Politics of testing

From ISTEP to ILEARN: GOP test plan clears first legislative hurdle

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

A proposal to replace ISTEP won approval from Indiana’s House Education Committee today, putting what is likely another nail in the deeply unpopular exam’s coffin.

The committee, headed by Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, voted 10-2 to move forward with a testing system that would be called “ILEARN.” If the plan becomes law, those tests would be given for the first time in 2019.

But lawmakers also expressed deep frustration with the constant debate about how to assess Indiana’s students — and acknowledged that there are still a lot of unanswered questions about how “ILEARN” would work.

Read: Getting rid of Indiana’s ISTEP test: What might come next and at what cost?

One question is whether it makes sense for Indiana to continue developing the test even though guidance from the U.S. Department of Education has been unclear — a reference to the recent pause on federal education rules during the presidential transition.

Behning, also the author of House Bill 1003, said it does.

“The law itself is still in place,” Behning said at the bill’s initial hearing on Tuesday.

The proposed system comes primarily from the recommendations of a state commission charged with figuring out what Indiana’s new testing system could look like. The biggest changes would be structural: The bill would have the test given in one block of time at the end of year rather than in the winter and spring. For high school students, the state would go back to requiring end-of-course assessments in English, Algebra I and science, not a 10th-grade test like what the state introduced in 2016.

But for students, ILEARN might not look look much different. If Indiana creates a test of its own, as it did with ISTEP, that’s especially likely, since Indiana already owns its test questions. The bill doesn’t spell out if the test must be Indiana-specific or off-the-shelf, but the exam would have to align with Indiana’s academic standards.

Committee members said they were fed up with the ever-changing, never-ending conversations about state tests and the academic standards they’re based on. They pointed to the rollercoaster of education policy changes that Indiana has been on since 2013, when the state ditched tests associated with the Common Core standards.

Read: They rejected multi-state Common Core exams. Now what?

State-created tests like ISTEP, they said, are too costly, too unreliable and so frequently maligned by lawmakers and policymakers alike that parents, teachers and community members no longer have much faith in them.

Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, said he’d rather see the state go with an off-the-shelf test that is cheaper and allows Indiana to compare itself to other states. Other Democrats on the committee echoed his frustrations.

“I think a yes vote is passing up the opportunity to listen to our constituents who say, ‘We’ve had enough of the ISTEP and whatever else name we call it,’” said Rep. Sue Errington, D-Muncie, who voted against the bill Thursday. She was joined by DeLaney.

DeLaney, who passionately argued today that ISTEP is educationally bankrupt, called on legislators to stop and take a hard look at whether the testing changes would ultimately be valuable to schools, teachers and students.

“I think we need to ask ourselves, what are we doing?” DeLaney said. “Amending this failing test is getting us nowhere.”

You can find all of Chalkbeat’s testing coverage here.

more digging

Kingsbury High added to list of Memphis schools under investigation for grade changing

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Kingsbury High School was added to a list of schools being investigated by an outside firm for improper grade changes. Here, Principal Terry Ross was featured in a Shelby County Schools video about a new school budget tool.

Another Memphis high school has been added to the list of schools being investigated to determine if they made improper changes to student grades.

Adding Kingsbury High School to seven others in Shelby County Schools will further delay the report initially expected to be released in mid-June.

But from what school board Chairwoman Shante Avant has heard so far, “there haven’t been any huge irregularities.”

“Nothing has surfaced that gives me pause at this point,” Avant told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

The accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman is conducting the investigation.

This comes about three weeks after a former Kingsbury teacher, Alesia Harris, told school board members that Principal Terry Ross instructed someone to change 17 student exam grades to 100 percent — against her wishes.

Shelby County Schools said the allegations were “inaccurate” and that the grade changes were a mistake that was self-reported by an employee.

“The school administration immediately reported, and the central office team took the necessary actions and promptly corrected the errors,” the district said in a statement.

Chalkbeat requested a copy of the district’s own initial investigation the day after Harris spoke at the board’s June meeting, but district officials said they likely would not have a response for Chalkbeat until July 27.

Harris said that no one from Dixon Hughes Goodman has contacted her regarding the investigation as of Thursday.

The firm’s investigation initially included seven schools. Kingsbury was not among them. Those seven schools are:

  • Kirby High
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Bolton High
  • Westwood High
  • White Station High
  • Trezevant High
  • Memphis Virtual School

The firm’s first report found as many as 2,900 failing grades changed during four years at nine Memphis-area schools. At the request of the board, two schools were eliminated: one a charter managed by a nonprofit, and a school outside the district. The firm said at the time that further investigation was warranted to determine if the grade changes were legitimate.

