DIFFERENT EXAMINATION

Local education leaders are crying foul against the results of the state-mandated 2015 ISTEP+ exam. A more rigorous test with new content and a new format was administered in spring 2015, so the results — with significantly lower scores, released Wednesday — cannot be accurately compared to previous years.

Additionally, educators interviewed said the testing process was rife with confusion, controversy and technical errors. They are advising parents and students to take the lower scores with a grain of salt.

In Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp., 57.2 percent of students passed both the English/language arts and math portions of the test in 2015, administered to students in third through eighth grades. That’s down 18.2 points from 2014, when the test was not as long or as hard. The test time grew from six hours in 2014 to nine hours in 2015.

Flat Rock-Hawcreek School Corp. also posted a drop in scores, with 49.6 percent of students passing both sections of the 2015 test, 24.3 points lower than in 2014.

BCSC passing scores in both English and math were 3.7 points higher than the state average, an improvement from 2014 when local scores were 0.7 points higher. The smaller, Hope-based district performed worse than peers across the state — 3.9 points lower than the Indiana average in 2015 compared to 0.8 points worse the prior year.

Area private schools, which often earn some of the highest ISTEP scores in the county, saw split results on the 2015 test.

St. Bartholomew’s Catholic School had a 79.3 percent passing rate for both English and math 2015, earning it the highest score in the county — albeit 12.5 points lower than the prior year. It also had the highest scores in 2014, when 91.8 percent of students passed both English and math.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, 37.2 percent of students at Columbus Christian School passed both sections of the 2015 test, making it the lowest scoring school in Bartholomew County. Based on the year-over-year changes in ISTEP, local educators have been anticipating much lower results all along.

“We looked at the preliminary scores coming out and the way the test was set up, as well as administered, and all the issues we had with ISTEP,” said Shawn Price, Flat Rock-Hawcreek superintendent. “We knew this was coming.”

The 2015 ISTEP test was intentionally written to be more difficult to better gauge how prepared students are for college. The questions were based on new, more difficult state standards designed to increase college readiness.

Statewide, the 2015 scores showed a 21.2 point drop in the number of Hoosier students who passed both the English and math tests — 53.5 percent in all.

Before the official scores were released, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz said she anticipated 20 to 30 percent fewer students would pass the new test based on the more rigorous content.

More changes ahead?

As the 2015 results were released Wednesday morning, Ritz released a statement suggesting more changes are necessary.“After years of legislative changes at both the state and federal level, our schools were asked once again to implement new standards and subject students to a new assessment without time to transition. The 2015 ISTEP+ results have established a new baseline for Indiana’s progress towards college and career ready benchmarks … I look forward to seeing student growth towards these new, more rigorous benchmarks moving forward.“My top priority is the educational, social, and emotional well-being of Hoosier students. That is why I believe that is it time for Indiana to move away from the costly, lengthy, pass/fail ISTEP+ assessment. The one-size-fits-all high stakes approach of the ISTEP+ needs to end. Instead, Indiana should move towards a streamlined, individualized, student-centered assessment that provides students, families and educators with quick feedback about how a student is performing and how they have grown during a school year, Ritz said.

BCSC superintendent John Quick said he thinks it is wrong for the state Department of Education to intentionally design tests that students will struggle to pass.

Rather than using ISTEP as the ultimate indicator of college readiness, Quick said the department should urge school districts to use the test results to identify areas where students and teachers can improve.

“It’s important to take a snapshot, and that’s what ISTEP was originally intended to do, not measure everything in the free world,” Quick said.

Schools will see more changes to the statewide standardized test this spring, when assessment company Pearson takes over as test vendor from CTB/McGraw-Hill. Because of that imminent change, BCSC administrators say they do not know if they can use the results of the 2015 test even as baseline data to build on in the future.

“You’ve got to look at the bigger picture,” said Bill Jensen, BCSC director of secondary education. “This was a new test that was really quickly written based on new standards that were really quickly written, so I think what’s more important is to research students’ overall performance in course work.”

In addition to the revised content, the 2015 online test — like others before it — generated technology hurdles for students and schools to overcome.

‘Sense of frustration’

The revised exam was designed for the computer, and online practice tests were provided to prepare students for the new format.However, students at White Creek Lutheran School in Columbus never were able to successfully complete their practice tests because the online program repeatedly kicked them out of the testing program, said Jan Buss, White Creek principal. When it came time for the students to take the real test, they were unaware of what to expect from the new format, Buss said.

