Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

NCLB Outrages

Tougher ISTEP scrutinized after making some students cry

The public comments are ugly. Here's a sample:

Suck it up! College is not easy either.

In 2003, Achieve issued a report complaining that ISTEP was too easy. The link on the Indiana Roundtable doesn't work. Hudson Institute, a fellow traveler, describes the report here.

NOTE: According to the Indiana Department of Education website, all unused testing amterials are to be returned to CTB/McGraw Hill.

By Andy Gammill

Teachers at Clinton Prairie Elementary School in Frankfort knew quickly that something had gone wrong on the ISTEP test this month: Students came to the office in a panic, and parents called to complain about children in tears after school.

Parents and teachers across the state encountered similar reactions as the Department of Education debuted a new, harder spring version of the mandatory exam.

The state teachers union called the whole scenario a meltdown, and Indiana officials are now hiring outside experts to review the test. They'll check whether it was properly designed, and state education officials will investigate how better to communicate to teachers and children in Frankfort and around the state to let them know the difficulty level in advance.

Those images of children crying themselves to sleep over a test brings up questions of how difficult statewide standardized tests should be and whether the state did enough to warn parents, teachers and students that the test would be harder.

The leadership of the Indiana State Teachers Association said that even if the test is determined valid, the state failed to understand the expectations that have been put on kids.

Clinton Prairie Superintendent Charlie Fink was among the many parents, teachers and education groups criticizing the test and the information the state provided schools about it.

"I feel a real lack of communication," Fink said. "We're all in this together. And fundamentally, when something's amiss, we're all compelled to find out. Right now, I think we have a flat tire in the testing arena."

Students began taking the ISTEP this month, completing the short-answer sections and math questions where work had to be shown. Next month they will do multiple-choice questions, which take less time to grade.

That setup put the questions many students find harder first. Plus, many of those questions involved several steps, each of which counts as a separate answer for credit.

The state overhauled the test to measure students' reasoning skills and gauge how they perform at understanding the material rather than simply memorizing shortcuts or knowing enough to eliminate wrong answers.

There's nothing inherently wrong with a test that a student can't finish or that asks questions outside the bounds of what's been learned. On the SAT, for instance, the expectation is that many students will not finish. School counselors even give advice on whether to answer tougher questions or leave them blank. Students who don't finish the SAT or can't answer every question can often still get good scores.

But that's not what ISTEP historically has been like.

State officials said they made the exam harder primarily to promote deeper learning, but they said it has the side benefit of making it easier to see the full range of how all students are performing.

Message missed

The state has said it will be fair when it determines the scores required to pass this year and that students shouldn't worry if they didn't finish the test.

That reassurance probably won't be enough, said Dan Clark, deputy director of the Indiana State Teachers Association, the primary teachers union.

"ISTEP is understood to be a general skills test," he said. "If they're going to change that, they clearly didn't tell anybody."

Kelly Moore, an Eastside mother whose fourth-grade daughter found the test hard, prefers that the state test what students are supposed to know, so a child who had done well in class could answer all the questions in time.

"Parents are not given a clue as to what to prepare their kids for," she said. "My kid, based on school report card, gets above-average grades, but I am concerned that this most recent ISTEP test will not reflect that."

The state, Moore said, could solve most of the angst surrounding the test if it communicated more with parents.

The Indiana Department of Education wants the outside review to confirm that the test is valid and to ensure no mistakes were made, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett said.

But Bennett said he thinks the test is sound and that the state made every effort to inform schools about the changes.

"I would challenge the concept that people weren't made aware," he said. "As we move forward in the 21st century, the level of accountability that is required from every person -- we all know that rigor is up."

The Department of Education started telling schools last April that the test would have a new format of harder, open-answer and show-your-work problems, Bennett said.

However, agendas and PowerPoint presentations don't indicate any warnings were given that students might struggle with the changes.

Bennett said he regrets it if children were hurt but emphasized that the state believes in the process of testing.

"The intent of assessment and accountability is never to cause a child so much stress that they go home in tears," he said. "Our intent is to make sure we fairly assess children."

— Andy Gammill
Indianapolis Star


This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.