Beyond the test: Reducing the dominance of standardized tests would refresh learning in Indiana schools

Calmer. More hopeful, refreshing and challenging.

Indiana classrooms and schools could feel such a change, if standardized testing played a smaller role in the state’s educational system.

Some states have unhitched from the high-stakes-testing bandwagon and moved to a less restrictive, multi-pronged method of assessing student and school performance.

The Hoosier state bought a new hitch instead.

Indiana replaced its loathed old test, ISTEP (or Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress), with ILEARN (Indiana Learning Evaluation Assessment Readiness Network). As standardized tests go, ILEARN features advantages over ISTEP. It takes less time, though ISTEP — which once lasted longer than the Indiana Bar exam — set a low standard in that category. ILEARN also is computer-adaptive, making the test harder or easier based on kids’ previous answers.

ILEARN’s pluses got muted, though, when its first scores were released this month. The results showed less than half of students met expected levels in language arts and math. The number of kids passing fell by 10 percentage points statewide from last year’s ISTEP.

State education officials expected a drop, because of ILEARN’s increased college- and career-readiness rigors. The actual decline exceeded expectations, though.

As a result, Gov. Eric Holcomb wants the Indiana General Assembly to unhitch, for one year, the “high stakes” elements of the test scores — their impact on teacher evaluations and pay, and schools’ A-F accountability ratings. The state superintendent of public instruction, Jennifer McCormick, agreed, calling for the Legislature to “hold harmless” teachers and schools.

Many educators across the state are questioning the value of the latest standardized test, new and improved as it is. And, taxpayers have to wonder what they’re getting for a test they’re paying the American Institutes for Research $39.7 million over three years to implement. Will Hoosier taxpayers get a discount for the first year’s limited usefulness?

What’s the value?

Yes, when it comes to turmoil, Indiana’s standardized testing process is the gift that keeps on giving.

Little of this fazes education reformers, who rose to power in the Indiana Statehouse early this century. They seem intent on keeping high-stakes standardized testing as the backbone of the state’s public education process and controlling any changes to those tests.

“Indiana seems to be more stubborn than most states in sticking with failure,” said Robert Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing. That nonprofit, commonly known as FairTest, promotes “fair, open, valid and educationally beneficial evaluations of students, teachers and schools.”

Standardized tests nationwide don’t get high ratings from FairTest. Their value? “Not much, besides your ability to pick the right answer out of four or five,” Schaeffer said.

By definition, standardized tests require all students to answer the same questions, or pick from a common pool of questions, and give the same answer. The tests are scored in the same manner. That way, an entire state theoretically can assess students’ progress based on their scores. But there are drawbacks.

Because teacher and school evaluations are linked to standardized test performance, resources for untested subjects get cut or eliminated, FairTest contends. School districts tend to focus classroom instruction on just the tested elements of math and language arts. The pressure to raise kids’ scores results in “teaching to the test,” rather than creatively. And, FairTest found that “attaching high stakes to test results increased cheating and other efforts to boost scores without improving educational quality.”

Kids in schools rated D or F may feel diminished, regardless of their own scores. So may kids who score low but have talents in untested subjects.

Your child may take more than 100 standardized tests

The proliferation of testing, which includes pretests to prepare for the main tests, is significant. The average U.S. student takes 112 required standardized tests from kindergarten to high school graduation, according to a 2015 study conducted by the Council of the Great City Schools and cited by FairTest.

Standardized testing gained extra prominence when the No Child Left Behind federal law took effect under President George W. Bush in 2002, intensifying accountability standards for schools and requiring annual tests of kids in grades 3 through 8, and once in high school. Its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act signed by President Obama in 2015, also requires annual testing but allows states the flexibility to adopt a less test-centered “multiple measures” assessment process.

“In addition, under [Every Student Succeeds] states can apply to become part of an Innovative Assessment Pilot program that allows even more flexibility,” Schaeffer said.

Multiple measures involves more and different types of measures of students’ learning. It could include portfolios of students’ work over time, project work, and teacher evaluations of students’ performance in specific learning tasks. A standardized test may be a part of the mix, perhaps given to just a cross-section of students.

Better ways to gauge kids’ learning levels exist, beyond a high-stakes, standardized-test-based educational system. Eleven states in recent years moved to multiple measures, Schaeffer said.

The Washington Post detailed one successful example last year — a coalition of 38 traditional New York public high schools, whose student populations resemble the general population’s social and economic demographics.

Teachers in that New York Performance Standards Consortium created the student performance assessments, the Post reported. Teens learn to probe subjects more deeply through experiments, essays, research papers and applying math to their own lives. The result? Eighteen months after graduation, 83 percent of the consortium’s students were enrolled in college — 24 percent higher than the citywide rate.

Again, teachers developed those assessments.

Of course, cities like New York and states like Indiana differ. Likewise, setting educational policies anywhere is a complex process. Still, Indiana needs a better method of assessing kids’ learning, and educators need a primary role in crafting that method. Many Hoosiers would breathe sighs of relief.

Mark Bennett is a columnist for the (Terre Haute) Tribune-Star. Send comments to [email protected]