Schools get reprieve with paper-and-pencil tests

Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. students will be allowed to complete the second round of the 2016 ISTEP+ exam using paper and pencil, despite a statewide mandate that requires all schools to use an online format.

The Columbus public school district successfully petitioned the Indiana Department of Education last month to allow teachers to administer the multiple-choice portion of the test using traditional booklets, rather than computers, said Missy Zimmerman, BCSC testing coordinator.

The testing window for Round 2 opens for all schools Monday, but Zimmerman said BCSC students will not begin their exams until Tuesday at the earliest. Principals can make their own testing schedules within the three-week window, she said.

All Indiana schools, including BCSC, Flat Rock-Hawcreek schools in Hope and local private schools Columbus Christian, St. Bartholomew’s, St. Peter’s Lutheran and White Creek Lutheran, must finish testing within that time.

Using the paper-and-pencil format could help the Columbus district guard against potential technological errors that might cause students to perform poorly, while also giving BCSC administrators and teachers the opportunity to observe the successes and failures of other districts administering the exam online, Zimmerman said.

“I’m very interested to see how the online testing goes around the state,” she said.

During the first portion of the 2016 ISTEP exam, which began Feb. 29 and focused on short-answer questions, Indiana school districts were allowed to choose between a paper-and-pencil or online format. All BCSC schools opted for the traditional route, Zimmerman said.

But for the second portion of the exam, the state education department mandated that all students use an online testing server to answer multiple-choice questions, a requirement that raised concern across the state.

Test scores drop

Technological errors were named as one of several factors — including a more rigorous test — that resulted in drastically lower ISTEP scores in 2015, when 53.5 percent of all Hoosier students passed both the English/language arts and math portions of the test compared to 74.7 percent the prior year.ISTEP scores also fell locally in 2015.

In BCSC schools, 57.2 percent of all students passed both portions of the exam, down from 75.4 percent the previous year.

In Flat Rock _ Hawcreek schools, 49.6 percent of students earned passing scores for both math and English/language arts, down from 73.9 percent.

Although a new vendor, Pearson, took over as test administrator this year, there was still a 15 percent error rate for the online test when BCSC students completed initial practice rounds earlier this year, superintendent John Quick said at the time. If a 15 percent error rate were present during the actual test, Quick said hundreds of students in the nearly 12,000-student district would be affected by a technology error, thus putting the district’s overall scores in jeopardy.

With those issues in mind, Zimmerman said BCSC chose to take advantage of an appeals process and make its case to the Department of Education as to why a paper-and-pencil test would work to the advantage of Columbus students.

Zimmerman said the district chose to highlight its transition to a one-to-one technology ratio as the reason local students should be allowed to complete the second portion of ISTEP in a booklet.

This year, all first- through 12th-grade BCSC students are outfitted with their own electronic device — a Chromebook at the elementary and middle school levels and a laptop at the high school level — for use in school. Additionally, a one-to-three ratio in kindergarten classrooms allows three kindergarten students to share one iPad at school.

Transitioning to that one-to-one ratio required substantial effort on the part of teachers and students alike as they learned to implement the new technology into their day-to-day classroom routines, Zimmerman said.

Learning to use Pearson’s version of the online test would require schools to spend additional time training teachers and students to learn new technology, so following the traditional paper-and-pencil format is in the best interest of the district as a whole, Zimmerman said.

After filling out a survey for each individual BCSC school detailing that rationale, Zimmerman said the education department gave approval to all Columbus public schools to use a paper-and-pencil test.

The Department of Education did not respond to several inquiries about the number of school districts statewide given permission to use paper-and-pencil testing for Round 2.

Working through issues

Students in Flat Rock _ Hawcreek schools will be using an online format next week for Round 2, superintendent Shawn Price said.The Hope school district — which opted for the paper-and-pencil format in Round 1 — has completed two sets of online practice tests to expose students to the new format and to check for any bugs in the system, Price said. While the preliminary practices before Round 1 of ISTEP did identify some technological issues, Price said those issues have since been resolved.

“For the most part, everything on our end has been checking out,” he said.

Both Bartholomew County public school districts had generally positive experiences during Round 1 of ISTEP 2016, district leaders said.

BCSC encountered one major issue during the testing window, Zimmerman said.

Students at Northside Middle School did not receive testing labels for one of their testing booklets, which meant they would have to fill in their personal information by hand.

However, district teachers, administrators and other employees chose to fill out that information for the students and save them from that additional stress, Zimmerman said.

“It was cool to see the library full of administrators, directors, principals, coaches, TA’s (teaching assistants) all coming together,” she said.

Although BCSC is avoiding any potential technology errors on this year’s ISTEP, Zimmerman said she knows the district will not always have that option.

State legislators and education leaders are currently in the process of developing a new statewide standardized test to replace ISTEP, and the replacement that is selected will likely rely heavily on technology, Zimmerman said.

Testing times

ISTEP+ 2016 Round 2: April 18 – May 6

Paper and pencil for all BCSC students; online for Flat Rock – Hawcreek students

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


  • 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


  • 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


Teachers offer several tips to their students every year as they prepare for the annual ISTEP+ standardized test. Some of the most common ones for students include:

  1. Get enough sleep. Doctors generally recommend getting eight or more hours of sleep each night, especially before a big test.
  2. Get up with enough time to get ready for school. Feeling rushed could lead to a poorer test performance.
  3. Eat a healthy breakfast. A quick snack isn’t enough brain food for a big test; eat a balanced meal to get you through the day.
  4. Relax. Don’t overwork your brain with stress about the test or other things happening at school. Find activities you enjoy to help you cope with stress and nervousness about the test.
  5. Be confident. You’ve covered all of the material on ISTEP in class before, so there won’t be anything new to surprise you.
Author photo
Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at or 812-379-5712.