What if Indiana hadn’t dumped Common Core and fled the PARCC consortium? Would we still be having this brouhaha over how long our students are sitting for standardized tests? Yeah, probably.
Many of us were taken aback when we learned last week that the time it takes to complete the ISTEP+ exam has more than doubled since last year. But longer tests seem to go hand-in-hand with the more rigorous “college and career ready” standards that Indiana and other states are adopting.
Anne Hyslop, who follows testing and accountability issues as a senior policy analyst with Bellwether Education Partners, believes tests are getting longer because they include performance tasks and writing sections that attempt to better reflect whether students are learning the standards.
“In other words, if you want a high-quality test, you need high-quality items, and those may take longer to complete than a multiple choice question,” she said.
Back when Indiana had adopted Common Core and its teachers were preparing to implement the standards, it was part of PARCC, a consortium of states developing Common Core-aligned tests. And the PARCC exams that will be given this spring aren’t much shorter than the new Indiana ISTEP+.
When the word came out that ISTEP+ was more than doubling in length, some parents and teachers were outraged. A pediatrician told the State Board of Education last week that forcing young children to sit for such lengthy tests amounted to child abuse.
Gov. Mike Pence declared at a news conference Monday that he was shocked – shocked! – to find that Indiana’s “uncommonly high” standards would produce uncommonly long tests. Pence hired consultants to find ways to shorten the exam. But ISTEP+ testing is scheduled to start in less than two weeks, making changes iffy.
Meanwhile Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz wants to take a one-year hiatus from using ISTEP+ scores to grade schools and evaluate teachers, because scores are expected to suffer with the shift to new standards and a new exam. She called a special meeting for Friday to ask the State Board of Education to approve the suggestion. It’s a safe bet that it won’t.
Lost behind the anger and finger-pointing are serious questions about standardized tests and how to use them. Arguably it’s not the tests themselves but the stakes attached to them that are, in the words of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, “sucking the oxygen out of the room.”
As Hyslop points out, studies by Teach Plus and the Center for American Progress find that more time is spent on formative tests adopted by school districts than on state-mandated tests. Districts add tests to make sure their students are on track to pass the state tests. Throw in time devoted to preparing for the tests and practicing test-taking skills, and the burden is even greater.
And it’s not at all surprising that that’s the case. If test scores are our measure of education – if they determine whether schools will close, teachers will lose their jobs and children will wear A or F labels – schools will do whatever it takes to help their students pass. They would be remiss not to.
Note: ISTEP+ times in the chart combine Part 1 and Part 2 and include social studies and science tests. The times were provided by an Indiana school administrator and differ from those cited by Pence.