Saturday, February 7, 2015

Putting Indiana To The Test

There are plenty of people who successfully sit through 20+ hours of standardized tests.

They are called lawyers.

Even a college entrance exam only lasts four hours.

Because my elementary-aged, special needs daughters stand to be subjected to 20+ hours of ISTEP testing with their accommodations, I’ve been digging into the background of these current troubles with Indiana’s ISTEP miseries.

I am a writer and a researcher. I tell stories for a living. There’s a lot of political speak to wade through when it comes to what is happening in Indiana public education, and this is what I have deduced.

Before we get started? If I am wrong on any of these points? I am willing to stand corrected.

That said? Here goes.

In March of 2014, Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed new legislation that made Indiana the first to opt out of national Common Core standards set by the US Department of Education. 

To be honest, I am glad this happened. My rocket scientist husband has had difficulty helping our elementary daughters with their Common Core math homework.

I didn't even attempt it.

From a parent’s perspective, Common Core is about learning different ways to do a math problem. Which sounds good, until students are actually required to learn and remember all three ways of doing a problem instead of the one way that works best for them.

For a kid with memory retrieval disorder, this can be hell.

If Indiana Common Core standards had been about students having some options? This might have made sense. 

But it wasn't. Pissed off parents were represented by their Governor, and Common Core was no longer the modus operandi for Indiana kids.

That should have been the end of it.

Instead, it was just the beginning of a roller coaster ride with all of the thrills and spills of an expensive, divisive, politically-charged mess. 

Better buckle up.

From my perch here in rural Southern Indiana, that doesn’t seem to be the case. 

Here’s why:

After Governor Pence’s approval of Indiana’s legislative decision to opt out of Common Core, State Superintendent Glenda Ritz received a letter from the US Department of Education Assistant Secretary Deborah S. Delisle. Delisle indicated that without the Common Core Assessments, Indiana would be in violation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), as amended.

A bit of background on the ESEA might be helpful.

You probably know ESEA as No Child Left Behind. The current version of the legislation was authorized by George W. Bush in 2002, and the Federal Government “required states to conduct annual testing in reading and math for students in grades 3-8 with the tests requiring alignment with state academic standards.

In English, this means that the state was going to have to take on a greater responsibility for streamlining education for every school corporation in the state of Indiana.

Because we all know that every school corporation is created equal. Inner city, suburban, rural. Completely the same in every way.

(Can you hear my eyes rolling?)

While on the campaign trail, Barack Obama called for “commonsense” changes to the No Child Left Behind Legislation. Mainly, he suggested that the Department of Education ditch the annual testing requirements. 

Because I loathe the notion of little children filling in Scantron sheets when they could be doing something productive for their brain development, you might imagine how this made me feel.

But he also asked for a teacher evaluation system in each state that “would incorporate data on student growth.”

So that sounds like testing. How else would you generate data? Am I right?

Understandably, sensible Hoosiers got hacked about these requirements coming from Washington; these mandates insinuated that we weren't smart enough to educate our children without federal interference.

Fortunately, before there was true revolt, the Obama Administration authorized waivers for the ESEA or No Child Left Behind. In 2011, Indiana applied and was one of ten states approved for ESEA flexibility. 

There were, however, strings attached to this waiver.

My mentor, a seasoned history teacher, has taught me a mantra for living. It is as follows:

“There is no such thing as rescue. The Marines are not coming.”

This is to remind me that solutions to my problems - whether at home or in my business - are best generated and executed by me. 

It is also to remind me that anyone who claims to be a Marine to rescue me from a clear and present danger is usually just an opportunist.

In 2011, Indiana had a lot of work to do for this waiver. A lot of work.

Enter the opportunists.

Like I said, I'm a storyteller. So when I am developing characters, I like to think of analogies. The players here aren’t unlike carpetbaggers after the Civil War.  They smell money to be made, and they swoop in with easy answers.

Unfortunately, these easy answers ended up costing Indiana quite a bit of political stability.

Like carpetbaggers after the truce at Appomattox, virtual charter schools like Connections Academy and K12 appeared in Indiana nearly overnight.  They were looking for just this kind of opening – a federal mandate for the state of Indiana that they could monetize.

In 2011, the Indiana Department of Education authorized an Office of Charter Schools. These charter schools were created as a means of intervention to fit with the first part of the Federal flexibility requirements.

Here’s where it gets a little weird. 

Indiana students weren’t in dire straits prior to opting out of No Child Left Behind requirements. The only children that needed intervention and improvement were already receiving it in their local school districts. All Indiana had to do was document what was already being done to satisfy the first requirement. The State Board of Education could have created an improvement plan, implemented that improvement plan, and documented that improvement plan without for-profit charter schools.

But when someone is dangling money at your legislators, sometimes they just seem to get weak.

