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How a Months-Long Delay on Test Scores Could Be the Final Blow for Indiana’s ISTEP Test

By Mark Keierleber | January 13, 2016

Photo: Getty Images
EDlection 2016 is The Seventy Four's ongoing coverage of state-level education news, issues and leaders in the run up to 2016 elections. (Among our previous stories in this series, stories from IowaConnecticutMinnesotaNevada Ohio and Texas. See the latest stories here). The Indiana primaries are scheduled for May 3.
When school began last August at Clifty Creek Elementary School in Columbus, Indiana, Dana Schmidt had no idea how well her students had performed a year earlier on the state’s biggest test.

In past years, results from the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress-Plus, or ISTEP, were given to teachers before the start of the new school year. One year, Clifty Creek had low scores in writing, “so we really, really worked on different strategies to help students” and saw a lot of growth, said Schmidt, who teaches English as a second language to students in kindergarten through sixth grade.

ISTEP is the state’s annual test to gauge student progress, particularly in reading, writing, and math, in order to meet federal accountability requirements. It’s also used to adjust teacher pay and to grade overall schools based on an A-F scale.

Schmidt said she understands why teachers need to be responsible for student growth, and the ISTEP assessment is one of many ways performance is measured. Although she isn’t supposed to “teach to the test,” she said she has used past ISTEP results to tweak instruction.

“If (students) are not doing well, and those are the standards, then we must not have done a good job teaching those standards for some of the kiddos,” she said. “So it is about looking at the data and changing the way you teach the curriculum.”

She wasn’t able to do that this year.

Because the test was riddled with one controversy after the next, Schmidt and teachers from across the state were forced to wait for months to see last school year’s scores.

Those official scores dropped just last week.

In 2015, 67 percent of students passed the English Language Arts section, 61 percent passed the mathematics section, and 53 percent passed both sections. Although these numbers show a huge dip in scores from 2014 — with the pass rate dropping more than 20 percentage points — state education department officials argue the results can’t be compared because the 2015 assessment used Indiana’s new, more rigorous “college and career ready standards.”

Tammy Bowman, the curriculum officer at Indianapolis Public Schools, said she understands why the lack of data was frustrating for teachers.

“Especially considering there’s six weeks until the first round of testing starts,” she said. “The majority of your instructional time to make those adjustments have passed.”

Paired with concerns over the scores’ accuracy, the tardiness has raised questions about whether the data is worth anything. Now, in a rare twist, it appears just about everyone — from the state’s Republican lawmakers to state teachers union officials — is looking to bury ISTEP.

“I’m not sure, candidly, whether ISTEP will survive this session,” said House Education Committee Chairman Robert Behning, a Republican from Indianapolis. He’s already proposed one bill this year that would separate teachers’ evaluations from last year’s test scores. “I think the brand has been so damaged that we need to think about how we can move forward.”

ISTEP has experienced technical problems several times over the years, but the most recent round of woes reaches back to 2013 when Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican, signed a law removing Indiana from the Common Core State Standards.

(More from The Seventy Four: 20 flashcards explain what the Common Core is, and what it isn’t)

The State Board of Education adopted its own set of academic standards in 2014. With a rewritten test coinciding with the new standards, teachers argued they weren’t given enough time to prepare for the exam. Additionally, the test was designed to take 12 hours to complete, though Pence bowed to the criticism and ordered it be shortened.

In August, CTB/McGraw-Hill, the testing company hired to grade the test, said the scores would be delayed because the company faced problems scoring new “technology-enhanced items,” which required students to complete online tasks. And in October state education officials released a report that raised “serious questions” about differences that made the online version of the test more difficult than the paper version.

And in December, an Indianapolis Star investigation reported that CTB failed to rescore tests after a computer glitch could have assigned incorrect scores to thousands of students.

Following the investigation, House Speaker Brian Bosma and state lawmakers from both parties joined the state’s largest teachers union, the Indiana State Teachers Association, in calling for an ISTEP alternative. The Indiana Department of Education assembled a panel of “national experts” to investigate the glitch, which found “no evidence that students were erroneously given a lower score.”

Still, Behning said he pushed for further score delays so a third party could rescore the assessment to ensure the data is, in fact, accurate — especially since scores will be used as a baseline to measure improvement on this year’s exam. That delay would have pushed the official release of 2015 results until after the 2016 test was distributed to students.

“I just think we have to have a valid starting point,” Behning said, explaining why he wants independent scrutiny. “I’m not sure that will totally create a high level of confidence in the field, but at least it’s better than having three people look at it and saying, ‘It’s OK.’”

With CTB’s contract now ending, testing rival Pearson will take the helm, starting with the test students will take this spring. But even after Pearson was awarded the $38 million two-year contract, a cyber attack and computer glitches in other states led Indiana education officials to question whether their new vendor would be any better.

Still, State Superintendent for Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, said doubts about the test scores’ validity caused a “ripple effect” throughout Indiana’s education community.

“Now more than ever, it is imperative that Indiana legislative and education leadership support a hold harmless approach for our teachers and our schools,” she said in a news release.

As a first step, Indiana legislators are preparing to do exactly that. Both the House and Senate are fast-tracking legislation that’s expected to land on Pence’s desk either this week or next. In the Senate, lawmakers are debating a bill that would hold schools harmless for their A-F accountability grades this year because of changes to the test. A House bill would extend similar protections to teachers.

Behning, who proposed the House bill, said he’s a “strong advocate” of accountability, but the data is too late to have much of an impact if results are supposed to be used as a tool to help teachers improve.

For some teachers, including Schmidt from Columbus, hiring a third party to regrade last year’s exam doesn’t go far enough to address the next ISTEP test. In a letter to the editor in The Courier-Journal, the teachers argued they should also be held harmless from 2016 test results.

“Results are to be reviewed and utilized to drive instruction the following year, as well as provide letter grades for schools,” according to the letter which was published in December. “Since teachers will not receive test results until January, it will be impossible to prepare students adequately for this year’s tests, which will start in March.”

But because teachers know the standards, Behning argued an additional delay makes little sense, although he understands how past results could help guide future instruction. Krista Stockman, a Fort Wayne Community Schools spokeswoman, said the delay should have had little effect on classroom instruction because the district uses other measurements to determine student growth and teacher performance, including districtwide tests.

“This delay doesn’t help in a lot of ways,” she said, “but teachers are still able to go on teaching.”

Although teachers will still hand out the 2016 ISTEP exam in the coming months (the first with Pearson), how that could look in coming years is still being discussed — with lots of options.

In December, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, a reauthorization to No Child Left Behind, which will give states, instead of the federal government, primary responsibility to measure school performance. J.T. Coopman, executive director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, said the change could put Indiana lawmakers into a position to create something “that makes a heck of a lot more sense” than handing out one test to meet federal accountability requirements.

“I think the ISTEP test is going to go away,” he said. “What it’s going to be replaced with, that’s going to be a debate.”

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