By Andrea Neal
In 2016, the Indiana legislature voted to repeal the ISTEP test and replace it with something quicker and more meaningful for Hoosier children. One year later, lawmakers find themselves in a quagmire of their own making.
They can’t decide what kind of exam Indiana should offer or whether to hold teachers accountable for test scores. They don’t know whether to use a generic off-the-shelf test or something unique to Indiana. And they have no idea what various assessment options would cost taxpayers. All this is despite the fact a study committee spent last summer, as directed in its title, considering “alternatives to the ISTEP program test.”
Jennifer McCormick, superintendent of public instruction, has offered a useful path forward by suggesting that results not be used to evaluate teachers or to determine merit pay, unless local school districts expressly opt to do so.
“As a state, we need to be cognizant of the purpose of the assessments we select. If assessments are not designed to evaluate teachers, then they should not be used for that purpose,” McCormick says.
So far, lawmakers have not heeded her advice. They should — for two good reasons.
First, teacher evaluation systems are not required under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, successor to the controversial No Child Left Behind, which launched the testing obsession in the first place. Although states still must test students in reading and math every year from Grades 3 to 8 and once in high school, the new law allows far more flexibility in implementation. Indiana, which has always bristled under federal mandates in education, should jump at the chance to get out from under them.
Second, grading teachers on test results has had an unfortunate negative effect on education. At the elementary level, it has led to narrowing of curriculum and “teaching to the test.” Schools throughout Indiana have cut time spent on subjects that are not tested, especially history, art, music, foreign language and physical education. In the process of getting ready for ISTEP, children have lost out on a rich body of knowledge that could inspire a love of lifelong learning.
The other big question facing lawmakers is: What is the purpose of Indiana’s standardized test? Their confusion on this point is evident in House Bill 1003, the ISTEP replacement bill that would create an all-new testing program called ILEARN (Indiana’s Learning Evaluation Assessment Readiness Network).
If the primary purpose is to collect data required by federal law and compare Indiana students to each other and to students in other states, all we need is a nationally normed, commercially available test that could be implemented immediately.
Options include traditional achievement tests such as the Iowa, Stanford, and CTBS; or newer products such as Northwest Evaluation’s MAP, which many Indiana school district use now, or Renaissance Learning’s STAR products.
If lawmakers want the test to show whether students are developing skills required under Indiana’s academic standards, then they have two other choices: Tweak the current ISTEP test to make it better and shorter (since it was just redesigned to align to current standards) or develop a new standards-based test. The latter option would require yet another two-year development period for a test that probably won’t be that much different from ISTEP.
Richard D. Phelps, author of four books on testing and founder and editor of the Nonpartisan Education Review, says the state could speed that process up by using test items that would align with state standards, that are already in the public domain and do not need to be piloted. These are available free or at low cost.
“Test development companies don’t consider this because they assume that only their test items will be used in any contract they win,” he says. “Using already vetted test items, many of which are freely available, can cut test development time in half.”
The original version of House Bill 1003, authored by House Education Chairman Robert Behning, advances the most expensive, drawn-out process possible for creating a new test, with implementation unlikely until the 2018-19 school year. One look at the Legislative Services Agency analysis of the bill suggests that it would most certainly increase the current $32.3 million price tag.
The bill calls for annual testing in math and English in grades 3 to 8 and a science test, once in elementary school and once in junior high, as required by ESSA. It would require end-of-course assessments in high school in low-level courses of Algebra 1, science and English. It adds a “nationally recognized” college or career readiness test such as the SAT, more than required by ESSA.
According to the Legislative Service Agency’s fiscal analysis, “the potential cost of the ILEARN Program is currently unknown, thus the difference in cost between it and the current ISTEP test program is unknown.” The analysis goes on to say that implementing a new test will mean “additional workload and expenditure” for the State Board of Education and State Department of Education and more professional training for teachers so they understand the exam and how to implement it.
The only cost savings appears to be in eliminating a social studies test previously given in grades 5 and 7. This is a bad idea because it would mean less history instruction for students who need more of it.
Clearly uncomfortable with the open-ended price tag, the Senate Committee on Education and Career Development approved several amendments to the bill at its March 29 meeting. The committee voted to require only a national college entrance exam in high school rather than end-of-course exams. The State Board of Education would choose the test and set a passing score. The committee also voted that an Indiana-specific test be created for grades 3 to 8 only if it saves money or would be necessary to ensure the test complies with Indiana academic standards.
So now what? To resolve the differences between House and Senate visions, lawmakers must decide what is best for Indiana students and taxpayers. Time is running out.
“Pay as little attention to the ESSA as possible,” Phelps advises. “You still have to test in grades 3 to 8 and once in high school. I would use something very diagnostic — very quick like the MAP. You can’t hold schools accountable for that, but it’s useful for teachers and for kids. Then you should hold students accountable and have some kind of tough test to get out of high school and maybe also to get out of junior high like other countries do.”
A sound compromise would be a new state-specific test that covers a broader range of subjects, including social studies, administered in Grade 8 and as a graduation exam in high school. Schools could choose their own assessments for grades 3 to 7.
Lawmakers need to remind themselves why they voted to repeal ISTEP in the first place. One reason was the chronic computer glitches that occurred during its administration, which had nothing to do with the content of the test. The other was to reduce testing time. The legislature should seize the moment and deliver a shorter yet rigorous program that holds students accountable for their learning.
Andrea Neal, formerly a member of the state Board of Education, is a history teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School and adjunct scholar at the Indiana Policy Review. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Send comments to email@example.com.