Fix state testing by focusing on students

KPC News

Hoosiers can be forgiven if they’ve become numb to yet another problem with the ISTEP+ testing system for Indiana schools.

News came that results of the spring ISTEP+ testing will be delayed until at least December — eight to nine months after students took the test.

Some local school leaders shrugged off the news. They don’t care about late ISTEP+ results because they pay little attention to them, they said. That in itself should be disturbing, since Indiana spends so much on ISTEP+.

Other school administrators in northeast Indiana reacted with frustration and anger. They’ve reached the boiling point when it comes to testing troubles.

“I think the promise of achievement testing as a way to monitor progress and evaluate teachers and schools is kind of getting exposed for just what it is. It’s wrong to do it, that’s not what the tests are created for,” Westview Superintendent Randy Zimmerly said.

It’s especially a mistake to put so much weight on a once-a-year test such as ISTEP+, he added.

Giving the same test all across the state carries a dual purpose. It measures individual students against a statewide norm to see where they need to improve. It also aims to provide “accountability” by comparing individual schools and school districts to state averages.

ISTEP+ is losing its grip on the first goal because such a long time passes between the test and delivery of the results.

Political leaders contributed to this year’s delays by insisting that Indiana should have its own educational standards instead of following national standards. That required a new test last spring, adding expense and delays.

Ironically, many school districts are spending their own money to use the nationwide Northwest Evaluation Association test for student evaluations. As one superintendent said about NWEA, “we can get the results within a week.”

So while legislators spend millions because Indiana-only standards sound good politically, schools are ignoring the results of the state’s test and using a national test, anyway.

“We could save a lot of money if the state would give us the money instead of giving it to a software vendor,” Lakeland schools Superintendent Risa Herber said last week.

If ISTEP+ does a poor job of evaluating individual students, Hoosier schools have managed to find an alternative way of accomplishing that task — even though it results in paying for the same service twice.

Schools do not have a work-around for the state’s use of ISTEP+ in giving performance grades to schools.

The changes to this year’s test and its resulting problems cast doubt on the whole idea of comparing results from year to year and district to district.

For those who think ISTEP+ simply needs tweaking, the state is switching to a new testing company for next year. That could lead to yet another year in which results won’t be apples-to-apples, but in the long run it could bring improvements.

A new vendor can’t answer the argument that the entire ISTEP+ program is illegitimate, however.

Recent woes leave Hoosiers wondering how Indiana’s testing situation got this bad. There’s a lot of blame to go around, including:

•The testing company and its troubles creating and administering the exam;

•Elected officials increasingly making education a political football;

•Indiana’s decision to go it alone when it comes to education standards;

•The bureaucracy of the Department of Education; and

•Even the news media for placing too much weight on ISTEP+ scores and school grades.

Put all those flaws together, and ISTEP+ has become a system designed to fail, with everybody blaming each other.

To work our way out of this mess, we need to focus on creating the best testing program to help children learn — from the classroom up instead of from Indianapolis down.

This was distributed by Hoosier State Press Association. Send comments to