ISTEP Debate Returns for 2006

January 1, 2006

Indiana Writers Group column for Jan. 4 and thereafter
730 words

by Andrea Neal

INDIANAPOLIS – Indiana lawmakers have been tinkering with ISTEP for close to 20 years. After all this time, you’d think we’d have a test that meets the needs of parents, teachers and students and satisfies all the state and federal bureaucrats who have hinged funding promises on student achievement.

We don’t.

During the 2006 session of the Indiana General Assembly, the argument resumes over switching ISTEP from fall to spring. In addition, lawmakers will consider a bill that would permit consideration of ISTEP scores in assessing teacher performance, as is now the case for principals.

These issues, contentious as they are, mask deeper questions about the validity and usefulness of Indiana’s statewide testing program. Although ISTEP has been around since 1988, it’s undergone almost constant change to the satisfaction of no one.    

At least one legislator, state Sen. Gary Dillon, R-Pierceton, wonders if Indiana wouldn’t be better off with a nationally-recognized test such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills or the Northwest Evaluation Association’s Measures of Academic Progress (MAP).

Such tests are not only cheaper to administer and quicker to grade, they make it easier to compare Indiana children with peers elsewhere.

 The Iowa Test requires five hours and 10 minutes for Grades 3 through 8, and covers language arts, listening skills, reading comprehension, math, social studies and science. The ISTEP exam for Fifth and Seventh Grades, which recently expanded to cover science but not social studies, takes more than seven hours.

 The computerized MAP test tabulates individual student score reports in minutes; classroom reports are generated within a day and district wide reports within 72 hours. ISTEP’s results take almost three months to produce.

 “Testing is in a total state of change right now based on technology,” acknowledges Sen. Teresa Lubbers, chair of the Senate Education Committee, who notes that there may be other testing products worth considering.

For now, she agrees with Gov. Mitch Daniels that ISTEP should be moved to spring so that it can be used to assess student progress over the course of the school year.

Testing at the beginning of the fall term means that students are assessed on the previous year’s instruction. Around the state, the first weeks of school are used almost universally for test prep. This, in turn, has caused school districts to continually move up their fall starting date to get a jump on the competition.  (Senate Bill 80, proposed by Sen. Robert L. Meeks, R-LaGrange, would have schools return to a post Sept. 1 opening day.)

Lubbers is also the sponsor of Senate Bill 82, which would allow scores on ISTEP and other nationally recognized assessments to be used as one factor – but only one factor – in evaluating teachers. As it is now, schools are prohibited from even considering those test scores in teacher performance reviews.

Considering that some school districts and states are implementing innovative merit pay plans for teachers, based in part on student achievement, Lubbers calls her proposal modest. She nonetheless expects “scathing criticism” from the teachers’ lobby.

In other states, unions on occasion have come around. Fourteen states offer bonus pay to attract teachers to high-poverty districts. Five states specifically link teacher pay to student achievement. In Massachusetts, Gov. Mitt Romney, being mentioned as a 2008 Republican presidential contender, has made merit pay a centerpiece of his education reform plan. His proposal would give $5,000 bonuses to teachers whose students show exceptional achievement gains, based on a sophisticated analysis of student test scores.

In Indiana, merit pay directly conflicts with collective bargaining law; and, as Lubbers’ bill points out, student scores can’t be considered now in teacher performance reviews. The former won’t be addressed in a short legislative session; SB 82 will have trouble enough.

 The spring ISTEP proposal also faces rough sledding. School Superintendent Suellen Reed is opposed to the idea. State officials say it would take 18 months and $17 million to convert ISTEP into a spring test. That’s almost half the $38 million annual budget for ISTEP and other student evaluation programs.

Its high cost and ridiculous complexity suggest lawmakers should consider whether ISTEP is the right mechanism on which to base our judgments about students and teachers. It would be worth getting a quote from national test makers to see how quickly they could deliver a product that not only reflects Indiana’s standards, but helps teachers improve student performance in the classroom.

Andrea Neal, former editorial page editor of the Indianapolis Star, is adjunct scholar and columnist with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at


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