Schools awaiting next step on ISTEP

Local schools have the booklets their students will use to take ISTEP, but they still aren’t sure which parts of the test they’ll actually use.

They want to know if students will only be answering certain questions, or if entire sections of the exam will be taken out. And they hope to get those answers soon.

State officials want to shorten the test by at least three hours for all students, partly by cutting the number of questions that would be used later to prepare for future standardized tests. But state lawmakers have to sign off on that plan, and on a proposal to cut the social studies exam fifth- and seventh-graders take.

Third- through eighth-graders in Indiana can start taking ISTEP a week from today. Schools should still be able to prepare for any changes to the exam if the Indiana Department of Education gets them the details this week or early next week, Clark-Pleasant director of curriculum and instruction Cameron Rains and Greenwood assistant superintendent of learning Rick Ahlgrim said.

Schools want to get those instructions as soon as possible, so they can start reviewing and marking what test questions will and won’t be asked. The earlier they get that information, the less chance there is of a mistake being made during the actual test, Ahlgrim and Rains said.

“We’re going to be like Santa Claus; making our list and checking it twice,” Ahlgrim said. “It’s going to be a real management thing.”

The Indiana House education committee has approved the bill shortening ISTEP, and now the bill needs to be approved by the full House and Senate. The department of education doesn’t have a set timeline for when schools will received updated instructions on ISTEP, but if schools have questions they’re encouraged to contact the department, spokesman Daniel Altman said.

Usually when students take ISTEP they work their way through the entire test booklet, but now schools will need to review and mark in each of the booklets which questions students will and won’t answer. That means there’s more potential for mistakes, such as students answering questions on the wrong part of the exam, which could invalidate a student’s score, Ahlgrim said.

“That’s going to be a little tricky,” he said.

But ultimately it’s also doable, Ahlgrim said.

“The teachers are really pros when it comes to this,” Ahlgrim said. “They’re used to being flexible, and they’re going to be great at implementation, as long as we give them the correct guidance. But before we do that, we need to get correct guidance from the department of education.”

It will be easier for schools to make the changes if entire sections of the test are cut, Rains said. Clark-Pleasant isn’t planning to start ISTEP testing until the first week of March, and if they have at least a week to make the changes then that should cut down on any confusion, Rains said.

“In the ideal situation, if that communication comes this week or early next week, we’ll be in good shape here,” Rains said.

The department of education and two consultants hired by the state have recommended cutting the number of open-ended, essay-style questions students are asked on ISTEP, which will also greatly reduce the number of test questions that are later released to the public. Schools sometimes use those questions to prepare for future tests, but having fewer questions shouldn’t be a problem, Ahlgrim and Rains said.

That’s partly because not all teachers use the questions that are released to prepare their students for ISTEP. Cutting the questions from previous ISTEP exams also could have reduced the five to six hours of testing time then, Rains said.

“If that would have meant saving time in previous years, I wish they would have done it,” Rains said.

Rains also wants state lawmakers to approve plans to drop the social studies test this year, which would cut 1 hour and 45 more minutes from the fifth- and seventh-grade exams. Some members of the Indiana State Board of Education opposed that plan at a special meeting Friday; but right now the state needs to do all it can to cut down on test time, Rains said.

“Anything that would reduce the time of taking the test, we would support,” Rains said.