My grandmother had a name for people who were willing to lay down for a dollar. But that's beside the point.

Unfortunately, charter schools did not solve Indiana's troubles.

In fact? They may have made our situation worse.

For the most recent ESEA waiver, Indiana came up with their own standards apart from the Common Core. This meant that yet another new test needed to be developed.

Time for more opportunists. Enter the test writers!

When you create a test that no one has ever seen before, you have to pilot questions for accuracy. 

Indiana had hoped to be able to pilot these questions prior to this spring’s mandatory ISTEP examinations. Everyone seemed to be on schedule and on target.

Remember, Indiana formally opted out of the Common Core in March. Superintendent Ritz had received another letter about ESEA requirements in May. 

In June of 2014, the United States Department of Education, under the direction of Secretary Arne Duncan, demanded that Indiana State Superintendent Glenda Ritz would have to “impose a new statewide standardized test on K-12 students…to maintain control over $200 million a year in federal education funding.” 

Which seemed to derail everything. Different standards were necessary than the ones in motion.

Why? No one is certain. A Democrat White House takes on a popular Republican governor? A Department of Education Secretary with a bee in his bonnet? The Gates Foundation totally uncool with Indiana's decision to thumb its nose at their prescriptive path of data-driven reform and high stakes testing?

And, as if to twist the knife, the US Department of Education absolutely refused to wait another year to accept a test based on the state’s new education standards. This had to be done immediately, or federal funding was going to be cut off.

Forget that Indiana had standards in place and an existing ISTEP exam that could have been recycled. The US Department of Education mandated a complete overhaul. 

This wasn't good enough for the federal government. So much for being able to opt out of the Common Core and grant local control to your school corporations.

So State Superintendent Glenda Ritz went to work to secure Indiana’s funding. $65 million dollars was authorized by the legislature and spent to develop this new test according to the new Indiana state standards. 

$65 million to secure $200 million. Not bad, I guess.

The Indiana Department of Education had to exact new state standards, distribute those to educators, and come up with appropriate testing. First the standards, then the test.

All in a time crunch.

CTB/McGraw-Hill just finished creating that test last month. Complete with all of the pilot questions. For every student.

We don't really know if it will work or not. You may recall that last year's technology glitches really impaired Indiana's school children in their quest for excellence.

And all of the test questions haven't exactly been reviewed.

In normal circumstances, piloting is done on just that: a pilot basis. It allows test creators to get data to help them modify the test before the actual test so that it is more fair.

But with the squeeze from the US Department of Education, there just wasn’t time to pilot the test. So now every Indiana student has to take every potential question. Or so says CTB/McGraw-Hill.

So third, fourth, and fifth grade students now have to pilot questions in addition to taking an actual test for their evaluation. This means that third graders - 8 and 9 year olds - are scheduled in a month to be testing for 12 hours and 30 minutes.

And most of those questions won't even count.

The amount of time that students will be tested has either doubled or, in some cases, tripled. And for students with special needs or English as a second language with time and a half accommodations, this means students will miss out on valuable and critical classroom instruction and specials in order to complete the test.

Interestingly, Indiana lawmakers are currently considering scrapping the whole of ISTEP for an off-the-shelf test with standards and guidelines consistent with (you guessed it!) the Common Core. The same Common Core that Indiana sought a waiver from in the first place.

As sick as this is, it might actually be doable if the stakes were minimal.

But our kids haven’t been prepared for those Common Core standards this year.

And remember those A-F grades I mentioned earlier? They weigh into this equation pretty heavily.

Because nine year olds filling in bubble sheets with their trusty number two pencils determine their teacher's effectiveness, their school's quality, and their state's education system.

The A-F scale hasn’t been without other controversies. One charter school, Christel House, has been under scrutiny regarding their scores since their founder, Christel DeHaan, was found to be a contributor to former State Superintendent Tony Bennett’s campaign. 

Christel House’s grades were consistent As when Bennett was State Superintendent. However, the school’s grade dropped to an F in 2012-2013 “after test scores made a dramatic drop…A legislative investigation later deemed Bennett’s A-F changes ‘plausible’ and the state’s ethics commission declined to bring charges against him based on the Christel House concerns. In July (DeHaan) paid a fine for campaign law violation.

Despite all of these concerns, Indiana is moving forward to use this year’s ISTEP exam with all of its pilots and probable student test fatigue as a means of evaluating schools and teachers.

Enter more opportunists disguised as helpful Marines. 

We really should be more leery of people who seem to have all the right answers.

“’In another other parameter or any other statistical group, that would be a miracle, and I would be lauded,’ Brugioni said.”

Mr. Brugioni would bomb his TNTP-sponsored evaluations.

God only knows how much the state of Indiana is paying TNTP to be consultants.

