The Test: 32 Years of Fraud

September 10, 2019

THOSE WHO WERE AROUND during the administration of Republican Gov. Robert Orr know the assumption behind statewide grade-by-grade, district-by-district testing. It was thought that the then-powerful teachers unions were protecting inadequate or at least mediocre teachers.

That was quickly found false. Indiana schools are blessedly free of bad teachers relative to other states, and that is so regardless either of union machinations or a governor’s posed oversight. Teaching here is still a calling, please know, not a job.

In any case, our Dr. Jeff Abbott, an ex-school superintendent, argued early on that given the test’s design and scheduling it could not show what it was intended to show, i.e., classroom learning through a school year:

“Our policymakers support educational testing that not only could cost more than a billion dollars over the next decade, but it may be redundant or, worse, have no meaningful impact on student academic achievement.”

The testing, though, continued through the 1990s, during which it became a multi-multi-million-dollar enterprise — that and a fraud, to be detailed in a moment.

Two years ago, Andrea Neal, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation and a former member of the Indiana Board of Education, weighed abandoning such “high stakes” testing (by then linked to vouchers and bonuses). If there were to be statewide testing at all, it should be scaled-down. She noted that some experts have suggested giving schools local control and letting them choose from a menu of internationally benchmarked assessments. Her summary:

“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.”–member-istep-committee-recipe-for-disaster/article_c442434c-f76c-11e5-a198-cf0ec88294ba.html

It wasn’t until last week, though, that Abbot and Neal’s skepticism bore out. Indeed, the entire testing program was exposed as a fraud — exposed by accident. That was done by the release of results from the new ILEARN testing, an attempt itself to cover up inefficacy in the previous ISTEP testing.

Know that it had little to do with the test itself and even less to do with either teacher or student performance.

As soon as the results of ILEARN were released, teachers throughout Indiana began comparing notes on why the scores were low. Statewide last year, 59 percent of students were rated proficient on math and 65 percent on English. This year those numbers were 48 percent and 48 percent — an average 14 percent drop.

That percentage drop corresponds to what teachers know to be the historic difference between the high scores marked up by the great number of teachers who “teach to the test” and the lower scores of the few who teach the coursework standard. The gap was the predictable result not so much of a lapse in teacher ethics as a government’s misaligned incentives.

By that it is meant the ILEARN scores were low because this year, the first year of the new test, teachers who choose to prep their students did not yet know how to do that. Next year, it can be predicted, teaching to the test will resume and scores will go back up. One supposes that Gov. Eric Holcomb, who was forced this year to ask that the results be “held harmless” regarding school rankings and teacher pay, can then proclaim success.

It is a hypothesis based on anecdotal evidence but as a hypothesis it can be tested itself. The Department of Education can commission a cross-tabbed survey of those teachers who scored the same on this year’s test as last year (the data are already assembled on line).

If the analysis is correct, it would mean that Indiana has been testing hapless students not to measure their progress but only to find out the number of teachers who would compromise a test. That is a misapplication of standardized testing, and, as Neal has noted, courts have said that whenever test results are linked to “high stakes” for students, the tests must be aligned to what is actually taught. It is a matter of logic, fairness and accountable government. In that regard, Abbott assembled a checklist of unanswered questions:

Again, the argument for malfeasance is the more compelling because the fraud was uncovered by accident. We are reminded of a judge in Michigan who casually suspended that state’s prevailing wage law. His judgment allowed construction contracts to be let unencumbered for a time by the wage statute. Consequently, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy was able to document more than 11,000 jobs added in a three-year period as a direct result of the prevailing-wage invalidation, a refutation of the law’s rationale and a gauge of its true cost.

In Indiana’s case, it is difficult to imagine any outcry anywhere outside of the Statehouse if ILEARN were to be summarily canceled. But it is more likely, considering the money involved, that there will be only a more-detailed-than-usual political explanation for why it must be continued.

How much money are we talking about? Well, there are the testing costs themselves, as much as $30 million a year for the last 32 years. And there is the cost of the lost teaching time, the distorted picture of classroom progress, the incorrect rating of schools and teachers, lower teacher morale and the degradation of public trust.

Let’s see if the governor finds time to tally all that up before the next election.

— tcl


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