News From Terre Haute, Indiana

June 9, 2013

EDITORIAL: It’s time to assess ISTEP

Test itself should get close review from legislators

The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Later this month, the company behind this spring’s abysmal online administration of ISTEP testing for 27,000 Hoosier schoolchildren is being called to the principal’s office.

In this case, the principals will be members of an Indiana Legislature summer study committee that want answers about why ISTEP was fouled up so drastically.

If ISTEP is to continue — and there are good reasons it should not — it has to be credible because of how its scores are used: to grade, reward and punish schools for performances; to determine state money for school districts; and to evaluate teachers’ performance and pay.

That credibility is seriously at issue because of three days in early May 2013. On those days, the computer servers CTB used were not able to handle the load of testing from across the state, although the demand should have been predictable.

On the first two days, testing was suspended, in defeat, after many schools couldn’t sign on to the system or were kicked off.  On the third day, testing was conducted at the 50 percent level, which, even at that paltry rate, brought at least some progress.

Now, the complications of the testing debacle are hitting local school systems, such as South Vermillion School Corp., which last week confirmed that it has canceled its summer remediation program this year — because it doesn’t have ISTEP results to know which students need to be remediated. And it won’t have those results until July — too late to start remediation because of the impending start of fall classes.  

In an ultimate irony, the very South Vermillion students who ISTEP would have found in need of remediation will not get it this summer because of the testing mess. Instead, those students, their teachers and the schools may face the added burden during the fall semester of conducting remediations during a normal school day or after school. That will cause those students to miss other learning opportunities and perhaps extend their school days. We imagine the South Vermillion situation — in which no administrator, teacher or student is at fault — is being repeated in schools across Indiana.

Another complication is that ISTEP results are supposed to be part of each teacher’s evaluation process. South Vermillion Superintendent Dave Chapman is quite right that because of the testing glitches, the results should not be used this year for teacher evaluation or for letter grades the state has begun giving schools.  

For her part, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz seems to have kept on top of this developing situation both as the testing was occurring and as its ramifications are continuing to unfold. The contract with CTB — four years at $95 million, expiring next year — was arranged before Ritz’s watch. And in May, Ritz called for an outside firm to review the test results’ validity. The Indiana Department of Education apparently also will be called before the summer study committee, but all indications are that its vendor, and not its staff, are at fault for the ISTEP meltdown.

The testing kerfuffle could have a possible benefit if it causes state leaders to take a serious look at whether ISTEP is more trouble than it is worth. ISTEP is a response to a bloodthirst for accountability — which can be in part a vengeful quest to blame someone — that forces teachers to spend too much time on ISTEP topics (teaching to the test) while more innovative content dies on the vine. We fear individual attention is also a casualty.

A wise educator of educators told us a couple of decades ago that ISTEP results could be predicted by a map. Just look at a school’s socio-economic surroundings — housing, poverty, crime, employment, hunger, substance abuse, parents’ educational attainment, family stability — and the results are easy to forecast, that educator told us. The observation seems as valid, perhaps more valid, today as then.

It’s promising that the Legislature wants answers to the testing failures. We hope it also gives some consideration to whether ISTEP itself is a failure.