The Journal Gazette
Thursday, March 02, 2017 10:01 pm

Testing testing

"Tomorrow, Indiana begins annual exercise of using mandated and very flawed govt test to judge, inaccurately, our teachers and schools," Christopher Himsel tweeted on Tuesday.

The Northwest Allen County Schools superintendent channeled frustration across the state at the start of another ISTEP+ testing window. In spite of what you’ve heard about the test’s demise, ISTEP+ will consume hours and hours of time this month and again in late April and early May. When it finally ends next year, another test – likely as flawed – will replace it.

Greater frustration was aired Tuesday night when the Fort Wayne Education Association hosted a test discussion at its East Coliseum Boulevard offices. A small group of teachers watched clips from a documentary critical of high-stakes testing and shared their observations about ISTEP+.

Sandra Vohs, an instructional coach at Northrop High School, shared sample questions from the online tests for third- and fourth-graders. One math question asks students to complete a graph plotting the length of seven caterpillars by dragging stacks of X’s over nine possible answers.

"So, you look at the caterpillars – how many caterpillars are three-quarters inch? There are three of them, so you take three X’s and drag it over where it says three-quarters," Vohs said, attempting to drag the cursor to the appropriate box. "How on earth? It makes no sense. And then they tell you there may be more than one correct answer. And you’re only a third- or fourth-grader – wouldn’t this be frustrating?"

Callie Marksbary, treasurer for the Indiana State Teachers Association and a Lafayette elementary school teacher, said ISTEP+ preparation at her school began 30 days before the test.

"We had to teach them that anything that was an unknown could be a letter; it could be a box. It could be a blank, it could be a star," she said. "We had to teach them all the different ways so they understood that whatever came up on this exam is supposed to stand for an unknown."

Marksbary, one of 23 members of a statewide panel that met for months to find an alternative to the ISTEP+ test, said the committee’s work seemed pre-ordained.

"Let’s be honest – when they said they were going to do away with the ISTEP test, it was a political move prior to an election so that a legislator could go back to his district and say, ‘I voted to do away with this test.’ It was very clear from the very first meeting that we were not going to get accomplished what so many of the educators in that room truly wanted to get accomplished," said Marksbary, now in her 42nd year in the classroom.

The ISTEP+ panel, which included Allen County school superintendents Wendy Robinson and Kenneth Folks, proposed structural changes in the test, but the result isn’t likely to look much different.

The legislation carrying out the recommendations is House Bill 1003, establishing Indiana’s Learning Evaluation Assessment Readiness Network (ILEARN) to replace ISTEP+ in 2019. The cost is unknown, but the state now spends more than $32 million a year for testing and remediation. That doesn’t include the cost of new end-of-course assessments that will be required for high school students in English, science and algebra I. The bill’s fiscal impact statement also suggests the State Board of Education "may have to hire independent experts to assist with the implementation."

For all of the turmoil and expense, the latest round of changes doesn’t begin to address the real frustration voiced by the Northwest Allen superintendent. Test scores are used not to assess what students know or to guide instruction, but instead to evaluate teachers and label schools. So a third-grader’s skill in dragging X’s on a caterpillar graph counts on a teacher’s job evaluation and on the grade attached to your neighborhood school.

Lawmakers might have appeased voters with their posturing on ISTEP+, but they won’t help Indiana students until they do what Himsel suggests in a follow-up tweet – create a state test that gives information on student progress and needs.

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