Neal: The ISTEP Committee

March 30, 2016

by Andrea Neal

A word of caution to Indiana K-12 students: Don’t get too excited about the repeal of the ISTEP exam. The “next iteration of assessment and accountability” is coming, according to Gov. Mike Pence. If our recent debate over academic standards is any indication, the new test could be just like the old one, or worse.

As a former member of the State Board of Education, I’m skeptical every time the state pledges a new and improved educational product. Just three years ago, the Indiana legislature voted to withdraw from the Common Core academic standards initiative after Hoosier parents complained loudly about what they were seeing in the classroom. In April 2014, the board adopted “new” Indiana standards that were nothing more than a rewrite of the Common Core.

The same thing is likely to happen with testing.

Here’s why: The governor and most Republican legislators have yet to identify what they want to do differently. Most want to keep a test with high stakes, which means students, schools and teachers would continue to be judged partly on the basis of test scores and score improvement.

Courts have said that, whenever test results are linked to high “stakes” for students – diplomas, in particular — the tests must be closely aligned to what is actually taught. It’s a matter of fairness. A similar argument could be made when stakes involve teacher pay or letter grades for schools. That’s why the state switched to a new version of ISTEP this year: to better align to the content of the state’s standards.

Complicating the picture: State School Superintendent Glenda Ritz has said she wants to get rid of high-stakes testing.

House Bill 1395 has charged a 23-member committee with making recommendations on this issue to the governor and legislature by Dec. 1. The committee is made up of teachers, principals, parents, college and workforce representatives, lawmakers and Glenda Ritz. With so many people on the committee and so many interests, prospects for consensus look slim.

“Seems like overkill to me,” observes Richard Phelps, Ph.D., the author of “Estimating the Costs and Benefits of Educational Testing Programs” and at least one nationally recognized expert who ought to be invited to the committee’s first meeting to share the latest in standardized testing research.

Phelps believes strongly in the benefits of standardized tests but is leery of recent innovations in assessments that claim to ensure college readiness on the part of test-takers or to do a better job of assessing higher order thinking skills. That’s a fad, and Indiana has fallen for it.

The creation of a standardized test should be purely a mechanical process once policymakers determine the scope and purpose of their testing, Phelps explains. He advises that a 90-minute multiple-choice test per subject area is more than adequate to gather necessary data for comparing achievement and measuring gains. Open-ended questions, claimed by some to be necessary to test critical thinking, add hours to the testing and grading process and aren’t necessarily better than multiple choice.

Constant change is part of the problem, Phelps says. He calls it churning. “We have to have a revolution every two years even though it’s not really necessary,” he says.

Some lawmakers have advocated using an off-the-shelf achievement test, such as the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills and Educational Development. These are nationally normed, multiple-choice tests that assesses students’ skills in reading, vocabulary, spelling, math concepts and computation, among other topics. The benefit of the Iowa would be cost and efficiency. At the Eighth Grade level, for example, a core battery covering language arts and math takes less than four hours, half the time of an ISTEP exam. Results are available almost immediately.

Others have suggested giving schools local control and letting them choose from a menu of internationally benchmarked assessments.

A third option would be to take the current ISTEP and shorten and streamline it to meet the objections that led to House Bill 1395 in the first place: The test takes too long, scores aren’t available for months, way too much time is spend piloting test items and scoring errors have made its results less than credible with teachers and parents. After spending tens of millions of dollars to develop the test, that option would salvage part of taxpayers’ investment.

The committee’s chance for success will depend largely on the vision set by the governor who appoints five members and gets to pick the chairman.

In the debate over academic standards, Gov. Pence was satisfied with a superficial rewrite of the Common Core that scored political points with some but failed to address substantive concerns about the quality of the standards. He’d be wise to meet with Richard Phelps first and then make recommendations for the shortest, quickest and best test possible that will provide only the data that is absolutely necessary to judge student achievement.

Andrea Neal, a​n adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation​, is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis.


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