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ISTAR test may cause schools to fail

For 1st time, results to be counted for disabled, new English speakers, and Principal Reta Williams' lament is not the cry of someone who's making excuses. And the parent who makes pronouncements on what every child should do seems ill-informed. The requirement is not progress; the requirement is all children achieving an arbitrary goal.

By Staci Hupp

Indiana schools will be judged for the first time this year by the test scores of children who are severely disabled or barely speak English, under a piece of federal law that administrators worry will sink their reputations.

"It means my school will probably always be considered a failing school," said Principal Reta Williams, of Samuel P. Kyger Elementary School in Frankfort. The school is 80 percent Hispanic, a figure that has doubled in recent years.

State education officials have not complied with a little-known part of the federal No Child Left Behind law. That requirement calls on educators to measure the performance of those students so disabled or so new to speaking English they must take an alternative to Indiana's mandatory achievement test.

Indiana education officials had not figured out how to determine who "passed" the exam, which uses teacher observations and samples of student work to gauge success in math, language arts and basic life skills. They blame a lack of student statistics needed to approve passing scores for the special test, called the Indiana Standards Tool for Alternate Reporting.

Although ISTAR was first given in 2003, passing scores were only set this school year. Now those scores will count in the formula that distinguishes failing schools from those that meet federal benchmarks for improvement. The list of those schools is due out next month.
More than 10,000 students take ISTAR in place of the state achievement test, a small fraction of Indiana's 1 million public school children.
But the change could put more schools on the failing list and make it harder to improve for schools with soaring numbers of immigrant or disabled students. At stake for failing schools: federal education money designed to help poor and minority students.

Is ISTAR unfair?
Lawrence Township school leaders blamed the ISTAR change at a meeting last week for Amy Beverland Elementary School's spot on the failing schools list.

"We were very concerned about these changes that seemingly penalize children who have the greatest disability," said Jan Combs, the district's director of elementary education. "Is it realistic to expect that a child in fifth grade who has a developmental age of less than one year could meet a standard set for all children?"

Susan Pieples doesn't see it that way. The Carmel mother who raised an autistic son believes the ISTAR scores provide another layer of accountability for schools.

"If education is being done adequately, all kids should be making progress," said Pieples, who heads the Autism Society of Indiana. "We don't expect schools to be just baby-sitting our kids."

The full impact will be clearer when Indiana's failing schools list is made public next month. Preliminary federal data show 60 percent of Indiana schools made adequate progress this year, down from 76 percent last year. State officials say ISTAR is not a factor in that change.

The announcement of who is failing has been delayed since March, in part because of a flood of school appeals that state officials say are fueled by climbing expectations in the federal law.

The law uses student test scores, graduation rates and other statistics to measure schools. All students, regardless of background or disability, must be tested. Until this year, ISTAR students counted only in a category that tracks participation.

Expectations are rising, state education officials say. Under federal law, all students must have a good grasp of math and reading by 2014.

Test scores overall "need to be higher, so it's getting tougher and tougher to meet that standard," said Dawn McGrath, who oversees the state Department of Education's alternate testing system.

Few take test
Most of the state's public school students take the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress-Plus. So do most students who struggle enough in school to require special education.
Schools are allowed to excuse from the ISTEP-Plus exam about 1 percent of students who have severe physical or learning disabilities, along with immigrant students who have been in the country up to three years.

Those children are included in the number of students who participate in ISTAR, which was designed as a skills rating system instead of a test.

The number of students who take ISTAR has jumped 64 percent since the test was first given in 2003, state records show.
Part of the growth is linked to more grade levels added to the testing system since then, McGrath said.

Last year was the first time that ISTAR and ISTEP-Plus were administered in Grades 3-10.
The testing allowed state officials to gather the data needed to establish passing scores, McGrath said. She said those scores for severely disabled students were approved last fall.
But passing scores for children still learning English have yet to be set. Federal education officials noted a lack of passing scores for them in an evaluation of Indiana's testing system last fall. State Board of Education members are expected to approve criteria next month.

Combs, the Lawrence Township school administrator, criticized state officials for not publicizing the fact that ISTAR scores are now counted when schools are evaluated.
"Not only did the general public not know, the schools didn't know," she said. "These are the critical pieces that make public schools look bad when they're not."

Reporter Andy Gammill contributed to this story.

Indiana Standards Tool for Alternate Reporting (ISTAR)
What is it? ISTAR is an alternate rating system for students who have severe enough disabilities, or a limited ability to speak English and have been in the country for three years or less. Teachers are able to use their observations, samples of a student's work and other information to determine whether a student can demonstrate skills in math, language arts and functional achievement.

These students have been determined incapable of taking the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress-Plus, or ISTEP-Plus, the state's traditional achievement test.

Who took it in 2005? Students with limited English skills: 4,200 students in Grades 3-10, a jump of 64 percent since 2003. About 6,000 students with significant learning disabilities participated in ISTAR in place of the ISTEP-Plus.

Who is making progress? An update on which Indiana schools made progress or failed under the federal No Child Left Behind Act is being compiled.

The annual list of Indiana schools that are making or failing to make progress under the federal law was expected to be released as early as March. But the list has been bogged down in appeals from school leaders across the state. More than 160 schools have appealed their rating, nearly five times as many as last year. State education officials link the growth of appeals to rising expectations under federal law.

Why it matters: The annual list penalizes schools that don't show enough improvement. Depending on their standing, schools must offer parents the option to transfer to better-performing schools, provide free tutoring and, in the worst-case scenario, reorganize curriculum and employees.

Federal law says every student must pass statewide exams by 2014.

— Staci Hupp
Indianapolis Star


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