The South Wall: ‘The Trouble with ISTEP’
by Andrea Neal
It’s time for Indiana lawmakers to scrap ISTEP. The test is nothing but trouble, and it’s taking valuable time away from classroom learning.
During the two years I served on the State Board of Education, I developed a short list of what’s wrong with the state’s high-stakes exam, formally known as the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress Plus:
- It has become the be-all and end-all of a Hoosier education. Student achievement in grades 3-8 is gauged almost entirely by ISTEP scores. These scores are linked to school A-F grades, teacher evaluations and teacher salaries.
- No wonder teachers feel they must “teach to the test.”
- It’s worthless for pedagogical purposes. Children take the test in spring yet schools and parents don’t receive results until fall of the next school year. That makes it impossible to use ISTEP to spot gaps in instruction or in an individual child’s understanding.
- It’s plagued by chronic irregularities in test administration. Over the course of a four-year $95-million contract, CTB/McGraw-Hill repeatedly experienced computer problems that disrupted testing, the most serious in 2013 when 78,000 students were affected. Pearson Education, which has the current ISTEP testing contract, has had an equally disturbing track record of erroneous test scoring.
- It’s too long. When it was revealed last spring that a new version of ISTEP would average 12 hours, public outcry was so intense that lawmakers had to take emergency action to shorten it. This year’s test will be nine hours, still too long by most teachers’ standards.
ISTEP is sucking the joy out of teaching and learning, according to Teresa Meredith and almost every educator I have talked to in recent months. “As teachers, we do test preparation, we teach to the test, and we build lessons around the test format. We do local tests to see if we are on track to pass the mandated tests,” observes Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association and a 20-year classroom teacher.
Writing in the Nov. 7 issue of the Indianapolis Business Journal, Meredith said, “Teaching is no longer designed to meet the needs of students. Teaching is designed to meet the needs of the testing industry.”
The testing industry has ballooned since No Child Left Behind became federal law in 2002. States are required to test every child every year in grades 3 to 8 and to give a comprehensive test to high schoolers.
If ISTEP were the only mandated test, it might be tolerable, but state and local officials require lots more. Third-graders take IREAD to show they can read. High school students who need remediation take Accuplacer. The Department of Education recommends and pays for high schoolers to take the PSAT. The IDOE subsidizes formative assessments in grades 3-10 that are used to track student progress.
A national study found that the average student in a big-city public school will take 112 mandatory standardized tests between pre-kindergarten and high school graduation, an average of eight per year. For a typical eighth-grader, time spent on mandated tests in 2014-15 was 4.21 days or 2.34 percent of school time.
The two-year study by the Council of the Great City Schools is the most comprehensive to date on mandatory testing in the nation’s schools. The study found no evidence that time spent testing improves academic performance. That fact, as well as public backlash over federal-testing requirements, prompted Barack Obama last month to call for a cap on assessments to ensure no child spends more than 2 percent of instructional time in test taking.
Education watchers had hoped for a similar statement from the state’s Interim Study Committee on Education, which met five times since August to consider, among other things, replacing ISTEP with a cheaper and shorter off-the-shelf test as proposed last session in Senate Bill 566, sponsored by Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville.
Instead, the committee recommended a statewide survey be conducted in public schools to determine exactly how much time Hoosier students are spending in statewide and district testing. It also called on the State Board of Education to insist on timely scoring of ISTEP.
For quicker results, lawmakers should abandon ISTEP in favor of an established test such as the Stanford Achievement or Iowa Test of Basic Skills. In online format, these nationally-normed, multiple-choice tests can be scored almost instantly and provide a wealth of data about achievement in reading, vocabulary, writing mechanics, math and other subjects.
Opponents of such an off-the-shelf test make two arguments: First, that Indiana has uniquely rigorous academic standards that necessitate a custom-made test; and second, that the test must have open-ended and “show your work” questions to determine if schools are properly preparing students for jobs and college.
Both claims are misguided. Though Indiana replaced the controversial Common Core State Standards in 2014, a full 85 percent of Indiana’s new standards are identical or similar. Numerous testing experts — both consultants and Indiana Department of Education officials — have said a Common Core aligned assessment would match up fine with Indiana’s standards.
More important, standardized tests are not the best instrument for assessing critical thinking. This fool’s errand has led us — and other states — down the path to 12-plus hours of state standardized tests packed with open-ended questions that ask students to explain answers by showing math work or using support from reading passages. These are notoriously hard to grade accurately, especially when scored by temporary workers employed by testing companies that use a formula that discourages out-of-the-box thinking. Critical thinking tests are best administered by classroom teachers.
Though often criticized for reducing learning to fact memorization, multiple choice is more than adequate for state testing purposes. Testing methodology has become so sophisticated that items can be written in a way that requires students to apply reasoning skills.
We are confusing the purpose of testing with the purpose of school. In Indiana, ISTEP preparation has become the curriculum. It’s time to put standardized tests in their proper place — as a way to collect useful data about student and school performance. Nothing more and nothing less.
Andrea Neal, adjunct scholar and columnist with the Indiana Policy Review, is a middle-school language arts and history teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.