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Scores Stagnant as 1 in 3 Fails Test

Ohanian Comment: Note the easy parroting of business rhetoric-- mouthed as received wisdom


About one of every three Indiana students in third, sixth and eighth grades failed statewide reading or math tests this fall despite millions of dollars spent to boost learning and, ultimately, scores.

The results released Thursday for the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress-Plus disappointed Superintendent of Public Instruction Suellen K. Reed, who last year expressed hope that more children would begin passing the exam in 2004.

Instead, the number passing the math and English tests only inched up or, in some cases, remained flat.

"While recognizing that we must do better, we also know that, as passing scores continue to rise, we reach a new plateau of achievement," she said. "Scaling that high ground is our next challenge."

Gov.-elect Mitch Daniels could not be reached for comment Thursday, but policy experts agree Indiana has leveled out.

"It appears in most states that have raised standards and really focused on the statewide test systems, you generally see bigger bumps at first," said Jonathan Plucker, director of Indiana University's Center for Evaluation and Education Policy. "But after you've changed those things, it gets harder, and I think that's what we're seeing now."

Another set of results is expected to be released in February or March, with scores from Grades 4, 5, 7, 9 and 10.

Even schools that made major gains fixated on the students who failed, looking for clues in the test results that could show them what could help more succeed.

"There's no down time," said Principal Russ Wright of Wanamaker Elementary School in Franklin Township, where third-graders took a big leap in math and reading scores. "We're running as fast as we can to keep up with the game."

A push for literacy began at Wanamaker last year, after the number of third-grade students who passed the math portion of the ISTEP-Plus plunged to 58 percent. "We were shocked," said Wright, who has led the school for 11 years.

He believes consulting help and expanded reading programs paid off. The school learned last week that 77 percent of third-graders passed reading and math.

"We feel that, because the reading skills have improved, that's certainly had an effect on our math scores," Wright said. "If kids struggle with reading, obviously they're going to have a hard time figuring out a story problem."

Testing is critical

Testing has become critical nationwide as the result of a federal law, No Child Left Behind. It was designed to raise the achievement of all children, especially poor, minority and disabled students.

A minimum number must pass state tests to meet goals set by the law. The number goes up each year, and by 2014 all students are required to pass. The results released Thursday were from about 240,000 students.

At stake is the federal money set aside for poor and minority student programs.

Schools that fail to make annual progress are placed on a statewide improvement list. Those that receive Title I funds -- federal money used to help boost achievement of children at risk of failing -- risk losing the money if student performance is consistently poor.

Starting next year, not meeting Indiana's own accountability goals will bring additional penalties, including the state takeover of failing schools.

Pushing students to higher levels of achievement is essential, said David E. Holt, director of education policy for the influential Indiana Chamber of Commerce.

While ISTEP results are the basis on which schools are held accountable under state and federal law, they're also looked at by businesses and job candidates considering moving to the state.

"There's an obvious trend that we're moving up," Holt said. "Is it as fast as we would like to see it? No. . . . If we're going to meet our accountability standards, we need bigger increases."

Racial disparities

A wide gulf continued to exist between the number of whites and blacks passing the test. Although 79 percent of white third-graders passed the English exam, the figure fell to 58 percent of black third-graders. Yet that marked a strong gain among blacks, whose passing rate rose from 48 percent last year. The white passing rate grew only 1 percentage point.

Two-thirds of the exam consists of multiple-choice questions -- a slightly larger percentage for third-graders -- scored by computer.

The rest of the exam consists of a 55-minute essay and short-answer responses in math and language arts.

Test results are grouped into three categories: Pass-Plus, Pass and Did Not Pass.

Where the money goes

With so much pressure to improve scores, schools will continue to pour money into consultants, computer lessons and tutors.

Wanamaker used part of the district's $401,000 in money set aside for poor and minority student programs to hire a consultant, who trains kindergarten and first-grade teachers.

That move came after Wanamaker launched a reading program modeled after one at Crooked Creek Elementary School in Washington Township.

The consultant trained teachers to run an intensive reading program called Soar to Success, which zeroes in on fourth-graders who need extra reading help. The program is expected to start in third grade in January.

Other schools have followed Wanamaker's example, although some learning programs have drawbacks. For example, substitute teachers fill in while Wanamaker teachers participate in training.

"Robbing Peter . . ."

Students who score low in reading or math at Speedway Junior High School are pulled out of their regular classes to get help.

"When the rubber meets the road, if a student is not reading or computing math at grade level, we have to try our best to get them up to that, and sometimes that's taking them out of a social studies or science class and getting them extra help in math and reading," said Speedway Principal John Dizney. "It's robbing Peter to pay Paul. There's so much pressure on a kid and a school to try to increase test scores that we're going to try to do everything we can."

Teachers at Indianapolis Public School 48, 3445 Central Ave., started offering after-school tutoring last year for all students after they saw a drop in ISTEP scores. The passing rate plummeted to 35 percent last year from 64 percent passing in 2002. Seventy-one percent of this year's third-graders passed.

ISTEP data confirmed what teachers already knew about individual student strengths and weaknesses, said Principal Deloris Sangster, adding they used last year's results to map out curriculum shifts.

Improving reading comprehension and writing became a schoolwide focus for the kindergarten through fifth-grade inner-city elementary. And teachers consulted with other award-winning schools to replicate their success.

When students returned to classes in August, they were given academic packets that contained worksheets to be completed outside school for extra credit that was separate from traditional homework.

While that effort may lead to higher test scores, some continue to question the new emphasis on testing.

"My big concern is that it takes so much time, costs so much to do, and a lot of schools don't have the manpower to interpret the tests to do justice with the results," said Samuel Cox, of Griffith, a retired school administrator who has a 16-year-old son. "It's such a waste."

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

— Staci Hupp and Kim L. Hooper
Indiannapolis Star
2004-12-10
http://www.indystar.com/articles/6/201104-7526-009.html


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