The $145,000 investigation includes interviews with teachers and administrators, comparing teachers’ paper grade books to electronic versions, accompanying grade change forms, and inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades.

Since the controversy started last year, the district has restricted the number of employees authorized to make changes to a student’s report card or transcript, and also requires a monthly report from principals detailing any grade changes.

Controversy

Boundary lines of proposed South Loop high school drive wedge between communities

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke
About 30 speakers weighed in on a boundary proposal for a new South Loop high school at a public meeting at IIT.

The parent, wearing an “I Love NTA” T-shirt, said it loudly and directly toward the end of the public comment section Thursday night. “It sickens me to be here today and see so many people fighting for scraps,” said Kawana Hebron, in a public meeting on the boundaries for a proposed South Loop high school on the current site of National Teachers Academy. “Every community on this map is fighting for scraps.”

The 1,200-student high school, slated to open for the 2019-2020 school year near the corner of Cermak Road and State Street, has become a wedge issue dividing communities and races on the Near South Side.

Supporters of NTA, which is a 82 percent black elementary school, say pressure from wealthy white and Chinese families is leading the district to shutter its exceptional 1-plus rated program. A lawsuit filed in Circuit Court of Cook County in June by parents and supporters contends the decision violates the Illinois Civil Rights Code. 

But residents of Chinatown and the condo-and-crane laden South Loop have lobbied for an open-enrollment high school for years and that the district is running out of places to put one.

“I worry for my younger brother,” said a 15-year-old who lives between Chinatown and Bridgeport and travels north to go to the highly selective Jones College Prep. She said that too many students compete for too few seats in the nail-biting process to get into a selective enrollment high school. Plus, she worries about the safety, and environment, of the schools near her home. “We want something close, but good.”

PHOTO: Courtesy of Chicago Public Schools
The “general attendance” boundary for the proposed South Loop high school is outlined in blue. The neighborhoods outlined in red would receive “preference,” but they would not be guaranteed seats.

One by one, residents of Chinatown or nearby spoke in favor of the high school at the meeting in Hermann Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology. They described their long drives, their fearfulness of dropping off children in schools with few, if any, Chinese students, and their concerns about truancy and poor academics at some neighboring open-enrollment high schools.

But their comments were sandwiched by dissenting views. A member of South Loop Elementary’s Local School Council argued that Chicago Public Schools has not established a clear process when it comes to shuttering an elementary and spending $10 million to replace it with a high school. “CPS scheduled this meeting at the same time as a capital budget meeting,” she complained.

She was followed by another South Loop parent who expressed concerns about potential overcrowding, the limited $10 million budget for the conversion, and the genesis of the project. “It’s a terrible way to start a new high school – on the ashes of a good elementary school,” the parent said.

The most persistent critique Thursday night was not about the decision to close NTA, but, rather, of the boundary line that would determine who gets guaranteed access and who doesn’t. The GAP, a diverse middle-class neighborhood bordered by 31st on the north, 35th on the South, King Drive to the east and LaSalle Street to the west, sits just outside the proposed boundary. A parade of GAP residents said they’ve been waiting for decades for a good option for their children but have been locked out in this iteration of the map. Children who live in the GAP would have “preference” status but would not be guaranteed access to seats.

“By not including our children into the guaranteed access high school boundaries – they are being excluded from high-quality options,” said Claudia Silva-Hernandez, the mother of two children, ages 5 and 7. “Our children deserve the peace of mind of a guaranteed-access option just like the children of South Loop, Chinatown, and Bridgeport.”

Leonard E. McGee, the president of the GAP Community Organization, said that tens of millions in tax-increment financing dollars – that is, money that the city collects on top of property tax revenues that is intended for economic development in places that need it most – originated from the neighborhood in the 1980s and went to help fund the construction of NTA. But not many of the area’s students got seats there.

Asked how he felt about the high school pitting community groups against each other, he paused. “If we’re all fighting for scraps, it must be a good scrap we’re fighting for.”

The meeting was run by Herald “Chip” Johnson, chief officer of CPS’ Office of Family and Community Engagement. He said that detailed notes from the meeting will be handed over to the office of CEO Janice Jackson. She will make a final recommendation to the Board of Education, which will put the plan up for a vote.