Testing expert: ‘Be careful what you wish for’ in replacing ISTEP

It’s one thing for Indiana officials to say they’re getting rid of the hated ISTEP exam. It’s quite another to figure out what to do next. That’s the dilemma that’s playing out as a 23-member state panel tries to craft recommendations on the future of standardized testing.

“The task is a significant one,” said Ed Roeber, a Michigan testing expert and a member of the technical advisory committee that the State Board of Education appointed to advise the ISTEP replacement panel.

Ed Roeber

Ed Roeber

But the plain truth is, Indiana is likely to have an end-of-year state test for accountability well beyond July 2017, when the law says ISTEP is supposed to expire. The test may have a new name and it may be created by a new vendor. But annual testing isn’t going away.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, Roeber said in a telephone interview – as long as the test is properly designed and implemented, and it is part of a balanced system of assessment.

“I personally didn’t think ISTEP needed to be dropped,” he said. “I thought it could be done a whole lot better.”

The task before the ISTEP replacement panel, meanwhile, is complicated by politics. Lawmakers took credit this year for repealing ISTEP, and Republican Gov. Mike Pence signed the measure to great fanfare. Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz has long called for moving away from high-stakes standardized tests.

Ritz, as a member of the ISTEP replacement panel, has suggested Indiana should drop its end-of-year test and instead use interim tests given three or four times a year to generate a score for each student. That’s an option allowed under the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, for meeting the requirement that states provide annual testing for grades 3-8 and one high school grade.

Ritz argues that Indiana needs “student-centered” assessments that tell teachers the level at which students are performing, not just whether they pass the test. She likes computer-adaptive tests that serve up different questions depending on whether students get the right or wrong answer.

Such interim tests, like the Northwest Evaluation Association’s Measures of Student Progress, may be popular with teachers. But Roeber said using them in place of ISTEP would be a mistake. They would become official state accountability tests, and teachers would be expected to pace their teaching to the timing of the assessments.

“If you love ISTEP once a year,” Roeber said, “won’t you love ‘ISTEP’ three or four times a year?”

Also, providers of interim tests have cautioned that they don’t yet meet the federal education law’s requirement that they assess whether students perform grade-level work, he said.

Roeber’s recommendations for Indiana include:

  • Keep giving an end-of-year accountability test, something like ISTEP but maybe more streamlined and called by a different name.
  • Offer interim assessments, funded by the state but given at the discretion of local school districts, to measure whether students are on track.
  • Provide teachers the skills for continuous classroom assessment of student learning, something he said is not well taught in pre-service education programs.

Roeber also hopes Indiana will promote greater “assessment literacy” for policymakers and the public. He says it’s important to distinguish between assessment of learning and assessment for learning.

Assessment of learning includes end-of-year tests like ISTEP, often called summative assessments, which schools can use to improve their instructional programs and states can use to identify schools that are struggling. It also includes interim assessments given several times a year.

Assessment for learning, or formative assessment, is what educators can do to inform and shape their teaching to be sure it works for all students, Roeber said. He said states should put much more emphasis on that type of assessment.

Assessment of learning, he said, is like weighing yourself on a bathroom scale. It can tell you that you need to lose weight, but it doesn’t do a thing to take off the pounds.

“It’s the assessment for learning that actually helps kids learn,” he said. “It should occupy 80 percent of the assessment that we do.”

Why everyone hates ISTEP

Given ISTEP’s unpopularity, it’s interesting that Hoosiers were bullish on the test a decade ago. A 2006 public opinion survey by the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University found strong sentiment that the test was improving schools and providing useful information.

What happened? For one thing, the stakes attached to the test grew much higher. ISTEP scores are the main factor used in assigning all-important A-to-F grades to schools. Scores can also “significantly inform” the effectiveness ratings of teachers.

Facing more pressure to get high ISTEP scores, many schools added interim assessments to keep kids on track. Testing and test prep, with an emphasis on math and English/language arts, crowded out other subjects. And ISTEP got more complex in an effort to measure higher-order skills.

As a result, testing began taking up a lot more school time. In 2015, ISTEP doubled in length, to 12 hours, before alarmed state officials made last-minute cuts.

Also, technical glitches and contractor screw-ups interrupted test-taking and delayed reporting of scores. Finally, the test got a lot harder. Indiana adopted more rigorous academic standards in 2014-15. Passing rates dropped statewide by 20 percentage points, arguably the last straw for ISTEP.

Lawmakers were in such a hurry to jettison the test that they set unrealistic deadlines. The ISTEP replacement panel is supposed to make recommendations to the legislature by Dec. 1. It meets monthly and has heard presentations by Roeber and other experts but doesn’t appear close to consensus. The sole item now on the agenda for its next meeting, on Aug. 9, is “vision statement” amendments.

And once state officials decide how to replace ISTEP, creating a new test – assuming that’s the direction the state goes – will take two years, Roeber said. So it’s already too late to implement a new assessment on the schedule envisioned in the ISTEP repeal law.

Bottom line: Indiana students may be taking ISTEP in 2017, 2018 and even 2019. After that, there’s a good chance they will take an end-of-year test that resembles it.

2 thoughts on “Testing expert: ‘Be careful what you wish for’ in replacing ISTEP

  1. Eliminate the high stakes of testing outcomes and you’ll eliminate the need for so much testing (to defend schools against one poorly designed test). You’ll also eliminate the immense pressures put on students, staff, schools, and communities which contort and narrow the entire school curriculum and require schools to spend less time teaching and more time testing. Among the casualties of high stakes tests which mistakenly label students, schools and communities as failures is the loss of the love of learning and teaching.

    The reason for the high stakes was to provide a formula to fail schools, enabling state takeovers and assignment of public schools to private and for-profit management teams including charters. This was the same philosophy that allowed the Michigan Governor to takeover Flint’s municipal management of their water system, assign it to private management (which was supposed to be superior to public management by an elected mayor), and which ultimately poisoned their water supply.

    Former State Supt. Tony Bennett sought that same state power over Hoosier schools. When Glenda Ritz defeated him and supported state assistance rather than state takeovers, Goverrnor Pence stripped her of authority, created a duplicate education agency, and empowered the State Board of Education which he appointed to takeover and re-assign school management – regardless of the wishes of the locally elected school board and the professionals in Glenda Ritz’ office.

    In all of this, high stakes testing was the trigger.

    The State Republican Party now wants to paint Glenda Ritz as a poor manager even though State Republicans were responsible for frustrating her ability to manage. The Republican Party used to be the party of local control and oppose centralization of power at state and federal levels. That’s no longer the case.

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