Latest ISTEP scores raise more questions

The last of the state’s ISTEP+ scores are out, and educators again are struggling with what to do with them.

The Nov. 17 release came more than six months after tests were conducted (late February through early May), and leaves educators little time to identify learning trends that can be implemented before the 2016-17 school year ends. Locally and statewide, scores generally dipped slightly from 2015.

The final few years of ISTEP have been marred by technical glitches that made it difficult for some students to answer questions in the time provided without becoming frustrated, which educators said tainted results from a fairness standpoint.

As a result of technology problems, some schools received waivers to conduct the test the old-fashioned way, with pencil and paper. The state compared those results with those of students who used computers to complete the testing, also generating questions about fairness.

The state sued and replaced testing vendor CTB/McGraw Hill after lengthy delays in scoring the 2014-15 tests, the first year of more rigorous education standards in Indiana. The state selected Pearson Education to administer the 2016 and 2017 tests.

With all those changes and challenges, Indiana lawmakers granted a waiver during this year’s session to Hoosier schools, protecting them from being punished for their A through F Accountability grades, and prohibiting teachers from being penalized in their evaluations, pay and bonuses that were to be tied to local student scores.

Whether such a waiver will be granted again is uncertain, but they should when the new session starts in January, and then drop the idea altogether afterward.

While it is important to hold schools and teachers accountable, and rewarding teachers for success with merit pay increases is a good way to do that, trying rewards and penalties heavily to standardized tests isn’t fair.

That’s because demographics play a big role in student achievement. Some teachers start each day with students already facing obstacles: language, income and unstable homes, for example. Basing teacher success in schools with large populations of at-risk students on the results of standardized tests does not accurately measure teacher performance. Pulling funds from schools that work with those students because of a ranking based on a test is counter productive.

Ultimately, we hope that the new state school superintendent, board of education, governor and Legislature can find a way to push for a more comprehensive approach to measuring academic success.

Coming up with a good replacement for ISTEP has also been a challenge. The panel charged with recommending a new statewide test struggled to come up with answers for seven months, until endorsing a shorter test Tuesday on a 21-2 vote. Other components of the recommendation: One testing window instead of two, results within a month’s time of testing completion and using an off-the-shelf assessment rather than starting from scratch.

Whether the new test to replace ISTEP can be implemented by next fall is uncertain. But lawmakers ought to know by now that they had better get this right. With our children’s education on the line, there’s too much at stake for them to hastily pick a wrong answer themselves.

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