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Administrators frustrated with new state testing methods, results


Governor asks legislature to hold schools 'harmless'


September 11, 2019
Results from the ILEARN exam, Indiana's new standardized test for grades 3 through 8, are in, and, in every testing category, less than half of all students earned scores in or above the "proficient" range.

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Illustration by Christy Yost
In a statement released alongside results, Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. Jennifer McCormick said the scores "do not provide a true reflection of the performance of Indiana's schools."

The results show that 47.9% of students were proficient in English/language arts and 47.8% in math. These figures have dropped from last year's ISTEP results, in which 64.1% of students passed the English/language arts portion and 58.3% passed math.

Though average scores at local school corporations landed above state averages in nearly every subject, superintendents have expressed frustration over the new test's methods and results.

Dr. Mark Eastridge, superintendent of South Harrison Community School Corp., said at a school board meeting last Tuesday that state legislators have overcomplicated standardized testing to the detriment of students, teachers and corporations.

"Get out of the business, folks. Let educators make those decisions and decide what's best for kids," he said.

Eastridge said students know exam results are weighed in decisions regarding funding for corporations and compensation for teachers, and this puts immense pressure on them.

"Now, it's more about testing our schools than it is about testing the knowledge of our students, and that worries me," he said.

In the weeks leading up to the results' release, state officials, including Gov. Eric Holcomb, warned educators that the scores had declined in comparison to recent years' ISTEP results.

"Since this is the first year of the ILEARN assessment, I will ask Superintendent McCormick to support my request that the General Assembly take action to hold schools harmless so the test scores do not have an adverse impact on teacher evaluations and schools' letter grades for the 2018-19 school year," Holcomb said in a statement last Monday, before results were released. McCormick later expressed her support for the action as well.

The perturbance is familiar to educators with 2015's results fresh in their minds. That year, ISTEP scores came in showing only about 53% of students statewide had passed both the math and English tests, dropping from roughly 80% the year prior.

As is proposed now, that year the Indiana General Assembly voted to hold schools harmless for the results, meaning the scores were not used in determining teacher compensation or corporation/school letter grades.

All of Harrison and Crawford counties' public school corporation superintendents now support taking that action for 2019's scores.

Dr. Lance Richards, superintendent of North Harrison Community School Corp., said it's hard to interpret the results.

"We've got some areas where our scores look great, and some areas where we're just going 'Holy moly'," Richards said.

He said it's a mixed bag of emotions because North Harrison schools scored well compared to other area schools, but, like most school corporations in Indiana, their results don't put students in a good light.

"We're likely to have the best worst scores in Southern Indiana," Richards said.

He said if a teacher were to give their students a test with a pass-rate of less than 50%, parents would be outraged and administrators would be having a talk about it.

"Now, the state has set up a test where only 47% of students in fifth or sixth grade (across the state) are proficient in English language arts. That doesn't sound right," he said. "I think we know better than that."

Richards said the situation with ILEARN results is just the next issue to pop up as testing standards continue to skyrocket, a trend he's seen intensify throughout his 21 years in education.

Part of the issue, he said, is that the format of the test involves using word processors, built-in calculators and other tools in the testing software that were unfamiliar to students.

Richards said the scores are more likely to reflect a student's ability to use the software than their knowledge about the subjects they were tested over.

"These (scores) are not a reflection of our students' abilities, and they're not a reflection of our teachers," Richards said.

Crawford County Community School Corp. Superintendent Michael Key said the test was "grueling" for students, and there wasn't enough guidance from the state for teachers to adequately prepare curriculums for the exam.

"The content that they were expected to know was too hard," he said.

Key said this could have been avoided had schools received more direction from the state and more of a transitional period in moving from ISTEP to the ILEARN exam.

"How do you expect a child to know something when we didn't know to teach that?" he said.

Key said Crawford County's students scored all across the spectrum.

"Traditionally, we have been a strong math group," he said.

That tradition continued in this year's results.

In English/language arts, however, scores at CCCSC schools fell below the state average. Key said teachers are already responding by further emphasizing reading in this year's curriculum.

Though Crawford County and other area school corporations are looking to improve on the scores, Key and many superintendents throughout the state agree with Richards that the results are not indicative of students' or teachers' abilities.

"I think we're all in the same boat," Key said.

Steve Morris, superintendent at Lanesville Community School Corp., said changing state standardized testing methods will always affect scores.

"Any time a state changes to a new exam, you'll see a dip. This one was a surprising dip," he said.

Morris said he'd like to see less testing across the board and for the state to stop using test scores to measure a school's grade.

"We spend hours and hours and hours testing kids, and it's too much," he said.

Looking at this year's results, Morris said teachers in Lanesville schools are now adjusting curriculums based on specific standards that seem to trouble students.

"We're just digging in and trying to plow through it starting with the math first, and then we'll move to English," he said.

Eastridge said for administrators at South Harrison schools, one of the biggest issues with the test was the amount of time teachers had to set aside for it, including preparation time and the school days when the test was actually administered. He said these were moments that could instead have been used to help children develop and take steps toward their career pathways.

While state lawmakers debate about holding schools harmless, he said that idea makes it hard to give teachers direction regarding curriculum.

"We put a lot of effort into this exam, and now they're telling us it might not be valid," Eastridge said.

The state board of education voted last Wednesday to delay the release of school and corporation letter grades until legislators take action on whether or not to hold schools harmless.

The clock is ticking for legislators to make a determination, as school corporations are required to submit their 2019-20 school year budget proposals to the state by Nov. 1.

Before that deadline, administrators would like to know how teacher appreciation grants, which are performance-based funds traditionally allocated near the end of the calendar year, will be affected by ILEARN scores.

However, the Indiana General Assembly will take session in January, and, by then, final school budgets will already have been submitted. As of press time Monday, Holcomb had not publicly expressed an intent to call a special legislative session to vote on the matter.

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