The stakes are the problem

Indiana’s ILEARN scores have been made public, and the freakout is underway. I guess we should be grateful. A decade ago, business leaders and newspaper editorial writers might have pointed to the scores as evidence that schools were broken. Now the consensus seems to be that the test is broken.

Here’s another possibility. Maybe the problem isn’t with the test. Maybe the problem is what we do with it. Maybe it’s the high stakes, not the testing, that we should reject.

Results for the new ILEARN assessment were released today during a meeting of the State Board of Education. As expected, the rate at which students were found to be proficient was considerably lower than the passing rate on ISTEP, Indiana’s previous test.

Just under half of all students in grades 3-8 were proficient in English/language arts, and just under half were proficient in mathematics, according to the assessment. Some 37% were proficient in both.

That’s a big drop from the last iteration of the ISTEP exam, in spring 2018, when 64% of students achieved passing scores in English/language arts and 58% in math.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick said a dip in scores was expected as Indiana implemented a more demanding assessment to measure whether students were on course to be “college and career ready” when they finish high school. She pointed to Indiana’s steady or rising scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress as evidence that students aren’t learning less.

“Our students are not backsliding,” McCormick said at a news conference held to discuss the test results prior to their release. “This assessment is just much more rigorous.”

Nevertheless, McCormick joined Gov. Eric Holcomb and state legislative leaders in calling for legislation to hold schools harmless for the first year of ILEARN. For 2019, schools would be awarded the higher of the grade that they earned in 2018 or 2019. Their grades wouldn’t drop because of ILEARN.

In response, the State Board of Education agreed today to delay releasing new A-to-F grades for schools until “the appropriate actions have been taken to hold schools and teachers harmless.”

McCormick will also ask the legislature to 1) “pause” the accountability time clock, so schools don’t move closer to state intervention; and 2) grant emergency rule-making authority to the state board so it can get to work on revising Indiana’s school accountability system.

“The assessment itself is not a horrible thing,” McCormick said. “It’s what it’s used for.”

That’s exactly right. Using a single test to label schools – and their students – is cruel and counterproductive. We know that student test scores reflect parental income and education more than school quality. The A-to-F grading system that Indiana adopted in 2011, based largely on test scores, rewards affluent schools and punishes schools that serve the neediest students.

It may make middle-class parents feel good to be told by the state that their children attend an “A school.” But it serves no valid educational purpose.

I truly don’t care about holding schools harmless for their 2019 ILEARN results. Calculate the grades, let the chips fall where they may, and let the wealthy schools and districts, for once, experience the embarrassment and frustration that poor schools experience every year.

But yes, do stop the clock on state intervention. And yes, definitely, use this as an opportunity to reconfigure accountability and move away from A-to-F grading.

A better alternative would be to do what McCormick has suggested: Align Indiana’s accountability system with the separate federal system that the Indiana Department of Education has designed to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act. That system drops A-to-F grades and replaces them with school performance categories: “exceeds expectations,” “meets expectations,” “approaches expectations” and “does not meet expectations.” Parents understand those terms.

Some people are pointing to the ILEARN results and arguing that we should end testing. That’s not going to happen. ESSA requires states to assess student performance in grades 3-8 and once in high school. As McCormick said, Indiana won’t jeopardize $1 billion in federal funding by not complying with the law.

But we can do a better job of using the results to help schools and not punish them. This is a test for Indiana policymakers. How will they perform? We can’t afford for them to fail us again.

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