Are Children Learning

House moves to shorten ISTEP, broaden state board's testing role

PHOTO: Shannan Muskopf via Flickr
State officials are closing as many 38 Michigan schools with low rankings due to test scores but they might have trouble finding higher scoring schools nearby

An accelerated bill that would overhaul ISTEP to shorten the test got rolling quickly today, but the Indiana House isn’t stopping there.

If all the changes proposed so far this week for ISTEP were approved by lawmakers, the result could literally be a different test entirely with a more involved Indiana State Board of Education overseeing the system.

The House Education Committee jumped straight to considering a Senate bill this morning — a move that normally would wait until it completes its work on House bills over the next two weeks — to rewrite Senate Bill 62 to fix ISTEP. The goal is to speed a bill to Gov. Mike Pence’s desk to cut ISTEP testing time before the exam is given starting Feb. 25.

“Hoosier families deserve to know we are all working together to shorten this test and were going to get it done,” Pence said, hailing the bill in a press conference this afternoon. “It will give the Department of Education the ability to significantly reduce time for the test.”

Last week Pence and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz sparred over ISTEP’s length: it could take some students 12-and-a-half hours to complete, or about twice as long as last year. By Friday, both sides had agreed to a plan to cut test time by at least three hours.

But changing the test requires exceptions to state law. An amendment to Senate Bill 62 would provide three big ones.

It would waive a one-year a requirement that the state release essay and short-answer questions as it does each summer, allow the Indiana Department of Education to instead reuse some of those questions next year and waive a requirement that fifth- and seventh-graders take the state social studies exam.

That would cut test time by at least three hours for all students. Dropping social studies would cut more test time for fifth and seventh grades, but department officials said they are considering making the exam optional, so some students might still take it.

On ISTEP, Ritz’s spokesman John Barnes hailed the committee’s quick and unanimous support to shorten the test.

“We know this is an urgent situation,” Barnes said. “At a time like this, it is possible to turn things around very quickly but there is an awful lot of moving parts.”

The Indiana House and Senate this afternoon both passed concurrent resolutions designed to give assurance to educators that it intends to pass Senate Bill 62 to shorten ISTEP.

“It’s a little bit of an unusual move,” House Speaker Brian Bosma said. “I don’t recall seeing it before.”

Bosma said the House hopes to pass Senate Bill 62 on Monday and he hoped the Senate would concur as soon as that same day. Then it would move to Pence for his signature.

State Board could play a bigger role in testing

The cooperative spirit around using Senate Bill 62 to shorten ISTEP didn’t continue for the rest of the House Education Committee’s agenda.

Michele Walker, the education department’s testing chief, was less complimentary of another bill aimed at expanding the state board’s role in the processes for creating the state tests, hiring companies to make them and setting expectations for how much student test score gains should count for teachers’ evaluations.

House Bill 1072, which previously focused on private colleges, was also completely changed by an amendment. Author Jeff Thompson, R-Lizton, said the reshaped bill would not shift authority from Ritz to the state board, it just would simply require collaboration.

But a series of changes the amendment lays out would address state board concerns over recent months. It requires the department to share data with the state board and consult with its members on testing contracts. House Bill 1072 also would let the board set minimum requirements for student test score gains. That’s a decision local schools get to make under current law.

Thompson and other Republicans on the committee said the bill would not shift any authority from Ritz to the state board. Democrats weren’t buying that the changes would have no influence.

Walker said she found the new rules in House Bill 1072 baffling. The department already consults with the state board, she said, and the bill would only require a duplication of efforts.

“It’s that they don’t trust you,” Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, suggested.

On testing, Walker said state board member advice has not been especially helpful.

“Their oversight in the weeds of this process seems to me to be more micromanaging,” she said.

But Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, argued more coordination was needed.

“They don’t have the authority to collaborate with you and make sure, in the process, you are working at the same rate they are and going in the same direction,” he said.

House Bill 1072 passed the committee 9-4.

Both bills could be voted on by the full House later this week, but there’s a much bigger bill — containing the state budget — that could make some of the debate over ISTEP irrelevant.

Could the state budget kill ISTEP?

While discussing House Bill 1001 on Monday, a key Republican leader revealed that the budget proposal does not include extra money for a more expensive testing contract that Ritz and the department have said is necessary for an overhaul of ISTEP in 2016.

