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.

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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.

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