The state’s controversial standardized test, ISTEP+, has a new vendor and some questions of its own that will be filled in later as state education leaders scramble to recover from the fallout of last year’s test, which was harder and longer than previous ones.

The 2016 testing window opened this week with students taking an exam administered by a new vendor, Pearson.

Pearson was chosen to replace CTB/McGraw Hill, which had been the state’s standardized test administrator for about 30 years, said Missy Zimmerman, Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. testing coordinator.

Despite the new vendor, students will notice few changes on the 2016 test, Zimmerman said.

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The critical standards that were assessed in 2015 return this year, so the content will be virtually the same, she said.

Most students who take ISTEP will spend nearly three hours over the next two weeks taking this first part of the exam. It will be about a half-hour shorter for third-graders and eighth-graders. The second section of the test, which starts in about three weeks, will take considerably longer for most students — with 10th-graders having the longest tests at a little more than six hours and third-graders the shortest at a little more than four hours.

In the first section, currently underway, Grades 3 to 8 and 10 will take English/language arts and math sections of the exam. Fourth-, sixth- and 10th-graders will also complete science sections, and fifth- and seventh-graders will also be tested on social studies.

State education leaders proposed administering a 12-hour test in 2015, an idea that was met with harsh criticism and backlash from parents and educators alike. Amid the outcry, Republican Gov. Mike Pence signed an executive order reducing the test to nine hours just a week before it began.

For this incarnation of ISTEP+, Pearson sent practice tests to all Indiana schools last week to give students a sense of what types of questions they would see on the real exam.

In BCSC schools, teachers took an instructional approach to the practice tests.

Rather than giving students their practice booklets and having them answer the questions as if it were test day, BCSC teachers walked them through each section, explaining the rules and requirements and allowing time for questions.

As she helped her students through the English/language arts practice test, Serena Jordan, a fourth-grade teacher at Clifty Creek Elementary School, encouraged her students to use the special tricks they learned in the classroom to help them on ISTEP.

For example, Jordan teaches her students to remember COPS when they write. The acronym stands for capitalization, organization, punctuation and spelling.

Jordan reminded fourth-graders to use COPS as they wrote their answers to a practice question and encouraged them to write the acronym into the margins of the real ISTEP test booklet to help them on test day.

Allowing teachers to walk their students through the practice tests increases student confidence, Zimmerman said.

“It’s not just putting the question up and saying, ‘Go,’” she said. “We talk through it so the kids are seeing how it goes from this page to the next page and getting them more comfortable with the platform.”

Students in Flat Rock-Hawcreek School Corp. in Hope, however, completed their practice tests as if they were taking the real ISTEP, said Jessica Poe, principal of Hope Elementary School.

Once students finished the practice exams, Poe said teachers reviewed the questions and helped students through any problems that arose while they were testing.

That method gives students the most accurate picture of what it will be like on test day while also allowing them to ask the questions that could hold them back, Poe said.

Additionally, teachers in both BCSC and Flat Rock-Hawcreek have made an effort to incorporate ISTEP critical standards into their everyday classroom curriculum.

Rigorous standards

The Indiana Department of Education adopted a set of more rigorous standards after the state pulled out the nationwide Common Core standards shortly before ISTEP began last year.

As a result of the tougher standards, ISTEP questions were about 30 percent more difficult than the prior year, said John Quick, BCSC superintendent.

The same standards will be used for the 2016 ISTEP exam, but Quick said such consistency may not necessarily be a good thing.

The new standards were introduced quickly last year, giving teachers little time to prepare their students for the more difficult questions that would appear on ISTEP.

As a result, student standardized test scores were dramatically lower, both across the state and in Bartholomew County schools.

In BCSC, 57.2 percent of students passed both the math and English/language arts sections of the 2015 test — an 18.2-point drop over the prior year.

Flat Rock-Hawcreek Schools posted a 24.3-point drop with 49.6 percent of students passing both sections.

Across the state, 53.5 percent of all Hoosier students passed both sections.

Concerns about test

Even though students and teachers have since had a year to work with the tougher standards, Quick said he is still concerned that the tests are not accurately assessing student growth from year to year.

“Our kids are getting better, and we’re getting better at what we do,” he said. “But it’s not the right kind of test, so you could be getting better and better at the wrong thing.”

Other educators share Quick’s concern about the current ISTEP model.

Gina Pleak, Clifty Creek Elementary principal, said she is confident that her students are making academic gains from year to year. Despite those gains, the school has shown poor performance on ISTEP in previous years, making it a target for possible state intervention.

But Pleak said she does not feel any extra pressure for her school to perform well just to avoid state intervention. Instead, she said she wants state education officials to recognize that her students are improving, regardless of what the ISTEP data might say.

“I just want everyone to see how well they’re doing and wanting this test to be designed to show their knowledge and all the gains they have made,” Pleak said.

