Give Summer Back to Indiana Youngsters

December 4, 2005

by Andrea Neal
Embargoed for 2 p.m. Sept. 2, 2003

ImageINDIANAPOLIS — School"s back in session, which means teachers are hard at work helping students bone up for ISTEP. Is this any way to start a school year?

Just when teachers ought to be presenting fresh lessons and new material to eager, young students, they are forced to offer extensive and redundant review of the previous year"s subjects. Depending on where your child attends school, he may get as much as six weeks of ISTEP prep.

In case you haven"t noticed, ISTEP has ruined summer in Indiana. The start date for most school corporations continues to creep forward: August 22 for Indianapolis Public Schools. August 21 in Muncie. August 13 in Mississinewa. August 12 in Madison Consolidated Schools and Shoals.

The holdouts are few and far between. In northwest Indiana, a few urban districts waited until the last week in August, in large measure due to heat and humidity issues in non-air conditioned buildings. Who can pay attention in 96-degree classrooms with fans blaring? South Bend Community School Corp. opened its doors on Aug. 29. Three charter schools in Indianapolis waited until Sept. 3.

Becky Bechtel, a mom whose children attend a non-air conditioned building in central Indianapolis, wants the state to require all schools to start after Labor Day. As an alternative, she suggests moving back the ISTEP testing date so students in hot schools aren"t at a disadvantage.

ISTEP is indeed the crux of this dilemma. There is no reason to send children back to school in early August, the hottest month of the year when the swimming pool is most alluring, except for the fact that ISTEP is imminent. Schools keep looking for ways to boost scores, knowing that their success is judged almost entirely by the high-stakes test given between Sept. 15 and Sept. 26.

If Bechtel"s second suggestion were adopted — moving ISTEP to spring — chances are good that schools would change their calendars accordingly.

Terry Spradlin, legislative liaison for the Indiana Department of Education, calls it a "local control matter," noting that districts have the discretion now to start their calendars after Labor Day. The only applicable state mandates, he says, are that the school year consist of at least 180 instructional days, begin after June 30 when the state fiscal year ends and adjourn before July 1 of the following year.

The local control claim is disingenuous. Schools have no choice but to administer ISTEP on the dates specified by the state. What principal in his right mind would choose to forego ISTEP review when the neighboring district is hard at work?

During the 2003 legislature, House Minority Leader Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and a group of GOP lawmakers proposed a bill to switch ISTEP to the spring. They failed to get the support of Superintendent of Public Instruction Suellen Reed and the bill died early in the session.

Opposition was based on the fact that the test would have to be entirely redone to assess higher grade-level skills, at a cost of about $6 million for the biennium. Currently, the test is given to students in third, sixth, eighth and 10th grades to assess second, fifth, seventh and ninth grade skills respectively.

Yet even the test"s maker, CTB McGraw-Hill, has admitted that spring testing is the norm around the country and offers more useful data for parents, students and teachers striving for improvement.

If those aren"t reasons enough for changing ISTEP, consider this: August school is costing Indiana districts loads of money. Earlier this year, Oklahoma lawmakers considered a bill to mandate a uniform Sept. 1 school start date after school officials there complained of hundreds of thousands of dollars in summer utility bills. On their own initiative, Tulsa schools moved their opening day from mid-August to Sept. 2 at a savings of $150,000.

For practical and economic reasons, it makes more sense for schools to operate in June than in August. For academic reasons it makes more sense to give ISTEP in April than in September.

Please Indiana lawmakers, give summer back to Hoosier youngsters.

Andrea Neal, formerly editorial page editor of the Indianapolis Star, is an adjunct scholar and columnist for the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Write her at aneal@inpolicy.org.

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