Are Children Learning

No changes expected to IREAD test in 2015

A proposal to shift the state’s IREAD exam — which third graders are required to pass — to be given in second grade was shelved today by a plan to study the idea over the summer instead.

The Senate Education Committee voted today, 9-0, to rewrite the bill so that, if passed, it would create a a study committee later this year to consider the switch. Committee Chairman Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, said the bill includes language that no changes would be made to IREAD before June 30, 2016. This would mean that this year’s and next year’s third-graders would take IREAD unchanged from years past.

“It turned out to be a bigger issue than I thought, and it’s more controversial than I thought,” Kruse said. “And I think both sides have good merit on their arguments. I just thought if we had a 45-minute hearing on it, I didn’t think that was sufficient, and I didn’t think we had enough information.”

Kruse said he spoke with specialists and educators and heard so much conflicting advice that he didn’t feel comfortable asking the committee to vote. Most notably, he said he was concerned that many educators thought second-graders might not be mature enough for standardized reading tests.

“The littler the kid, the tougher it is for him to even think about a test, or how do you do this, or to concentrate on a high stakes test,” Kruse said.

Sen. Erin Houchin, R-Salem, Senate Bill 169’s author, said the bill was meant to address teachers’ concerns about the number of tests given at third grade. Currently, third-graders have three periods of standardized tests in the spring, two sessions of ISTEP and one of IREAD.

Houchin said moving the reading test would give students more time for reading help and also would allow for teachers to know earlier whether students struggle.

“I continue to believe that our elementary school students would be better served by assessing reading proficiencies in second grade,” Houchin said in a statement.

Proponents of the bill say it could free teachers to give students longer to get reading help before they would be held back from moving onto fourth grade. The bill’s critics say the reading exam doesn’t give teachers much useful information and shouldn’t be given to younger children.

The idea of moving the reading test to second grade could be reconsidered later in the session, but Kruse said he expected it was more likely it would not get serious consideration before 2016.

The education committee considered seven other bills today:

STEM dual-credit associate degree pilot program, Senate Bill 259. Sen. Ronald Grooms, R-Jeffersonville, presented a plan for the creation of a pilot program of five high schools, to be chosen by the Indiana Department of Education, to allow students to take classes toward an associate’s degree in science, technology, engineering or math by the time they graduate high school. A vote is expected next week.

Bilingual recognition, Senate Bill 267. This bill would create a note on high school transcripts of students who are bilingual. Gary Spurgin, President of the Indiana Foreign Language Teachers Association, said such skills are in demand from employers, mentioning Indiana would be just the 10th state to pass such a law.

“We know it is very important to encourage and promote linguistic and cultural proficiency, not only in English, but for a second language,” Spurgin said. “Studying language increases more opportunities not only at higher education, but throughout (students’) lives.”

Schools could decide locally how to test for language proficiency, but Spurgin said plenty of tests exist to determine it, such as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and SAT subject tests. A vote is expected next week.

School counselors, Senate Bill 277. Authored by Sen. James Merritt, R-Indianapolis, this bill seeks to put at least one school counselor in every elementary school in the state, not including charter or private schools, at an estimated cost of $60 million. Merritt said he realized the move was costly but thought the idea should be discussed.

“We all talk about reading by second or third grade, but I also believe the social makeup of the student plays a role in there as well,” Merritt said. “(The bill) may or may not pass the committee, it may or may not pass Sen. Kenley’s (Senate Finance) committee … We need this sort of service in these schools, and I think the public needs to start talking about it.”

Several school counselors testified that they contribute to the overall health and stability of students in elementary schools. Cindy Cain, a counselor in Crawford County schools, said that money shouldn’t keep an important resource from students.

“The bottom line is that counselors are the first to go come crunch time,” Cain said.

A vote is expected next week.

School bus monitors, Senate Bill 339. The bill is a “cleanup of school bus law,” according to education department lobbyist John Barnes. It makes a fix so that bus monitors, who mind children but do not drive, are not required to meet the same requirements as the drivers for having strong eyesight. Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, said the change would allow more people to volunteer as monitors. The bill passed the committee 10-0.

