News From Terre Haute, Indiana

June 23, 2013

MARK BENNETT: Lesson in the Test

2013 experience triggers important soul-searching on standardized testing

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — If you’re a Hoosier adult of a certain age, find a pencil and paper.

Now, write down your sixth-grade score on the Iowa Basic Skills Test. (Be sure you’re using a No. 2 pencil.)


You probably don’t remember that score, and that’s OK. If you do, a hobby or yoga might help.

As with the Iowa Basic Skills Test, itself, memories of our performance on it have likely faded. Indiana now relies on a different standardized test — ISTEP. There’s a far greater chance that today’s students, in grades 3-8, will have their ISTEP results, and those of their schools, etched in their minds for at least a few years and maybe into adulthood. That’s because the test has become, to borrow a tongue-in-cheek Monty Python phrase, “so big, so absolutely huge. Gosh, we’re all really impressed.”

Seriously, ISTEP is indeed important.

It should not be predominant.

Scrutiny of the level of emphasis on ISTEP is one positive outcome of the furor over its disrupted implementation at Indiana schools this spring. The debacle has the well-paid test administration company and the legislators who ratcheted up ISTEP’s importance being held accountable for their accountability test. Irony can be powerful. Consider the following testimony before a joint Indiana House and Senate summer committee studying this year’s ISTEP breakdown, when nearly 80,000 students got booted offline in the midst of taking the test, forcing confusion, delays in its completion and layers of related problems.

Ellen Haley, president of the test administration company CTB/McGraw-Hill with a $95-million contract, told the committee, “The reason it happened is because we did not have enough [computer server] memory and planning was not adequate,” according to an Indianapolis Star report. “I know this is not acceptable to you; it is not to me. We are taking the summer to look at the problem.”

Taking the summer to look at the problem.

One of the consequences of the stuttered delivery of the 2013 ISTEP is that programs based on the test’s outcome must be postponed or scrapped. Earlier this month, South Vermillion School Corp. announced it had to cancel its summer remediation program because the district had no ISTEP scores (those won’t be available until at least July) to use in determining which kids need remedial help. Other school districts probably face similar scenarios.

Meanwhile, the testing company and lawmakers on the study committee will take the summer to study the problem. Ironic.

Maybe they’ll send each affected school district copies of “Catch 22.”

There is a long-term upside to “the problem.” That plus goes beyond financial penalties imposed against CTB. On Friday, Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz announced the state would seek preliminary damages of at least $613,000, adding that those “could reasonably go into the millions” later. That includes $53,000 to cover the cost of the Department of Education hiring a third-party to review the validity of this year’s ISTEP results. Ritz made the appropriate call in hiring an outside evaluator, given that she adamantly questioned the growing emphasis placed on Indiana’s standardized test.

That emphasis deserves regular study.

Lawmakers compounded “the problem” by attaching higher and higher stakes to ISTEP’s outcome. The results now serve as the basis for rewarding or punishing teachers, rating student achievement, applying A-F grades to schools, and distributing state funds to private schools. Students are growing aware of those implications. The disruptions kids encountered while taking, leaving, then resuming their ISTEP illuminated the hefty weight of high-stakes testing and its pressures for the public to see.

The balance between accountability and learning should be assessed and reassessed, regularly. This spring’s episode should make that balance easier for lawmakers to remember.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or