News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion

August 4, 2013

EDITORIAL: Educators, once again, must overcome statewide controversies to let kids fully experience start of school

School starts in just two weeks.

Such a declaration usually triggers a rush of adrenaline and excited jitters for a large segment of the Wabash Valley population — kids, parents, teachers, cafeteria staffers, bus drivers, custodians and administrators. The hunt for back-to-school bargains intensifies. Last-gasp summer vacation outings — maybe a canoe trip down Sugar Creek or bike hike on the Heritage Trail — get wedged into family schedules as the countdown commences. Children’s bedtimes shift back an hour or two in preparation for the school year. Freshmen wander through hallways during orientations.

That agenda sounds hectic yet almost idyllic, given the controversies in education clouding Indiana skies this summer. School issues have always grabbed headlines and generated coffeeshop conversations. The topics in the summer of 2013, though, carry a sharper edge than those in most years.

In the final month of the 2012-13 school year, disruptions in the online ISTEP tests caused anxiety and frustration in classrooms across Indiana. The standardized tests come with high stakes. ISTEP results not only measure student progress but also factor into teacher evaluation and compensation, and school accountability ratings under reforms pushed by former Gov. Mitch Daniels and former superintendent of public instruction Tony Bennett, and enacted by the Indiana Legislature. The company hired to administrate ISTEP, CTB/McGraw Hill, and its four-year, $95-million contract came under fire.

On Monday, a state-appointed testing expert concluded the frozen computer screens and the McGraw Hill server overloads did not hurt students’ ISTEP scores. That conclusion certainly reflects the successful, hard-working efforts of teachers, school staffs, parents and students to overcome those obstacles. They deserve applause for mitigating the impact of the ISTEP disruption.

Still, the kids’ scores and the A-through-F school performance ratings were delayed as the validity of the 2013 ISTEP was reviewed.

Just as that situation seemed to be reaching closure, an Associated Press report obtained emails showing that Bennett and his Department of Education staff scrambled in September to ensure the Christel House Academy — an Indianapolis charter school founded by influential Republican donor Christel DeHaan — received an A under the state’s school accountability rating system, despite low 10th-grade algebra scores that originally earned the school a C.

Bennett, who lost his re-election bid to Glenda Ritz in November, became Florida’s education commissioner early this year, an appointed position. Despite Bennett’s insistence that he’d done nothing wrong and only amended a glitch in the A-F formula, he resigned from the Florida post on Thursday under pressure. The controversy appropriately ignited debate over the fairness and impartiality of the school ratings, which are already in the midst of an overhaul. That furor casts an aura of tension over the upcoming start of the 2013-14 school year.

Teachers and school staffs will be expected to rise above the fray, as they’ve done through other tumultuous times in recent years, to give kids that chance to be nervous, excited and curious about the start of a new school year. We’re confident they’ll come through, just as they did during the ISTEP difficulties.

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