Teaching ethnic history, Senate Bill 495. The bill is aimed at requiring schools to teach about minority ethnicities in their social studies curriculum, although schools will get to decide specifically which ethnicities to include based on their student populations.

Author Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, said it’s important to include a guidelines like this in statute, and not just leave it to the suggestion of social studies standards. Barnes, speaking on behalf of state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, supported the bill, as did Kruse. A vote is expected next week.

Names and locations of medical education centers, Senate Bill 123The committee passed this bill 10-0 onto the full Senate. It is a technical bill altering the formal names of some university medical schools.

Changes in physical exam requirements to participate in sports, Senate Bill 119Kruse withdrew this bill, which proposed to change when students had to get physical exams from doctors to within two weeks of the students’ birthdays, rather than at other times during the year. State school and medical officials said the change would create hardships for students and families.

research report

Three years in, some signs of (slight) academic growth at struggling ‘Renewal’ schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio at Brooklyn Generation School — part of the Renewal program

When Mayor Bill de Blasio launched an aggressive and expensive campaign to turn around the city’s lowest performing schools, he made a big promise: Schools would see “fast and intense” improvements within three years.

Almost exactly three years later, and after flooding 78 schools with more than $386 million in new social services and academic support, there are signs that the Renewal program has generated gains in student learning. The evidence is based on two newly updated analyses of test score data — one from Marcus Winters, a fellow at the conservative-learning Manhattan Institute, and the other from Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College.

But the researchers caution that those improvements are modest — when they exist at all — and don’t yet match the mayor’s lofty promises.

The results may have implications far beyond New York City, as a national and political test case of whether injecting struggling schools with resources is more effective than closing them.

The two researchers previously reviewed the first two years of test score data in elementary and middle schools in the Renewal program: Winters found a positive effect on test scores, while Pallas generally found little to no effect.

Now, as the program reaches its third birthday, the pair of researchers have updated their findings with new test score data from last school year, and largely reaffirmed their earlier conclusions.

“We’re not seeing large increases” in student achievement, Pallas said. “And the reality is it’s hard to get large increases in struggling schools.”

Some advocates have argued that it is too early to expect big shifts in test scores, and that infusing schools with extra social services like mental health counseling and vision screenings are valuable in themselves. But de Blasio’s promise of quick academic turnaround has invited questions about Renewal’s effectiveness and whether resources can be more effective in improving low-performing schools than shuttering them.

To assess the program’s academic effect, Pallas compared changes in Renewal school test scores to other schools that had similar test results and student demographics when the program started, but did not receive extra support.

The biggest gains Pallas found were concentrated at the elementary level.

Over the past three school years, 20 elementary schools in the Renewal program have made larger gains on average in math and reading than 23 similar schools that didn’t get extra resources. The proportion of elementary school students considered proficient in reading at Renewal schools increased from 7 percent in 2014 to 18 percent last year — an 11-point jump. Meanwhile, the comparison schools also saw gains, but only by seven percentage points, giving Renewal schools a four percentage point advantage.

At the middle school level, the results are less encouraging. The 45 Renewal middle schools did not collectively outperform a group of 50 similar schools outside the program in reading or math.

In math, for instance, Renewal school students improved from 5 percent proficient to 7 percent. However, the comparison schools outside the program improved by roughly the same margin — increasing proficiency from 6 to 9 percent (and still far below city average). In reading, Renewal middle schools showed slightly less growth than the comparison group.

City officials have argued that Pallas’ findings are misleading partly because Renewal schools and the comparison schools are not actually comparable. Renewal schools, they say, were designated based on a range of factors like school climate or teacher effectiveness, not just student demographics and test scores.

“The schools included in the study are neither similar nor comparable in quality and a comparison of the two dissimilar groups is unreliable at best,” Michael Aciman, an education department spokesman, said in a statement. Aciman added that Renewal schools have made larger gains in reading and math than similar schools across the state, and have made progress in reducing chronic absenteeism and improving instruction.

