Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

May 6, 2013

MARK HEINIG: ISTEP snafu could affect school funding, jobs

— I certainly wouldn’t be anybody’s favorite candidate for the title of worldwide champion computer geek! I don’t have much expertise in technology, and I probably never will. If it weren’t for my wife’s astounding patience in helping me out of one computer crisis after another, I would probably be writing this with the electric typewriter that has gathered dust in my workroom closet for about 30 years.

However, I do recognize a disaster when I see one, and our first two attempts to administer ISTEP tests online certainly qualify! Wait a minute! What’s so disastrous about a school system cutting its daily testing load in half? That doesn’t seem so bad, and it might not be if the ISTEP results didn’t affect so many aspects of education. However, the impact of ISTEP is huge. School funding, educators’ job security and compensation are directly affected. However, the most important effect is not so obvious. It restricts what we teach kids and how we do it.

Years and years ago, when I began my teaching career, we learned that “teaching for the test” was one of mankind’s greatest sins since Adam ate the apple! It encouraged students to memorize facts and avoid critical thinking. These days, the need for critical thinking skills never ends. Another thing that beginning teachers used to learn was to stay in the classroom. If you lose the job, you can’t teach anybody anything — at least not in that school! So who isn’t going to teach to the test in this ballistic environment?

What about the kids who take ISTEP? The most important thing to remember is that they are kids. We can’t expect all of them to respond to the pressure with the same amount of maturity. Many will struggle to overcome varying levels of test anxiety. What we should expect is that their teachers and parents will encourage them to do as well as they possibly can. And how will kids react? The best students really want to excel. They will strive to do their very finest work on ISTEP. Others lack motivation. They won’t try as hard, or they will think they can’t succeed and won’t try at all.

There is a third group. They are right in the middle of the motivational scale. They want to do well, but they’re not sure they can. These are the students who may find unexpected changes in the testing schedule very intimidating. Their scores may or may not suffer. They’re also a pivotal group. If they do well, their teachers and their schools will also do well. If they do poorly, their teachers and their schools will not thrive but founder.

From personal experience, I know that unanticipated changes in test administration can diminish students’ test results. When I taught German, I decided to have my advanced students take the National German Examination. I had to undergo emergency surgery on the day of the test. My substitute teacher did not give the test correctly, and my students’ scores were extremely poor, far below their usual performance. The problem was the administration of the test, not the students. Most of them were placed in advanced German classes at the universities that they attended the following year. That would not have happened if their low test scores had been significant.

Competency testing has become very widespread. It’s becoming mandatory for most workers in professional or highly skilled occupations. In other words, everybody needs to pass a test or they soon will. Some of us may even live long enough to see required competency tests for politicians, but we’ll be very, very old when we do!

Mark Heinig Jr. of Kokomo is a retired Indiana teacher and principal. Contact him at markjr1708@gmail.com.