“I think it means we will have a discussion of what testing should be,” said Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, chairman of the budget-making House Ways and Means Committee.

Ritz raised alarms with Republicans crafting the budget when she told a committee in December that the cost of ISTEP would grow by 45 percent to $65 million for next year’s exam.

That’s because ISTEP must be overhauled to fit new Indiana academic standards with higher expectations for what students should know and would include new testing techniques. The goal of the standards is for students to graduate high school ready for college and careers, and the new test would include several new features that are more costly.

In response, key legislators proposed a different approach: junk ISTEP altogether and instead use a cheaper national test used by other states. Senate Bill 566 would do just that by halting efforts to create a new ISTEP.

The bill’s authors, including the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, and Sen Ryan Mishler, R-Bremen, suggested Indiana had options for what it could adopt as its state test, such as an exam from the Northwest Evaluation Association that many schools already use to prepare for ISTEP. It could be modified slightly and replace ISTEP, high school end-of-course exams and the third-grade reading exam all in one, depending on whether the test is given to grades 3 to 8 or 3 to 10, they said.

The proposed budget, at least for now, appears to assume the state would follow the path laid out by Senate Bill 566 and end ISTEP in favor of a national test.

At least that’s all the funding the proposed budget is offering to pay for.

“We came in at the same level as last year,” Brown said. “I don’t know if it means an off-the-shelf test or not.”

 

union power

Gutting Wisconsin teachers unions hurt students, study finds

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2015.

The high-profile fight to limit union power was replete with drama — including a recall election and state legislators fleeing to neighboring states.

In the 2011 battle in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker ultimately came out the victor. The controversial law passed, Walker won the recall, and the Democratic-aligned unions have lost much of their power.

But new research points to other losers in the fight: students in the state’s already struggling schools.

The first study to assess how Wisconsin’s high-profile weakening of unions, particularly teachers unions, affected students finds that it led to a substantial decline in test scores.

The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments for a case, known as Janus, that could dramatically scale back union power across the country — essentially taking aspects of the Wisconsin model national. And they give credence to concerns from unions and their defenders that weakening teachers bargaining power would ultimately make schools worse, not better.

A report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress released Wednesday highlights this research — and the fact that teacher pay and average experience declined in the wake of the law, known as Act 10 — to argue that weakening unions ultimately harm schools.

“Those concerned about the quality of public education — and of all public services — should understand that Wisconsin’s Act 10 and associated budget cuts have not had the positive impact on education that its proponents claimed it would,” the CAP report argues.

Still, the research, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, only assesses the short-term impact of Wisconsin’s law. It adds to a complicated set of research findings on unions that doesn’t render a clear verdict.

Short-term effect in Wisconsin is negative, especially for low-achieving schools

The new research looks at the effects of Wisconsin Act 10, which became law in 2011 and severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt of unions.

The paper’s author, Jason Baron, took advantage of what was essentially a natural experiment set up by the law. Act 10 did not affect all school districts at once — a handful of school districts were allowed to maintain union rules until their existing contract expired up to two years later. That helped isolate the immediate impact of the law.

Baron found that weakening unions led to declines in test scores, particularly in math and science. The effects were fairly large, comparable to sharply increasing class sizes. And the harm was not evenly distributed: Schools that started out furthest behind were hurt the most, while higher achieving schools saw no impact.

Other research may help explain why.

The law led to big cuts in teacher compensation, particularly for veteran teachers and especially in health insurance and retirement benefits, according to one paper. There was also a spike in teacher retirement immediately following the law’s passage.

As compensation drops, it may become harder for district and teachers to recruit and keep teachers. An increase in retirement also reduces teacher experience, which has been linked to effectiveness.

Another study found that some Wisconsin districts moved from a single salary schedule to a performance-based pay system after Act 10’s passage. Those performance pay systems were more likely to be adopted by higher-achieving districts, potentially allowing them to lure effective teachers away from struggling schools.

“Following Act 10, high-performing schools filled vacancies from teacher retirements by poaching high-quality teachers from low-performing schools through attractive compensation schemes,” the paper concludes. So while those retirements might have hit all districts equally, high-performing districts were better able to make up the difference — at the expense of low-performing schools.

