Grade: Uncertain

Apples to oranges is how local educators are explaining the plummet in the percentage of students in Jackson County passing last spring’s ISTEP+ exam.

After a six-month delay and allegations from some that the scores may be inaccurate, the Indiana Department of Education finally made public the results Wednesday morning, showing just 54 percent of Hoosier students in third through eighth grade passed both the English and math portions of the test in 2015.

The scores represent a 21 percent overall decline from 2014.

In Jackson County, three of the four public school corporations experienced passing rates nearly 30 percentage points lower than their 2014 scores. Seymour Community Schools, Brownstown Central Community Schools and Medora Community Schools all fell below state average.

Seymour had an overall rate of 45 percent passing both parts of the exam, with more students passing English (59 percent) than math (53 percent.) Cortland Elementary earned the highest overall rate at 74 percent passing, which was nearly 20 percent lower than 2014, and Seymour Middle School had the lowest rate in the district with just 39 percent passing, a drop of 27 percent from the previous year. Cortland and Emerson elementaries were the only two schools to register above state average.

Superintendent Rob Hooker was not available Wednesday for comment.

Brownstown had a 52 percent overall pass rate, with the elementary school faring better at 55 percent than the middle school at 50 percent. In 2014, the district was at 79 percent passing. More students also passed English (65 percent) than math (60 percent) in 2015.

Superintendent Greg Walker said the scores may be accurate for the material the students were tested on, but he doesn’t see that as an accurate measure of true student ability.

“I believe these scores do not adequately represent our students’ yearly achievement or the great job our teachers do each day in the classroom,” he said.

What changed?

Changes in the test structure along with arbitrarily set cut scores are what Walker attributes to the significant drop in pass rates.“The DOE and State Board of Education arbitrarily decided to set 2015 ISTEP cut scores at a point where 40 percent of students statewide would fail,” he said.He also believes the testing process, which was plagued with computer problems, made an impact on the scores.

“The testing process itself was chaos in many cases because of computer usage error and student unfamiliarity with the computer applications necessary to complete the questions on the test,” he said.

The 2015 ISTEP+ was the first state assessment to be based on Indiana’s new, more rigorous college and career ready standards. Because of this change, the scores are not comparable to previous years’ pass rates, the IDOE has said. Instead, for the first time, they show the percentage of students meeting the new college and career ready benchmarks at each grade level.

Walker said most people see the declining scores as a debacle at the state level, not with student and teacher performance or at the local school level.

“As our parents and community members know, our schools provide curricular framework that prepares students for not only college but the other post-secondary opportunities that our students need to be successful in today’s competitive workforce,” he said.

Although some educators believe the scores are useless so late in the game, Walker said the test results are still considered data that will be used for formative assessments given throughout the school year.

The next round

Since the schools just received access Wednesday to individualized data showing which standards and skills students did not do well on, Walker said there is very little time for remediation and to make adjustments before the first round of 2016 ISTEP testing begins next month.The academic standards for the test will remain the same this year, but the test will be administered through a new vendor, Pearson, instead of McGraw/Hill.The overall results of 2015’s test will not have a lasting impact on students academic record, Walker said, but the scores do negatively impact teacher evaluations, compensation, school accountability grades and the school image.

“One high-stakes test is not a measure of our outstanding communities and schools,” he said. “It is unfair to label students, teachers, schools and communities based upon erroneous information.”

Although he believes strongly in schools and teachers being held accountable for student success, Walker said the 2015 scores should not count and school accountability grades should be kept at the 2014 level.

“Schools and teachers should not be negatively affected by those scores,” he said.

To illustrate the flawed results of the 2015 ISTEP, Walker said they should be compared with the National Assessment of Education Progress, or the “nation’s report card.”

That assessment showed that for 2015, Indiana’s public school students are achieving ever-higher levels of academic success and proficiency.

“This fact makes the results of this year’s ISTEP all the more troubling,” Walker said.

Medora had just 25 percent of its students pass both sections of ISTEP last year, with 32 percent of elementary students passing and 19 percent of junior high school students passing both English and math. In 2014, the district saw 52 percent of students pass both subject areas, with 81 percent of elementary students passing math.

Superintendent Roger Bane said he agrees that one test should not be used to measure student learning or the quality of teaching in public schools.

He attributes the drop in scores to the new test, revised academic standards and the arbitrarily set cut scores.

“I don’t think that the test scores accurately reflect our students’ yearly progress or achievement,” he said.

The big issue now for administrators and teachers, Bane said, is how to prepare students for this year’s test.

“We have received individual student information so late that I really don’t know how effective our remediation strategies will be,” he said.

But he still believes in accountability and said teachers and administrators will use the most recent ISTEP information to help improve individual student achievement.

Crothersville Community Schools registered a 14 percent drop in its overall pass rate, and at 66 percent passing both English and math was the only district to score above state average. More students passed math (84 percent) than English (70 percent).

Chris Marshall, Crothersville Elementary principal, said most educators have little faith in the ISTEP and that credibility must be earned back based on all of the online testing problems, new standard evaluations and mixed signals from the state on the scores.

But even in light of an overall drop, Marshall said he was pleased with his students’ performances on the test, especially in math.

The school actually increased the number of students passing math, going from 88 percent in 2014 to 94 percent in 2015.

“Our overall math scores actually went up,” Marshall said. “We did see a minimal decline in the language arts area, but this was due to the new nonfiction comprehension questions that’s based on real-world genre and a more difficult framework.”

Knowing that, Marshall said teachers have quickly realigned their instructional practices to focus on nonfiction and are confident that gap will close on the next assessment.

“We always dissect the data after any assessment to determine which specific skill gaps exist and then redirect classroom instruction accordingly,” he said.

But like other educators, Marshall doesn’t feel teachers should be evaluated based on the 2015 ISTEP results because of all of the recent changes made to the state’s standards and the test itself.

He hopes there are no more changes in the future.

“These higher academic standards are going to take some time to figure out how students will learn best,” he said.

Marshall said he isn’t letting the ISTEP results get him down, and he has complete faith in local public education.

“We have terrific schools in Jackson County because we have terrific educators,” he said. “All is well.”

Author photo
January Rutherford is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. She can be reached at jrutherford@tribtown.com or 812-523-7069.