After the tumultuous year of ISTEP testing in 2015, the Indiana General Assembly began working on legislation in the 2016 session to bring an end to the current ISTEP model and create a new standardized testing format. Those discussions are ongoing.

The state cannot completely eliminate standardized testing without losing about $300 million in federal education funds each year.

What’s different

Some major changes to the state’s standardized testing model are in place this year.

Previously, students who were enrolled in Algebra I, Biology and English 10 were required to take an End of Course Assessment (ECA) at the end of the year.

This year, however, sophomores across the state will take both the ECA for English 10 and Algebra I at the end of the year, as well as math and English/language arts sections of ISTEP during the spring testing window.

The ECA will be completely phased out after the Class of 2018 graduates in favor of the statewide standardized test. However, the biology ECA has already been eliminated and replaced with a science section of ISTEP for high school students this year, Zimmerman said.

Creating an ISTEP schedule for high school students has been difficult, said Susan Scott, an assistant principal at Columbus North High School who has been overseeing ISTEP efforts.

Each of the three test sections are a different length, so three different ISTEP schedules had to be created, Scott said.

Each of those schedules had to be devised to allow for large groups of students to be pulled out of their regular classroom instruction for long periods of time without falling too far behind their peers who do not have to take ISTEP.

“That’s really a challenge,” Scott said.

Tech stress

But schools in both Columbus and Hope have eliminated one possible challenge from this year’s testing experience, at least for the first round of ISTEP. Both BCSC and Flat Rock opted out of the online testing option in favor of traditional paper and pencil.

BCSC schools had a 15 percent error rate when they completed the statewide stress test to gauge how well the ISTEP technology works — a rate that is far too high for comfort, Quick said.

Quick said he is concerned that such a level of technology problems will return for the online portion of the real ISTEP, putting hundreds of his students’ scores in jeopardy.

Flat Rock-Hawcreek schools also experienced some technological errors during the stress test, which the district is currently working to fix, said Shawn Price, superintendent of Flat Rock- Hawcreek schools.

Nevertheless, the schools will be required to use technology during the second part of the 2016 ISTEP, which is an online multiple-choice test.

Testing time frame, first part

ISTEP+ 2016 Round 1: Feb. 29 – March 11

Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. and Flat Rock-Hawcreek School Corp. both chose to allow students to use paper and pencil on all sections of Round 1.

Parts 2a and 2b of the English/language arts section must be completed on the same day.

English/Language Arts

  • Grades 3-8: Part 1 –30 minutes; Part 2a: Short answer, 20 minutes; Part 2b: Essay, 60 minutes
  • Grade 10: Part 1 — 30 minutes; Part 2a: Short answer, 20 minutes; Part 2b: Essay, 55 minutes

Math

  • Grades 3-8, 10: 40 minutes

Science

  • Grades 4, 6, 10: 30 minutes

Social studies

  • Grades 5, 7: 25 minutes

Testing time frame, second part

ISTEP+ 2016 Round 2: April 18 – May 6

Online multiple-choice exam.

English/Language Arts

  • Third grade: Section 1 – 40 minutes; section 2 – 48 minutes; section 3 – 43 minutes
  • Fourth grade: Section 1 – 40 minutes; section 2 – 53 minutes; section 3 – 48 minutes
  • Fifth grade: Section 1 – 40 minutes; section 2 – 48 minutes; section 3 – 58 minutes
  • Sixth grade: Section 1 – 35 minutes; section 2 – 38 minutes; section 3 – 43 minutes
  • Seventh grade: Section 1 – 55 minutes; section 2 – 38 minutes; section 3 – 53 minutes
  • Eighth grade: Section 1 – 40 minutes; section 2 – 48 minutes; section 3 – 53 minutes
  • 10th grade: Section 1 – 40 minutes; section 2 – 48 minutes; section 3 – 33 minutes; section 4 – 38 minutes

Math

  • Section 1: Grades 3-5 — 20 minutes; grades 6-8 — 25 minutes; grade 10 — 40 minutes
  • Section 2: Grades 3-8 — 50 minutes; grade 10 — 40 minutes
  • Section 3: Grades 3-8 — 48 minutes; grade 10 — 40 minutes

Science:

  • Section 1: Grade 4 — 36 minutes; grade 6 — 38 minutes; grade 10 — 45 minutes
  • Section 2: Grade 4 — 35 minutes; grade 6 — 35 minutes; grade 10 — 44 minutes

Social studies 

  • Section 1: Grades 5, 7 — 38 minutes
  • Section 2: Grades 5, 7 — 35 minutes

Pull Quote

“Our kids are getting better and we’re getting better at what we do. But it’s not the right kind of test, so you could be getting better and better at the wrong thing.”

— John Quick, Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. superintendent

Pull Quote

“I just want everyone to see how well they’re doing and wanting this test to be designed to show their knowledge and all the gains they have made.”

— Gina Pleak, Clifty Creek Elementary principal

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