There is one study that complicates the narrative in Wisconsin. As retirements spiked, it found that academic achievement actually increased in the grades that teachers left. It’s not clear what explains this.

The larger question of how teachers unions affect learning remains up for debate

A number of other recent studies have examined the relationship between teachers unions and student outcomes outside of Wisconsin. The results aren’t consistent, but the trend has been more positive for unions of late. A caveat: Some of these studies have not been published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

  • On recent efforts to weaken unions: Research in Tennessee found that it led to a drop in teacher pay, but had no effect on student test scores. But a study of four states, including Wisconsin, that recently weakened unions found evidence of reduced teacher quality as a result.
  • On what happens when charter schools unionize: Two studies in California came to differing conclusions. One found that when charters unionize, student test scores go up, but the other showed no impact.
  • On the initial rise of collective bargaining: Another paper finds that students who went to schools where districts negotiated with unions earned less money and were more likely to be unemployed as adults. But this study looks at a fairly old data set — examining those who attended schools between 1965 and 1992.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if any of this research is likely to influence the Supreme Court, as it considers the Janus case that could make life more difficult for unions. Last month, Chief Justice John Roberts called empirical studies on political gerrymandering “sociological gobbledygook.”

study up

Trump education nominee pleads ignorance about high-profile voucher studies showing negative results

At his confirmation hearing, Mick Zais, the nominee to be second-in-command at the Department of Education, said that he was not aware of high-profile studies showing that school vouchers can hurt student achievement.

It was a remarkable acknowledgement by Zais, who said he supports vouchers and would report to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose signature issue has been expanding publicly funded private school choice programs.

The issue was raised by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who asked whether Zais, who was previously the South Carolina schools chief, was “aware of the research on the impact of vouchers on student achievement.”

He replied: “To the best of my knowledge, whenever we give parents an opportunity to choose a school that’s a good fit for their child the result is improved outcomes.”

Franken responded, “No, that’s not true. The academic outcomes for students who used vouchers to attend private school are actually quite abysmal.”

Franken proceeded to mention recent studies from Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, and Washington, DC that showed declines in test scores after students move to private schools with a voucher.

Zais responded: “Senator, I was unaware of those studies that you cited.”

Franken then asked if Zais’s initial response expressing confidence in school choice was anecdotal, and Zais said that it was.

What’s surprising about Zais’s response is that these studies were not just published in dusty academic journals, but received substantial media attention, including in the New York Times and Washington Post (and Chalkbeat). They’ve also sparked significant debate, including among voucher supporters, who have argued against judging voucher programs based on short-term test scores.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the research confusion was a bipartisan affair at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing.

Although Franken, who referred to a New York Times article on voucher research in his question, was broadly accurate in his description of the recent studies, he said that a DC voucher study showed “significantly lower math and reading scores”; in fact, the results were only statistically significant in math, not reading.

Franken also did not mention evidence that the initial negative effects abated in later years in Indiana and for some students in Louisiana, or discuss recent research linking Florida’s voucher-style tax credit program to higher student graduation rates.

In a separate exchange, Washington Sen. Patty Murray grilled Jim Blew — the administration’s nominee for assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development — on the performance of Michigan’s charter schools. Murray said that DeVos was “one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system,” describing the results as “disastrous for children.”

Blew disputed this: “The characterization of the charter school sector in Detroit as being a disaster seems unfair. The most reliable studies are saying, indeed, the charter school students outperform the district students.”

Murray responded: “Actually, Michigan’s achievement rates have plummeted for all kids. In addition, charter schools in Michigan are performing worse than traditional public schools.”

(Murray may be referring to an Education Trust analysis showing that Michigan ranking on NAEP exams have fallen relative to other states. The study can’t show why, or whether school choice policies are the culprit, as some have claimed.)

Blew answered: “The most reliable studies do show that the charter school students in Detroit outperform their peers in the district schools.”

Murray: “I would like to see that because that’s not the data that we have.”

Blew: “I will be happy to get if for you; it’s done by the Stanford CREDO operation.”

Murray: “I’m not aware of that organization.”

CREDO, a Stanford-based research institution, has conducted among the most widely publicized — and sometimes disputed — studies of charter schools. The group’s research on Detroit does show that the city’s charter students were outperforming similar students in district schools, though the city’s students are among the lowest-performing in the country on national tests.