by Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana's relentless push to improve the standardized test scores of its schoolchildren seems to be paying off: The state is reporting another year of record-breaking scores.
At a press conference Tuesday morning, Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett said 71 percent of the nearly 500,000 students who took the ISTEP+ test in the spring passed both the math and English/language portions of the test.
That's a gain of one percentage point over last year and 8 percentage points since the 2008-09 school year. It's also the third successive year that students' passing rates have gone up on every portion of the test, which is administered to students in grades 3 to 8.
The 71 percent mark falls far short of the goal of a 90 percent pass rate that Bennett has been pushing for since he took office in 2005, but it didn't seem to dampen his enthusiasm.
"Hoosiers from all walks of life should greet this news with a standing ovation," Bennett said in a statement accompanying the release of the test scores. "More students are getting a world class education in our schools."
Bennett credited "Indiana's great teachers" for educating "a new generation of leaders and innovators who will build a more prosperous future for our state."
Those teachers are watching the test scores with some wariness. Under a "merit pay" law passed by the Indiana General Assembly in 2010, the test scores of their students now play a role in how those teachers are evaluated and paid.
The ISTEP test scores are also a critical component of the Indiana Department of Education's accountability model, which assigns schools and school districts grades of A through F.
Scores matter, but under the "growth model" used to evaluate both teacher pay and school grades, progress does, too. As critical as the the number of students who pass ISTEP is whether scores are improving from year to year.
Bennett invited administrators from several schools that had seen dramatic progress on their test scores to the press conference. Among them was Thomas Sims, the first-year principal of the Dickinson Fine Arts Academy in South Bend. Sims came to a school that had seen years of dismal ISTEP+ scores and was on the verge of being taken over by the state if its poor performance continued.
Under Sims, the school achieved greater gains than any other middle school in the state; 26 percent more of its students passed both the math and English/language arts portions of the test this past spring than the year before. “We decided we weren't going to be the underdog anymore,” Sims said.
Bennett noted that 77 percent of Dickinson's students were on the free or reduced lunch program, an indicator of poverty. Historically, students who come from low-income families have lower scores on standardized tests. Sims said the school overcame that obstacle by setting high standards for its students, closely monitoring their progress, and intervening with students who needed help to catch up.
Also at the event was Lee Begle, principal of Ferdinand Elementary School in Dubois County, which had the highest ISTEP+ pass rate for the second year in a row. Ninety-nine percent of its students passed the math and English/language arts sections of the test.
Begle praised his school's teachers and students for their hard work, but said his school didn't face the same obstacles that many of the lowest-scoring schools do. Ferdinand Elementary has a low percent of students on the free and reduced lunch program, strong community support, and a high rate of parent participation.
“It's a piece of cake when you've got that kind of support,” Begle said. He also took the opportunity to verbally nudge a couple of legislators who attended the press conference, by urging them to continue to support state funding for full-day kindergarten – added just this year – and to consider putting state dollars into pre-K education.
There is still a sizable achievement gap for students considered most at-risk for dropping out of school: Statewide, only 47 percent of students who don't speak English as their native tongue - and are classified as English language learners - passed both the math and English/language arts portion of the test. Only 59 percent of students who come from low-income families - who qualify for free or reduced lunch prices - passed both the key portions of the test.
Still, both those passing rates are better than years past. In the 2008-09 school year, only 34 percent of students who were English language learners passed both the key portions of ISTEP+; and only 48 percent of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch passed both the math and English/language arts portions of the test that year.
The passing rates for Hispanic students, black students and those classified as "special education" students have also been steadily climbing but still fall behind the pass rates for students who are white, who don't have special needs and whose families aren't living in poverty.
Bennett spoke briefly about a cheating scandal involving standardized tests at an Indianapolis high school. The state Department of Education is investigating allegations that a group of biology teachers at North Central High School used answers to test questions from a state biology exam to create test-preparation materials to boost their students' scores.
Bennett said it was the “most egregious” case of cheating he'd ever seen. “I intend to hold people accountable for harming children,” Bennett said.
High school students no longer take the ISTEP tests, but they do take "end of course assessments" in English, algebra and biology after completing instruction in those subjects.
If they don't pass English and math ECAs, they must a obtain a waiver from their schools to graduate. To earn a waiver, seniors who haven't passed the ECA in math or English must show they had 95 percent attendance and had a C average in that subject. If they took the test every time it was offered, completed extra help sessions offered at school and earned a recommendation from a teacher and the principal, they may still graduate.
ISTEP+, which stands for Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational ISTEP+Progress Plus, is given each spring to students in grades 3 through 8. Before 2009, the test was administered in the fall of each school year.
More than 329,000 students, about 66 percent of test-takers, took the multiple choice portions of the test online. That's a big jump up from 2010, when only about 15,000 students took the test online.
All students are tested in reading and math, while science also is tested in grades 4 and 6 and social studies knowledge is tested in grades 5 and 7.