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June 16, 2013

EDITORIAL: Insisting on ISTEP quality lawmakers’ primary duty

Friday hearing should be fair but thorough

Now that everyone, on both sides of the aisle, seems backslappingly happy to agree that this spring’s ISTEP school testing debacle was unacceptable, that at least some of the results lack credibility and that the issue carries high-stakes significance, what next?

Two things are next.

First, as our statehouse reporter Maureen Hayden reported last week, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz has hired an outside contractor to review the test results. The National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment is to report its findings within the next month or so.

Second, the president of the company whose computer server failures caused disruptions of online testing on April 29, April 30 and May 3, is scheduled to testify before lawmakers on Friday about what went wrong. The legislators, members of a summer study committee scrutinizing at least this latest foul-up in administering ISTEP in Hoosier schools, will hear from CTB/McGraw Hill’s Ellen Haley, a veteran of 20 years with the company and former overseer of all of CTB’s major divisions, including technology.

Haley will be asked to explain why, by the company’s own count, 78,269 students had their ISTEP testing sessions disrupted by computer server failures. That is about one-sixth of the 482,000 Indiana students tested.

And that is the reason for the concern about the validity of those students’ test results in a start-and-stop-then-restart mode. As parents of school-age students know, ISTEP can be a nerve-racking period for both student and parent without the burden of technology frustrating test takers.

The high stakes from ISTEP are that its results have been used — or are contemplated to be used — in determining a school’s A-F letter grade from the state, in distributing state funds, in assessing individual teachers’ performance and in affecting teachers’ pay.

As we are sure will be the case, Haley needs to be fairly heard and questioned. She and her company have every right to make their case. She has the right to prove the truth of this self-praising statement from CTB/McGraw Hill’s website (www.ctb.com): “Our industry-leading research expertise ensures that any assessment we develop provides the basis for meaningful, high confidence inferences and conclusion.”

If CTB’s explanation is not convincing, two others things should happen next:

~ CTB should be made to pay the cost for the outside review of results, which could reach $53,600. Actually, for all of the inconvenience CTB has admitted it caused, it ought to refund four or five times that amount. Given that CTB has a $95-million, four-year contract with Indiana to administer ISTEP, it is not unreasonable that taxpayers expect that kind of rebate in absence of satisfactory service.

~ If CTB cannot assure that such technology problems won’t be repeated in next year’s ISTEP administration, then the state should look into voiding the remaining year of its contract with CTB and find another test administrator. That is fair, given that this is actually the third straight year in which ISTEP has suffered technology difficulties — which means all three years of CTB’s contract.

Those should be the high financial stakes CTB or any successor faces if it fails to provide the quality of service the state is paying for.

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