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"Teaching to Test" Rises as More Dig in For ISTEP

Private test-prep consultants spend more time in the classroom as teachers spend less.

Pep rallies focus on September statewide exams as well as football games.

Training helps teachers counsel one another to face mounting ISTEP stress.

These are among the ways Indiana schools are retooling and spending millions to help students succeed when they face this fall's Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress-Plus. The number of children taking the tests has doubled to 750,000, an increase that only adds pressure as state and federal officials demand improved exam results. As the pressure grows, test scores drive the shape of Indiana education.

Parents may hardly recognize the new face of school, and to some, the change has not been a good one.

"Is it really the way to educate kids? My personal feeling is no," said Dick Schmid, whose son started third grade at Pike Township's Fishback Creek Public Academy on Aug. 3. "Unfortunately, our school system is governed by politics, and there's too much emphasis on other things than educating our kids."

Critics say schools have turned into factories that strive to crank out high-scoring products: their students. Education officials say "teaching to the test" can be in a child's best interests if it's done right.

"The standards are what guide you," said Anne Arroyo, a fourth-grade teacher at College Park Elementary School in Pike Township. "As classroom teachers, we have some creative license about how we pull that all together and make it exciting."

The ISTEP itself has caused some excitement -- or at least set hearts palpitating -- in the top offices and classrooms of schools across Indiana. State and federal accountability laws have made test scores a key gauge of school success.

Failure has its cost. Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, schools that fail to meet improvement targets can lose money that helps poor and minority students.

This year adds extra pressure as the number of test-takers doubles. Four grade levels have been added, which boosts that number to 750,000 students in Grades 3-10.

Indiana taxpayers put up about $41 million last year for programs that attempt to thwart or fix failing ISTEP scores. The state got another $537 million in federal education money last year, which includes about $167 million under the Title I program for poor students.

Yet critics say Indiana starts out behind the pack because it is one of few states that test children in the fall. That cuts the time teachers have to snap students out of the summertime state of mind.

ISTEP tests were scheduled in the spring until 1996. Supporters of the switch to fall tests, a push led by the state's largest teachers union, complained that scores arrive too late to identify children who need extra help.

Efforts to move the tests back to the spring have failed several times since, but lawmakers expect the debate to flare up again in the next legislative session.

"I believe our system has been redesigned to put the horse behind the cart," said House Minority Leader Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis. "We test children after three or four weeks of school on what they learned in the prior year and don't test them at the end of the school year about what they learned during the school year."

Whatever the testing schedule, ISTEP's heightened importance has sparked a host of changes in Hoosier schools.

For example:

Summer vacations end earlier at more schools, in part to make time for test preparation.

Substitutes at the North Miami Schools in Denver will replace teachers in the classroom twice a month while private consultants show the educators new ways to teach math. Another school program trains teachers to help peers cope with ISTEP-induced stress.

Schools in Fort Wayne, Gary, North Miami and other districts have tutoring and summer schools for students who appear likely to fail the ISTEP.

Students at Harshman Middle School in Indianapolis took home thick homework packets over summer break. Children who finished their assignments were rewarded with a barbecue and swimming pool party this week.

Consultants from a national nonprofit group will lead math lessons this year in 40 Marion County schools -- twice the number of local schools as last year.

Project Seed, of Berkeley, Calif., will take in nearly $200,000 from Indiana schools, said Theresa Morris, the group's Indianapolis program director. Morris said the consultants were so booked this year that they were forced to turn down some schools.

Private consultants have been criticized by the National Center for Fair and Open Testing because they "automatically narrow and dumb down education to the narrow range of topics and skills that tests measure," said Bob Schaeffer, center spokesman. The center is in Cambridge, Mass.

But Project Seed officials point to Washington Township, where the scores of sixth-graders who were deemed unlikely to pass the ISTEP math segment last year matched the district's average.

"Traditional teaching styles just do not impact them," Morris said. North Miami students also have made gains. Overall test scores in English jumped from 66 percent in the 2001-02 school year to 76 percent a year later. Administrators at the Title I school credit new programs that cost the federal government $584,000.

"Our ISTEP scores were so low for so many years, and it put us into the school improvement program," said Judy Friend, a teacher who oversees grant money requests in the rural school district, where 20 percent of children qualify for free and reduced meals. "We knew we had to do something."

"We feel that it's enough to say we're finding success," she said.

All that pressure to prop up test scores has started to wear on some teachers, who spend more time collecting data and crunching numbers as they try to track the testing progress of each child.

On her worst days, Cynthia Alexander, a third-grade teacher at IPS 94, thinks about quitting.

"It's not even about the kids anymore," said Alexander, who has 17 years of teaching experience. "With this 'teach to the test' approach, you're getting less time to actually teach. I just feel like I'm not a necessary component anymore."

All that pressure filters down to students.

Alec Sofianos, a North Miami third-grader, will take the ISTEP for the first time next month. Teachers tutored the 8-year-old after he failed his practice test last fall. Alec's spring scores were above average, his mother, Amy, said. The better scores, however, failed to erase his test-taking fears.

"I feel nervous," he said. "If I flunk or get passed, that's what I'm nervous about."

Call Star reporter Staci Hupp at (317) 444-6253.

— Staci Hupp




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