Indiana students will start taking new ILEARN assessments Monday. Is ILEARN really something new, not just ISTEP with a different name and more bells and whistles? State officials insist it is.
“One of our key messages is literally that: This is not designed to be ISTEP 2.0,” said Charity Flores, director of assessment for the Indiana Department of Education.
The biggest difference, Flores said, is that ILEARN math and English/language arts assessments for grades 3-8 will be computer-adaptive. Students will take the tests online, and algorithms will guide the questions they see. The questions will change in difficulty depending on how the previous question was answered. The goal is a more precise, focused evaluation of students’ skills.
Another difference is that ILEARN isn’t timed. Students should get all the time they need to complete each section – no more racing to finish a test in a timed, 40-minute period.
State officials also tout the fact that ILEARN was developed with help from Indiana educators, including classroom teachers. Committees that included about 500 educators have been involved, Flores said. Another improvement, ILEARN will take less time than ISTEP; up to two hours less at each grade level.
ILEARN also include features to make the assessment more accessible: glossaries and dictionaries for unfamiliar words and concepts, spell-check for writing questions, accommodations for students with disabilities, an option to take math tests in Spanish, etc.
What hasn’t changed is that ILEARN, like ISTEP, is designed to assess students’ performance on Indiana academic standards, which were adopted in 2014-15. When Indiana first assessed students on those standards, passing rates on ISTEP exams went way down.
Results from ILEARN should be available quickly; but cut scores – the scores students need to achieve to be rated “pass” or “pass plus” — won’t be determined until this summer. Schools should get results by Aug. 15. In the future, results will be available within 12 days, officials say.
American Institutes for Research designed and administers ILEARN under a three-year, $43.4 million contract with the Department of Education. The window for the assessment is until May 17. Indiana also has a new assessment, called I AM, for students with significant cognitive disabilities.
The assessments are rolling out at a time of growing skepticism about standardized testing. Indiana officials are sensitive to criticisms that state tests are often misused to judge schools and students and that too much instructional time is lost to getting students ready for the tests.
“ILEARN is reflective of a single data point about students, but it’s not the only data point that educators have,” Flores said. “We all want to minimize the overuse of assessments. Everyone has that as a goal.”
Federal and state laws require annual assessments in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Given that, it arguably makes sense to create assessments that produce accurate and useful results. And the Indiana Department of Education should get credit for reaching out to teachers, families and the public and promoting assessment literacy.
But as Flores says, even the best tests are just one tool for assessing student and school academic performance. And they don’t tell us how students are growing emotionally, socially and ethically.