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Schools brace for ISTEP+ on Monday

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This year’s ISTEP+ assessment will test not only students, but also the patience of educators.

Schools across the state begin testing Monday, and local officials are bracing for more technology glitches — although nearly half of the Columbus schools will give the test on paper.

After relentless petitioning to the state Department of Education, Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. has permission to administer the assessment on paper at Clifty Creek Elementary School, Columbus Signature Academy — Fodrea, Columbus Signature Academy — Lincoln, Mt. Healthy Elementary School, Central Middle School and Northside Middle School.

Additional schools also are being allowed to test on paper and pencil for fifth and sixth grade.

“We’re a little more optimistic that the kids will perform better,” Director of Elementary Education Teresa Heiny said.

Test results from previous years show students perform better when assessed on paper, Superintendent John Quick said.

Paper testing allows students to be evaluated on how well they can think rather than how well they can scroll on a computer screen, he said.

Educators lost more faith in computerized assessments last year — when tens of thousands of students were interrupted because of problems with the testing vendor, CTB/McGraw-Hill.

Stress tests, practice tests and news from other states where testing has already started is not calming the nerves of the principals and teachers at the seven elementary schools still required to test at least some grades online.

“I’m still not optimistic that this vendor has stepped up,” Quick said. “When you have high risk and high stakes in a narrow view, it’s got to work.”

‘Please Wait’

Samantha Harpring, testing coordinator for the district, said short delays are to be expected during online assessments.

“It’s just like when you’re doing a Google search, and sometimes you sit there for a minute and it spins,” she said. “Just because a student gets a please-wait message doesn’t mean something bad has happened.”

But after a few minutes of watching a frozen screen, young students get antsy.

According to the Indiana Department of Education and an independent report released about the glitches, 300 BCSC students and 65 Flat Rock-Hawcreek students were interrupted during testing last year.

BCSC officials contend the numbers were much higher, however.

Harpring said once the district realized the scale of the problems, teachers, administrators and the technology staff began documenting problems.

They found more than 1,200 of the 5,000 students who were tested experienced interruptions — although they varied from minor to major.

Some experienced please-wait messages lasting 10 to 20 seconds, but others were kicked off the system entirely.

“Any kind of interruption does affect the kids because it’s something they don’t expect,” Harpring said. “They’re there ready to take the test and they’re there in a certain frame of mind, and they’re not able to do what they’re expecting to do.”

She said even the students who did not face problems on their own computers were still interrupted by the environment of confusion and frustration.

“They felt fearful,” she said. “It didn’t create a good testing environment.”

Chad Phillips, principal at Columbus Signature Academy Lincoln, said close to half of his students experienced interruptions. He recalled a testing period when the system froze three or four times for many minutes. Eventually, students grew frustrated and clicked “finished” just to avoid the delay again, Phillips said.

Bracing for glitches

Many of the problems during last year’s ISTEP+ testing was blamed on CTB/McGraw-Hill’s server capacity. The vendor could not handle so many students taking the test online at the same time.

So to make sure the problem was addressed, schools across Indiana participated in a stress test in February, designed to measure how well the testing servers in Indianapolis could handle the traffic.

How did it go?

“Not well,” Quick said.

About 7 percent of the nearly 150,000 students who participated were unable to complete the sample exam.

This week, reports started coming in from Oklahoma, where more than 8,000 students experienced problems, and the state’s public schools superintendent, Janet Barresi, ordered CTB/McGraw-Hill to suspend testing.

“It is an understatement to say that I am frustrated with McGraw-Hill,” Barresi told the The Associated Press. “It is an understatement, actually to say that I am outraged.”

CTB/McGraw-Hill issued an apology for the disruption and said in a statement the vendor’s IT infrastructure has been greatly enhanced since 2013 — but educators here aren’t buying it.

“I am concerned,” Harpring said.

Building technicians are going to be out in every school on the first day of online testing — although schools would like to wait a few days to start online testing to see how it goes in the rest of the state, many will need to begin Monday because of tight schedules — and the technology team has checked their own devices and Internet speeds time and time again.

Officials from the testing company to visit the district and assess their technology infrastructure, and Harpring said they were helpful in identifying wireless Internet trouble spots. It’s because of that visit the state granted waivers at some sites, she said.

At Taylorsville Elementary School, where fifth- and sixth-graders are allowed to test on paper, administrators have targeted machines that didn’t perform well on a practice test Tuesday.

Principal Sydell Gant is asking her students not to get frazzled if there’s a glitch.

Harpring said that kind of mentality was evident last year, too.

“Last year everybody just handled it so well,” she said. “The kids, the teachers, the principals. It was kind of amazing when I look back on the number of problems we had, the unexpected problems.”

What’s at stake?

The Department of Education has made it clear: Technology glitches are not to be used as an excuse for poor scores.

Schools are still held accountable, even if thousands of their students are interrupted during the test.

Clifty Creek has the most riding on its test scores. The elementary was named a priority school by the state for poor results in the previous three years. Administrators there have set goals to increase the scores and exit priority score status. If the school is not successful, there could be additional consequences — although those have not yet been clearly communicated by the state.

But teachers there and district officials felt a bit of pressure lifted when the state granted the school a waiver, allowing the test to be given on paper.

“It’s a better, truer assessment of student achievement,” Harpring said. “The paper tests go pretty smoothly. It’s something that’s been in place for many years. It’s just a lot more straightforward.”

Teacher pay is also tied to the test scores because of a new teacher evaluation law that took effect this year.

But the district has made it clear they do not put much weight in statewide school-assessment tools.

“We all know the grading system is broken, but it is still our reality,” Quick said.

Gant said she’s putting her trust in the students — and Quick said principals across the district are doing the same.

“Our motto is, ‘We believe,’” she said. “We believe in what our students can do, and we believe they’re prepared and ready, and we believe they’re going to do their personal best, no matter what.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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