After the extended ISTEP testing times were released last week, the outrage of parents and teachers led Governor Mike Pence to issue an executive order to have an expert review and shorten the test before it is administered beginning in March. Initially, Superintendent Glenda Ritz pushed back against this effort, stating she had no plans to shorten the test. Today, Ritz announced she will work with Pence’s experts, so we’ll see how that goes.
Yet, it’s hard to foresee any possible solution to the ISTEP issue when the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) is unwilling to admit the root cause. The press and Ritz’s office have blamed the super-sized ISTEP format on state legislators for passing legislation that required Indiana to write “new” standards last year. They claim that because the “new” standards are more rigorous than the former standards, the new test has to be longer to evaluate them. Really? The only people who have described the “new” standards as rigorous, are the handful of people who wrote them; 5 out of 6 national experts called them a step backwards. Additionally, the standards have 90% alignment with Common Core, which makes any assessment Indiana was designing for the Common Core applicable to assess our “new” standards.
The explanation for the new changes to ISTEP is simple. When Indiana received a waiver from provisions of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) from the US Secretary of Education, our state agreed to administer a “college and career ready assessment” by the 2014-2015 school year and tie teacher evaluations to students’ results. The time is now upon us, and while the US Department of Ed is allowing some states to wait on the teacher accountability aspect, they are not letting students off the hook and maintain that schools must administer a test that is designed around certain parameters that make it “college and career ready.”
What does a “college and career ready” assessment look like? It looks like the new ISTEP, which includes more open-ended response items, new technologically enhanced items, and more constructed response items. These are the types of test items that cause not only an increase in time, but also changes to the way students must answer the questions. These changes prompted principals and teachers to voice their concerns over them at the State Board of Education meeting last week. One principal called them “designed to confuse,” and “poorly written” in addition to his complaint about the unhealthy amounts of student testing.
The “new” standards supposed rigor has nothing to do with the format of the new ISTEP. As proof, one can simply look at the sample items available for the federally funded Common Core tests, PARCC and Smarter Balanced, which are also considered “college and career ready.” They are close to being an identical match to the new ISTEP, both in the format of test questions and increased testing time.
Not surprisingly, they also mirror Indiana’s ISTEP in the amount of parent concern and push back they are receiving. In fact, the outrage over the longer PARCC test in Louisiana, prompted Governor Bobby Jindahl to issue an executive order allowing parents to opt out of the PARCC testing and included a provision for school districts to choose a different norm-referenced test instead.
Let’s be honest, we are in this mess because of the parameters of the NCLB waiver and nothing else. We would still be giving a much longer, objectionable test even if the legislature didn’t pass legislation to write new standards; it has been the plan ever since we received the waiver and agreed to align our state assessment to federal parameters.
State officials, both within the IDOE and state leadership, are reticent to name the waiver as the culprit. After all, they professed to parents and legislators that Indiana’s education system couldn’t survive without it- we would lose federal funding. The truth, however, is that the loss of the waiver doesn’t result in the loss of a single dime of federal funding, only less flexibility at the state and district level over how less than one percent of federal funding is spent. This may make things easier on administrators at the state and district level, but it has no impact on individual students. In fact, since Indiana received the waiver, the percentage of tax dollars being spent in the classroom has shrunk, while administrative expenditures have risen.
After many of us have tried to make the case that the waiver is causing the state more harm than good and needs to be rejected, one would hope that this latest ISTEP mess can help get the message through to those in power. Parents and teachers will never accept the premise that keeping the federal waiver is worth the cost of administering an assessment that is harmful to children and bleeds precious instructional time out of the classroom. Our superintendent is elected to serve in the best interest of Hoosiers; if federal regulations prevent her from doing that, she must be honest about it and reject them.