Less than meets the eye to ISTEP results

There’s not much to say about Indiana’s 2015 ISTEP scores, released this week, except that they went down. Way down.

In the spring of 2014, 74.7 percent of Hoosier students in grades 3-8 were able to pass both the math and English/language arts sections of the test. In the spring of 2015, that fell to 53.5 percent.

Of course, it was a different test, tied to a different set of standards, and with very different “cut scores” for passing set by the Indiana State Board of Education. Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz and other officials warned the passing rates would drop dramatically, and they were right.

And the scores fell pretty much across the board. Every one of Indiana’s 289 public school corporations saw its overall passing rate decline by 10 percentage points or more.

Yes, some dropped more than others. It’s tempting to focus on which districts saw their passing rates drop a lot and which dropped a little and to think that would tell us something about school performance. But it may not.

Imagine two hypothetical school districts, District A and District B. In District A, all the students passed ISTEP in 2014 – and by a lot. They could have done much worse in 2015 but still passed.

In District B, students and teachers worked hard in previous years to raise their scores to where all students passed in 2014 – but just barely. In 2015, the students performed nearly as well as the previous year, but they all fell just short of passing.

You may have imagined District A to be an affluent district with lots of highly educated parents. District B might be a small district that focused on improving test scores and overcame a history of underperforming.

And that’s pretty much what we see. In the 2014-15 passing results, suburban and low-poverty school districts like Brownsburg, Carmel, Zionsville, West Lafayette and Munster had some of the smallest decreases in their ISTEP passing rates – in the range of 11-13 percentage points.

Districts that fell the furthest, by more than 30 percentage points, tended to be small, rural districts – possibly because, with fewer students, reduced scores for a handful students could make a big difference in overall passing rates.

Fortunately, the state legislature appears to be moving quickly to hold schools and teachers harmless for last year’s test scores. But the bigger question is what happens this year and beyond. ISTEP scores are likely to improve as schools adapt to new standards and assessments. But this wasn’t a one-time glitch. And students will start taking their spring 2016 tests in just a couple of months.

Ritz, the superintendent of public instruction, said it’s time for Indiana to ditch ISTEP and move to a streamlined test that provides prompt and meaningful feedback for students, teachers and parents.

“The one-size-fits-all, high-stakes approach of the ISTEP+ needs to end,” she said.

Test scores can be important for helping the public understand whether schools are improving and arguably for helping teachers become more effective. But we’ve misused test results for years in Indiana. And now Hoosiers have understandably lost confidence in ISTEP. That trust will be hard to restore.

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