ISTEP results are a non-story

It’s a lousy week to be an education reporter in Indiana. ISTEP-Plus test results were released Wednesday by the State Board of Education, so editors are assigning – and readers are expecting – the usual stories. Which schools did best? Which did worst? Which improved, and which didn’t?

Reporters who spend their work lives visiting schools and talking to educators and experts know this is the epitome of a non-news story. They know that years of experience and research tell us that affluent schools will have higher test scores than schools serving mostly poor students. But the stories have to be written.

It’s no surprise that low-poverty schools in the suburbs have the highest passing rates in the Indianapolis metropolitan area. They do every year. And it’s disturbing but not really shocking that barely 5 percent of Indianapolis Public Schools 10th-graders passed their tests. Three of their high schools were about to close; the tests had no consequences for the schools or their students.

That’s not to say test scores or meaningless, or that they should be ignored altogether.

Chalkbeat’s Shaina Cavazos wrote an interesting story about how so-called performance gaps – between white students and students of color, between poor and non-poor students, between English learners and native English speakers – are large and growing in Indiana. She didn’t just report numbers but spoke with experts and school officials about the reasons for the gaps and why they are cause for concern.

If you want to make sense of your local school district’s ISTEP performance, one place to start would be to look at those gaps. How big are they? Why?

ISTEP growth scores, a measure of how much students improve from year to year, have some value for showing whether schools are helping their students advance. But we won’t see those until school letter grade calculations are released, possibly in a month or so.

It is interesting to look at the performance of Indiana’s virtual or online schools, which have been under the microscope for low test scores and other problems. For example, tiny Union School Corp. more than tripled its size last year by enrolling students from around the state via a partnership with K-12 Inc., the giant, for-profit provider of online education. The district’s test scores declined: Only 10.5 of seventh-graders and 11.1 percent of eighth-graders passed both the math and English sections of ISTEP.

Online schools are also being scrutinized for not getting their students to even take ISTEP exams. Last year, Indiana Virtual Academy, an online charter school, tested only 35 percent of its students. Judging by its reported 2017-18 enrollment compared with ISTEP results, it may not have improved very much.

The good news: This is the last time we will read about ISTEP results for students in grades 3-8 — because that particular test is going away. The bad news: Next year we’ll be reading similar stories about results for the state’s new, computer-adaptive assessment called ILEARN.

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One thought on “ISTEP results are a non-story

  1. Headlines need “shock and awe”. What percentage of students should fail so that the public is alarmed? At just under 50%, the public may perceive a problem with public schools, thus supporting the privatization machine. Just enough schools will fail that need “taken over.” However, if scores are too low, people may perceive a problem with the test. So cut scores may be manipulated to ensure a poor instrument of measure is not scrutinized.

    In the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, points are collected to see which house of students is best. In book one, while Harry is young and naive, winning this contest is critical and part of the story’s resolution. As Harry comes of age in the final books, those manipulating the contest make is so ludicrous that Harry refuses to participate and can no longer be manipulated by the need to win at a rigged game.

    I can only hope that Indiana, like Harry, comes of age sooner than later and figures this out about standardized testing as well.

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