ISTEP scoring remains unclear

Don’t expect to get your child’s ISTEP scores for a while, and even when they are ready, understanding how they did could be a challenge, local school officials said.

This year the ISTEP test changed, with more difficult questions that gauged reading comprehension, questions with more than one correct answer and essay sections where students need to provide text to back up their response. That means that schools can’t just look at the scores students earned last year to see if they improved.

The more difficult questions, added hours of testing and concerns from parents also are expected to impact children’s ISTEP scores this year, school officials said.

What all that adds up to is that schools will be looking at ISTEP results section-by-section to see which concepts stuck with students, and which didn’t — but they won’t know how students scored until after next school year starts.

Legislators also are working to replace ISTEP altogether. If the proposal is approved, a new ISTEP test would be used next school year, and students would start the BEST assessment in the 2016-17 school year.

Third- through eighth-grade students faced a revamped, more rigorous version of the ISTEP test this year. Administrators will not be able to compare the test scores to previous years, since the expectations and difficulty levels were not the same. And they were told by the Indiana Department of Education not to expect those results until this fall, and to expect their scores to drop from previous years.

In addition to the rigorous questions, children also could have been influenced by media coverage and parent concerns about this year’s testing, Clark-Pleasant assistant superintendent John Schilawski said. Since the exam was repeatedly discussed and scrutinized, and some parents even withdrew their children from taking the test, this year’s data may not reflect the true score that students were capable of, he said.

“That’s one of the hardships whenever you do changeover, because you can’t rely on the trends from the past except in negative connotations,” Schilawski said.

But that doesn’t mean that this year’s test scores will be useless. Instead, administrators will focus on individual section scores to see where students have mastered the concepts and lessons, or where they need more help.

“ISTEP’s usefulness to us is still a skill-by-skill analysis of student performance,” Greenwood assistant superintendent of learning Rick Ahlgrim said. “Regardless of what the score is on the test as a whole, we’ll still be able to drill down into specifics in skill areas.”

Administrators typically look beyond the overall pass or fail rate of the school district, and spend their time analyzing the data attached to the scores, Ahlgrim said. But the state notes each school’s passing rate when evaluating school districts each year, and that impacts their letter grades from the state.

Officials also still do not know how the scores will be presented and if a new format will be used for the data, said Deb Brown-Nally, Franklin schools executive director of curriculum and instruction.

Even if this year’s ISTEP test is not comparable to past or future assessments’ scores, the results will still be beneficial, Schilawski said.

“They’re always going to be applicable,” Schilawski said. “You’ve got to take the results in general and apply them to different data points on any student, on any teacher or on any school.”

Schools will look to more than just this year’s scores as a barometer of how well students are understanding the core lessons they are teaching.

Administrators can rely on progress monitoring, where officials check in with students’ progress in class after each nine-week grading period, and a similar state assessment called Acuity in addition to the ISTEP scores this year, Ahlgrim said. By this time of the year, most teachers and officials already have an idea of which students have been doing well in the classroom and who is struggling.

That means schools can continue to assess students, even if their ISTEP scores are months delayed.

Administrators will be able to make an educated guess on where students are, without needing the ISTEP results to confirm that by the end of the school year, Ahlgrim said. Once the ISTEP scores do come in, educators will use the results to show if a student is struggling more on reading fluency or comprehension, Ahlgrim said. The results can still be applied, even though the student has moved onto the next grade level, he said.

“We are always, always analyzing data,” Brown-Nally said. “ISTEP is just one piece.”