Pallas notes that there are some limitations to his approach, and acknowledges that he could not account for some differences between the two groups, such as the quality of a school’s principal. He also does not use student-level data, for instance, which would allow a more fine-grained analysis of whether the Renewal program is boosting student achievement. But Pallas, and other researchers who have previously reviewed his data, have said his model is rigorous.

The Manhattan Institute’s Winters found more positive trends than Pallas, consistent with his earlier findings. Using an approach that evaluates whether Renewal schools are outperforming historical trends compared with schools outside the program, Winters found that the Renewal program appeared to have a statistically significant effect on both reading and math scores — roughly equivalent to the difference in student achievement between charter schools and traditional district schools in New York City.

Asked about how to interpret the fact that his results tended to be more positive, Winters said either interpretation is plausible.

“It’s hard to tell which of these is exactly right,” he said. But “neither of us are finding results that are consistent with what we would expect if the program is having a large positive effect.”

explainer

Five things to know about the latest brouhaha over Tennessee’s TNReady test

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

Last week’s revelation that nearly 10,000 Tennessee high school tests were scored incorrectly has unleashed a new round of criticism of the standardized test known as TNReady.

Testing company Questar says it muffed some tests this spring after failing to update its scanning software. A year earlier, a series of mistakes got its predecessor, Measurement Inc., fired when Tennessee had to cancel most of TNReady in its first year after a failed transition to online testing.

While the two companies’ glitches are hardly comparable in scope, Questar’s flub has uncorked a tempest of frustration and anger over the standardized assessment and how it’s used to hold teachers accountable.

Here are five things to know about the latest TNReady flap:

1. A relatively small number of students, teachers, and schools are affected.

State officials report that the scoring problem was traced to only high school tests, not for its grade-schoolers. Of the 600,000 high school end-of-course tests, about 9,400 were scored incorrectly. Most of the fixes were so small that fewer than 1,700 tests — or less than one-tenth of 1 percent — saw any change in their overall performance level. A state spokeswoman says the corrected scores have been shared with the 33 impacted districts.

2. But the TNReady brand has taken another huge hit.

Tennessee has sought to rebuild public trust in TNReady under Questar and celebrated a relatively uneventful testing season last spring. But the parade of problems that surfaced during TNReady’s rollout, combined with this year’s drops in student performance under the new test, have made subsequent bumps feel more like sinkholes to educators who already are frustrated with the state’s emphasis on testing. Questar’s scanning problems were also tied to delays in delivering preliminary scores to school systems this spring — another bump that exasperated educators and parents at the end of the school year and led many districts to exclude the data from student report cards.

3. State lawmakers will revisit TNReady — and soon.

House Speaker Beth Harwell asked Monday for a hearing into the latest testing problems, and discussion could happen as early as next week when a legislative study committee is scheduled to meet in Nashville. Meanwhile, one Republican gubernatorial candidate says the state should eliminate student growth scores from teacher evaluations, and a teachers union in Memphis called on Tennessee to invalidate this year’s TNReady results.

4. Still, those talks are unlikely to derail TNReady.

Tennessee is heavily invested in its new assessment as part of its five-year strategic plan for raising student achievement. Changing course now would be a surprise. Last school year was the first time that all students in grades 3-11 took TNReady, a standardized test aligned to the Common Core standards, even though those expectations for what students should learn in math and English language arts have been in Tennessee classrooms since 2012. State officials view TNReady results as key to helping Tennessee reach its goal of ranking in the top half of states on the Nation’s Report Card by 2019.

5. Tennessee isn’t alone in traveling a bumpy testing road.

Questar was criticized this summer for its design of two tests in Missouri. Meanwhile, testing giant Pearson has logged errors and missteps in New York, Virginia, and Mississippi. And in Tennessee and Ohio this spring, the ACT testing company administered the wrong college entrance exam to almost 3,000 juniors from 31 schools. Officials with the Tennessee Department of Education emphasized this week that they expect 100 percent accuracy on scoring TNReady. “We hold our vendor and ourselves to the highest standard of delivery because that is what students, teachers, and families in Tennessee deserve,” said spokeswoman Sara Gast.