Early education better use of time, resources than standardized testing

The steam-heat radiators leaked every winter, so we propped our feet on the desk legs.

My elementary school also lacked air conditioning and a library. One autumn afternoon, the principal gathered all six grades into one classroom and let us sit on the floor and watch a World Series game on a tall, rolling TV set. (They played day games in October, then.)

As prehistoric as that era sounds, a Tyrannosaurus rex didn’t roam the playground during recess.

Indiana schools have come a long way since the 1960s and ’70s, socially, technologically and educationally. Kids learn amazing things. One aspect remains a constant — good teachers create lasting lessons. That was true then and now. Thanks to resourceful teachers, learning happened in that long-gone schoolhouse.

Unfortunately, not all steps in the complex world of Hoosier education have gone forward.

The confrontation bubbling over in Indianapolis this month exposed an entrenched problem — the test. It wears the official name “Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress-Plus,” or ISTEP+ for short. But simply mention “the test,” and most parents, kids, teachers, principals and superintendents understand.

The over-emphasis on Indiana’s standardized test got revealed just as Indiana legislative leaders put the finishing touches on their relentless effort — endorsed by Gov. Mike Pence — to minimize the authority of Glenda Ritz, the state superintendent of public instruction.

Ritz, the lone Democrat elected to statewide office, has received little respect or cooperation from the opposing party powers and their super-majority since she upset her predecessor, Tony Bennett, in November 2012, receiving 1.3 million Hoosier votes — more than Pence did in his race.

In the midst of legislative efforts to shift a significant portion of Ritz’s duties to governor-appointed members of the Indiana State Board of Education, parents and educators got word that this spring’s ISTEP+ would double in length to more than 12 hours. Teachers, parents and school administrators expressed frustration. Pence blamed Ritz, saying the ballooning of “the test” stemmed from her “dysfunctional” relationship with the state board.

Actually, the dysfunction could’ve been avoided if the governor, the legislative super-majority Republicans and the board members had treated Ritz as the superintendent — elected by the people — instead of as their opponent. They should remember that, during the 2012 campaign, Ritz’s pushback against the waves of untested reforms by Bennett resonated with Hoosiers, especially her criticism of standardized testing.

“The test” carries too much influence on Hoosier education, and not just because it now largely determines A-to-F “accountability” grades for schools, teacher evaluations and educators’ salaries. “The test” also limits creativity in the classroom. Last week, the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette reported on a call by a nonprofit international educators organization for a two-year moratorium on high-stakes tests.

The Journal Gazette cited a resolution by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, saying states should still administer standardized tests and distribute their results, but do so “without the threat of punitive sanctions that have distorted their importance.”

Assuming the legislative leaders and the governor sincerely want excellent education for Indiana kids, they probably should listen to Hoosiers a bit more closely. Last year, the annual Hoosier Survey by Ball State University showed that 82 percent of residents supported state-funded prekindergarten. Such a program would improve learning outcomes (and, yes, test scores) for struggling kids.

Yet, so far, Indiana has just a toe in the early childhood education pool, thanks to an admirable pilot program pushed by the governor. That program could have been expanded significantly, but Pence pulled Indiana out of the running for a federal prekindergarten grant for ideological reasons. Instead, we’re doing it the “Indiana way.”

The better question is, what’s the most effective way? Increased high-stakes testing, or better preparing at-risk kids for school through early childhood education?

Most Hoosiers would probably answer that in less than 12 hours.

Mark Bennett is a writer for the (Terre Haute) Tribune-Star. Send comments to awoods@tribtown.com.