investigation. Students were allowed to look up answers or copy from classmates. Administrators created a “culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation” and pressured teachers to cheat.

Coming on the heels of revelations of possible cheating in Washington, D.C., and alongside concerns from Pennsylvania and other states, the news raises obvious questions: Could it happen here in Indiana? Has it happened here already?

“Because of Atlanta, the media and policymakers are going back and looking at concerns raised about their states,” Bob Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing told the Associated Press. “This is the top issue. When you see a story like this and see the incredible impact of the confessions, you start to look and say, ‘Hey, is there something comparable going on here?’ ”

Officials with the Indiana Department of Education are taking the idea seriously.

They recently asked CTB McGraw-Hill, the state’s primary testing contractor, to conduct an “erasure study” to look for suspicious trends of wrong answers being corrected on state tests, as happened in Atlanta, D.C. and Philadelphia.

Back in the spring, officials announced that department staff would make unannounced school visits during the March 2011 ISTEP-Plus tests, to make sure test security protocols were observed.

And a March 30 memo to the State Board of Education recounted 11 “recent violations of proper testing procedures.” Most involved teachers who devised lessons based on actual content of state exams, or who encouraged students to change answers from wrong to right.

In response, the state board gave preliminary approval in July to a rule intended to put in place stronger test-security procedures and establish procedures and penalties for security breaches. The action started a process of review and comment that will lead to adoption of the proposed rule as state law.

ISTEP-Plus is Indiana’s high-stakes test, but until now, the stakes have been high for schools but not for individuals. That’s about to change. Soon third-graders will be retained if they don’t pass the state reading test. Teachers’ salaries and job-retention prospects will depend partially on student test scores.

When there’s pressure to do whatever it takes to raise test scores, it’s not surprising that some folks will do, well, whatever it takes.