Clearly, local control of is not in the interest of The New Teacher Project, a spinoff of Teach For America, which I actually like as an organization.  I hope one of my kids works for them someday.

They are all about that test. Which makes me wonder if they truly understand how poverty affects students. Mr. Brugioni's students made incredible leaps in his classroom.

Leaps that go unnoticed by standardized tests. Because standardized tests don't account for variables like poverty.

This entire episode of educational stress has caused a great deal of political turmoil in our state. It has seriously divided our people and created a lot of bad blood.

The biggest example is the hardest for me to understand.  Indiana Senate and House leaders have been moving legislation forward to replace State Superintendent Glenda Ritz – a state official duly elected by 1.3 million Hoosiers – as the chair of the Indiana State Board of Education, a huge obviously politically motivated distraction from all of the craziness at hand.

I assume this is because the Governor wishes to appoint his own people to the State Board of Education.

The question is why.

Why not work with State Superintendent Ritz to just solve some of these problems? Why can't these two elected officials join their superpowers and take on the US Department of Education, ESEA Legislation, and the unfair waiver – the unseemly, God-awful No Child Left Behind waiver with teeth in it that started all of this mess in the first place?

Be all like "Hey Department of Education! Don’t tell us that we can opt out of Common Core and not give us all of the consequences up front. Don’t tell us out of one side of your mouth that you support local control of our schools while creating evaluation systems that negate the expertise of our administrators. Don’t penalize us for creating culturally relevant educational opportunities for all of Indiana’s students!"

But even with him being a Republican and her being a Democrat, it does seem that the Indiana House and Senate Republican Majorities really wouldn’t want to anger part of their base – a base that clearly got Superintendent Ritz elected in the first place – by getting shed of her.

When people vote, they kind of expect their winner to be able to govern.

If I were Governor, I would extend an olive branch. But what do I know?

Since I don’t have much besides what I hope is common sense, I would like to propose some common sense solutions to this mess. Simple, small government solutions to get Indiana through this year and onto next year.

First? Scrap ISTEP for 2015.

You heard me. Forget it. Tear it up. Shred it. Fini. 

“But what about the $200 million dollars that we are going to lose in Federal funding?”

Well, remember all of that money that Indiana has been saving for a rainy day? The $2 billion in reserves and an annual budget surplus of $100 million?

Let’s take 10% - just 10% of our reserves - to cover the quagmire created by the demands of the United States Department of Education. We'll build it back in interest alone in two years.

"What about the $65 million we spent developing this test? Won't it be wasted?"

Consider it stupid tax for not pressing harder against the US Department of Education. And keep moving forward.

Go back to the drawing board. Create state standards in line with an off-the-shelf test like Iowa or Stanford. Eliminate the ECA and get our kids ready for the PSAT, SAT, and ACT.

You know. Tests that will actually help in them on their journey. And less than a tenth of the cost of ISTEP.

Send the carpetbaggers packing. They came to make money off of our situation. They made it. Like I said? Stupid tax. Time to move on.

Go to Washington, Governor Pence and Superintendent Ritz. Arm in arm in the best bipartisan way you can imagine. Testify as to the bind that ESEA puts states in. Demand local control for our schools that is developmentally and culturally appropriate. Tell Senator Lamar Alexander how it is. Get our representatives and Senators Donnelly and Coats to lead the way to keep from testing America’s kids to death.

Especially children with special needs and CHINS cases. Our teachers know by October if those kids are going to pass by Spring. Let our schools create appropriate intervention plans for each at-risk child that move them on a path toward steady growth, no matter where they begin on that path.

If we must have charter schools, we ought to hold them to a higher standard than our public schools. Call them what they are – for-profit companies taking public money. They can refuse students; a public school cannot. They should be held to higher standards.

And for the love of Pete, reconsider the basis of the A-F ratings. If a school is in trouble, intervene with love and support, not punitive, restrictive practices that are akin to bullying. Help communities buy in as stakeholders and take pride in their schools.

Reward progress and innovation. Instead of offering parents $100 grocery cards to lure them into charter schools, start 529 accounts for students and give them visions and dreams for college.

Our young people deserve an end to the fighting and backroom deals. The grownups need to model decorum and respect, even if we disagree.

We can do better. 

We have to do better.

Our future as Hoosiers depends on it.

UPDATE: I've learned that some Indiana charter schools are attached to nonprofits instead of being for profit. That might be alright, but I still think they deserve some scrutiny. Just like any contractor attempting to do business with the state.

UPDATE: I've heard from four members of the Indiana State Board of Education. They are sympathetic to parental and educator concern about the length of these exams. One went so far as to say that hours have been spent on the telephone "making calls to state and federal specialists in the hopes of finding another alternative."

They've vowed to continue fighting. I appreciate their work.