“It created a situation where even though the process was working once we began the test, the students went in with a sense of frustration,” Buss said.

Additionally, the state allowed school districts to defer the start of the 2015 ISTEP, an offer White Creek did not accept. At the end of the first day of testing, the education department announced that students could opt out of the online format in favor of a traditional pencil and paper test, which BCSC did.

However, because White Creek students already had begun testing, they could not easily switch to the traditional format, which put them at a disadvantage, Buss said.

“The children were never given the opportunity to practice the new format, and that hurt us,” Buss said. “The results shown by the ISTEP scores are not a true reflection or an accurate reflection of what they can do.”

White Creek earned a 52.3 passing rate on the 2015 test, down 31.5 points from 2014.

Because it is a private school, Buss said White Creek depends on its reputation for academic excellence to attract students and bring in revenue. Her fear is that the lower scores could tarnish that reputation and negatively affect the school and its teachers.

Some parents share that fear, as well.

“It saddens me that the testing results for our local schools gives the impression that our teachers are not faithfully instructing our children,” said Doug Bauman, Columbus, whose two sons have attended White Creek. “Our teachers need to be commended and encouraged for their service to our children.”

Administrators in the county’s two public school districts also said they do not believe the ISTEP scores paint a true picture of teacher performance in the classroom.

Even though their schools’ scores are down, Jessica Poe and J.P. Mayer, principals at Hope Elementary and Hauser Junior/Senior High School, respectively, said Hope-based students previously had competed well against peers in statewide testing.

Similarly, BCSC administrators say other benchmark tests, such as Acuity or the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills test, better known as DIBELS, show consistent student growth throughout the year. State legislation pending

In the past, student results on ISTEP have been used in determining letter grades for schools and teacher performance reviews. However, the Indiana General Assembly currently is considering Senate Bill 200, legislation that would prevent the education department from using the results of this year’s ISTEP results in reviewing a school’s overall performance because of the controversy surrounding the test.

Other legislation also is being considered that would not allow ISTEP scores to affect teacher raises.

That legislation is still pending, but local educator leaders say they are optimistic the state Legislature will be sympathetic to the issues teachers encountered when administering ISTEP last year. Clifty Creek Elementary School in Columbus and Hope Elementary have each been identified as priority schools in the past, partly because of poor student performance on ISTEP.

This year, 41.3 percent of Clifty Creek students passed the test, a 12.6 point decrease, while 47.5 percent of Hope Elementary students passed, a 25.4 point decrease.

However, both schools are showing signs of progress outside of ISTEP, administrators say, so the lower scores likely can be attributed to the more difficult questions that resulted in lower scores across the state.

At Hope Elementary, specifically, Poe said the results for last year’s sixth-grade students were the worst in the school, which brought down the school’s overall average. This year is her first as principal, so she said she is unsure why last the sixth-graders posted lower scores than their peers.

In the past, lower ISTEP scores would have meant state intervention for priority schools, but if Senate Bill 200 passes as educators expect it to, the department of education would not be allowed to penalize schools such as Clifty Creek or Hope for their ISTEP scores.

“We’re not even worrying about that,” Jensen said.

As parents begin to review students’ individual scores, school leaders are urging them not to become discouraged by the sudden drop.

Standardized tests only provide a small glimpse of a student’s academic potential, so rather than worrying about the results of a singular test, educators say parents should engage with what their students are doing in the classroom to get a full picture of strengths and weaknesses.

“Just think about, ‘What’s my school of one?’” Quick said.

Pull Quote

“You’ve got to look at the bigger picture. This was a new test that was really quickly written based on new standards that were really quickly written, so I think what’s more important is to research students’ overall performance in course work.”

— Bill Jensen, BCSC director of secondary education.

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“It’s important to take a snapshot, and that’s what ISTEP was originally intended to do, not measure everything in the free world.”

— John Quick, BCSC superintendent.

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“We looked at the preliminary scores coming out and the way the test was set up, as well as administered, and all the issues we had with ISTEP. We knew this was coming.”

— Shawn Price, Flat Rock-Hawcreek superintendent. 

Author photo
Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at ocovington@therepublic.com or 812-379-5712.