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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, March 16, 2016 12:51 pm

Ritz: 'A test never taught anybody to read'

JENNY MCNEECEAssociated Press

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz on Friday spoke with members of the Knox County Chamber of Commerce as well as many of the county's teachers and school administrators about efforts to better prepare students for the workforce.

But with kids in classrooms this week taking the state's ISTEP test, talks quickly gravitated toward the new higher-stakes exam.

North Knox Superintendent Darrel Bobe said some of his youngest students had been reduced to tears upon taking the new, more rigorous exam this week.

Ritz said that's not a universal situation.

"I was just in Linton, and the kids themselves talked to me about it and thought it was going well," she told the crowd gathered in a family and consumer sciences classroom at Lincoln High School. "I think it's probably going to vary from place to place as to how much stress has been placed on their shoulders.

"All we're asking of them is to show us they are good readers, writers and communicators, but at the same time I know this is a new test, a more rigorous test, with more writing, reading, synthesizing and problem-solving because we need them to be in-depth learners and college- and career-ready."

Ritz went on to say she fully expects test scores to drop as a result of the more difficult test, but that doesn't mean teachers aren't doing a good job.

All it means, she said, is that "we're assessing something new."

That said, Ritz wasted no time in offering her position on "summative-assessment" tests such as ISTEP that are taken once time toward the end of the school year. She doesn't believe them to be good measure of learning, but the federal government with its "No Child Left Behind" Act has tied the hands of local educators.

Federal law mandates that students be given a once-per year, all-encompassing exam with the "same questions, same topics," she said.

"But our teachers can say who won't do well on that test long before (students) ever take it," Ritz said. "Yet we spend a million dollars to do it.

"Educators assess students everyday, and it doesn't mean giving them a test."

Ritz said she favored a type of assessment that better measures students' growth throughout the year, the same kind of "formative" assessment currently being considered by state Senate leaders.

For example, teachers should be comparing a student's reading levels at the beginning, middle and end of a school year to be sure he or she is making progress.

That kind of a test, she said, allows teachers to do what they do best — teach.

"We've spent a lot of years teaching to tests, and that's not what we should be doing," she said. "A test never taught anybody to read. Ever."

Students, she said, have begun to "tune out" any information they know won't be on a test. She told the story of a young student coming into her library years ago saying they didn't have to take a book home because they'd gotten an A on a test.

"Kids are in that mode, and why shouldn't they be?" she said. "We've been testing them and testing them and testing them."

Bobe said, at least to an extent, he couldn't agree more.

"They have tested us way too much," he said matter-of-factly. "And while there are a lot of kids that are taking this test and moving right along with it, I can tell you it is creating anxiety.

"Anytime I walk into a classroom of 25 kids, I'm going to speak for the one or two that have high anxiety" he said. "The kids are figuring out there is some pressure here. I can see it on their faces.

"And when you create that kind of anxiety over something that I don't think has proven anything, I just don't have a very good feel for that."

Greg Parsley, superintendent of the Vincennes Community School Corp., said he was encouraged by Ritz's comments Friday. A more "formative" type of assessment, one that focuses on growth throughout the school year rather than on one big test at its end, is a better standard of measure.

"It's good to know there is at least some discussion going on that could result in some change," he said. "I'm very intrigued with her message today."

Ritz also spoke at length about the state's Career and Technical Education programs. Lincoln itself has already implemented an Early College program with Vincennes University, developed internships for students with local manufacturers and is now offering technical certificates upon graduation through Conexus Indiana.

Ritz said such programs lead to more successful graduates because they can see relevance to what they want to do with their lives.

Almost half of Indiana's high school students are enrolled in at least one CTE course, and graduation rates among them are at 95 percent, up from the state average of 89.9 percent. CTE students also have been shown to need far less remediation, she said.

A school corporation's overall grade given by the state DOE is improved if they have CTE programs in place, offering at least some incentive, and she is hopeful state legislators will begin funding them at higher levels.

"When kids get involved in the pathway of what they want to do, it makes a big difference in how they perform academically across the board," Ritz said. "They begin to own their own learning.

"And when they leave our doors, they have to know how to do that, they need to understand how to progress themselves."

Chamber president Marc McNeece said that is exactly why he elected to partner with Ritz and the VCSC to host the discussion Friday. Local employers need qualified, skilled workers, he said, and making those early connections could make all the difference.

"I see a qualified, educated workforce as a key component to a healthy business climate and our overall economy," he said. "Without those skilled workers, without people capable and willing to show up to work, our local economy will suffer. So why not begin to identify those good, skilled workers in high school."

Dr. Alan Stewart, a former VCSC school board member, agreed.

"It's important these students leave school career-ready," he said. "And I think that should be a goal for our schools, to allow them to experience what it is they want to do during their education.

"And we need to make sure that the students who are taking advantage of these programs are the ones who will best use it."