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4 out of 10 Fail English and Math on ISTEP

Michael Cosby walked into the guidance office at Manual High School this week with a little trepidation.

"Am I in trouble?" he asked.

Far from it.

Guidance director Janet Huck had good news for the 17-year-old: He passed the graduation qualifying exam on his first try.

But eight years after the mandatory graduation exam debuted, four out of 10 sophomores statewide didn't share Michael's success -- they flunked on their first try at a new version of the test.

Only 57 percent of 76,531 sophomores tested in September passed the exam, according to the Indiana Department of Education, which released 2004 ISTEP-Plus results for Grades 9 and 10 Thursday.

Education officials caution it is difficult to compare current 10th-grade scores with those from past years because the test is significantly different. For example, this year's sophomores were tested on algebra, a subject not previously included.

Ninth-graders did slightly better. Of the 80,997 freshmen tested, 59 percent passed both the math and English portions of Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress-Plus.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Suellen K. Reed, who oversees public K-12 education, called the results a yardstick for annual testing and said they brought Indiana schools in compliance with federal and state education laws.

The federal No Child Left Behind law requires states to test students in Grades 3-8. Indiana policy-makers approved annual testing for Grades 3-10 in 1999, but it has taken time to implement. Schools once tested only students in Grades 3, 6, 8 and 10.

"The benchmarks are set. . . . This is the final piece in the work we've been doing," Reed said during an afternoon news conference at the Statehouse.

Schools tested more than 700,000 public and private school students last fall.

And for the first time, the results will be used to place schools into five performance categories under a state school accountability law that took effect five years ago. Sanctions for schools that consistently fall in the lowest categories could include closure.

On the old version of the 10th-grade exam last year, 59.6 percent of sophomores passed, a slightly higher number than those tested last fall. The difference isn't statistically important, said Wes Bruce, assistant superintendent of the state Education Department who oversees testing and assessment. Reed agreed.

"Every time you give a new test, scores tend to dip and then go back up," Reed said. "We have some students here who are really close to passing."

Schools use the test results to identify which students are struggling and to help them get caught up by providing remedial lessons. That extra help ranges from after-school tutoring to extra study halls during the school day.

Michael was confident he did well on the English portion of the graduation exam. He was more worried, he said, about the math portion.

"Some of the math," he said, "I had never seen before."

He scored 599 on the math portion of the exam. The passing score is set at 586. And he scored 13 points above the 551 passing score for English.

While they are happy he's passed, his parents don't agree with the do-or-die, high-stakes exam concept.

"There might be an honor roll student who makes straight A's and then fails that test," said his mother, Paula Cosby.

Educators note that students have four other opportunities to take the test -- twice in their junior year, twice again as seniors.

Remediation is critical, Reed, said, to help narrow gaps in achievement, an issue in Indiana particularly among minority and low-income students in urban school districts. State lawmakers have allotted $25 million a year for extra help for those students, but Reed said schools could use more.

"The funding is not where it needs to be, and it never has been," she said. "Our needs always exceed what's available."

ISTEP-Plus results for Grades 9 and 10
80,997 students were tested statewide
67% passed the LANGUAGE ARTS test
61% got a Passed designation
5% got a Pass-Plus designation*
68% passed the MATH test
54% got a Passed designation
14% got a Pass-Plus designation
59% passed both

76,531 students were tested statewide
68% passed the LANGUAGE ARTS test
65% got a Passed designation
3% got a Pass-Plus designation
64% passed the MATH test
53% got a Passed designation
11% got a Pass-Plus designation
57% passed both
*Percentages do not add up because of rounding.
Source: Indiana Department of Education

— Kim L. Hooper
Indiannapolis Star


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