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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, December 02, 2015 11:54 am

Stealth over ISTEP comes at a steep cost

Ryan Hisner

Amid the clamor for accountability emanating from the Indiana legislature – for students, teachers, principals, superintendents and others – one group has managed to evade any calls.

I speak of the very champions of accountability themselves, the guardians of the Citadel of High Standards & Rigor: the test-makers of the CTB/McGraw-Hill Corp. 

We live in a democracy, we are told, and one could be forgiven for believing this implies a degree of transparency in public contracts, that citizens are free to examine the products for which their taxes pay.

In the case of standardized testing in public schools, these ideals are roundly abused.

What sort of questions, one might wonder, are our children asked to answer in their annual ISTEP exams? And what, pray tell, are the test-makers’ answers to said questions? Surely, we may freely peruse the tests we subject our children to. 

Sadly, no. The ISTEP tests are a closely guarded secret.

If I, as a teacher, were to notice a poorly worded or nonsensical question, I might feel the need – the obligation even – to point out such errors to the public once the testing period has ended. 

ISTEP tests, however, are under lock and key, and if anyone so much as hints at the content of a test question, they can be sued by the test-making companies.

It is important, of course, not to leak the contents of a test before everyone has taken it, but what possible reason could there be for secrecy once the test is over?

The recent sixth grade science practice ISTEP questions suggest to me that the test-making companies’ primary reason for secrecy is to avoid embarrassment and public oversight. 

I teach sixth-grade science, and my class recently spent a period taking the practice test, which consisted of two questions. The questions were rather difficult for sixth-grade students.

The first question consisted of two parts.

The first part asked students to define mass and weight and identify the difference. This is no lightweight question. Some of the greatest scientific minds in history failed to make any distinction between mass and weight. But the Indiana legislature demands sixth graders master this abstruse concept. 

The second part asked them whether muscle weakness experienced by astronauts after their stay in the International Space Station is due to a change in their mass or their weight.

The official answer stated, "Astronauts are likely experiencing muscle weakness because the pull of gravity is much lower in space than on Earthâ ¦" 

This answer is incorrect. The ISS in fact orbits relatively close to the earth’s surface, and the strength of gravity is nearly the same as on the surface. The astronauts feel weightless because they are falling in orbit, the same way one would feel weightless (temporarily) in a falling elevator whose cable breaks. In both cases, however, the force of gravity a person is subject to – and therefore their weight, which is another word for the force of gravity – is virtually unchanged. This is not a common-sense notion, and I would never fault anyone for not knowing the answer.

Still, I can’t help feeling that the people writing test questions ought to know the answers.

This might be written off as a one-time glitch. Practice question 2, however, casts doubt on such wishful thinking. Students are asked how the length of a girl’s shadow in Australia would change at 1 p.m. in February compared to 1 p.m. in June and to describe why her shadow changes in such a way. The official ISTEP answer says, "Because she lives in the Southern Hemisphere, the length of her shadow will increase as the sun approaches the summer solstice and will decrease as the sun approaches the winter solstice." It is a notable fact about the world we live in that at a given time of day, shadows are longer in the winter than they are in the summer, the sun being lower in the sky in the winter. This is true regardless of whether one lives in the Southern or Northern hemisphere. 

In their attempt at imposing "rigor" on sixth-grade students, the Indiana legislature has imposed science standards too deep for the test-makers at CTB/McGraw-Hill to comprehend. There were two practice questions, and the test-makers got both wrong. 

How many questions will the test-makers have incorrect answers for in this year’s ISTEP exam? We will never know. Both the questions and the answers are kept secret. So even as students’ futures are made dependent on their performance on standardized tests, even as the Indiana legislature aims to tie teachers’ salaries to how well their students perform on ISTEP, the CTB/McGraw-Hill test-makers remain free to botch and bungle as many test questions and answers as they like, knowing the public will never know.

They will remain free as ever to feed at the public trough on Indiana taxpayer money, and as far as CTB/McGraw-Hill executives and shareholders are concerned, that’s the only thing that matters.