Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

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May 7, 2013

Bennett: Glitches show limitations of high-stakes testing plan

ISTEP now plays a prime role in evaluations, pay

The dog ate my home-work.

That age-old excuse — based on a shockingly unforeseen complication — rarely works for a kid who didn’t finish yesterday’s math assignment.

Yet, in a role reversal, Indiana school children, along with their teachers and administrators, are left to accept an explanation for a disruption best described as the mother of all ironies. The company contracted by the state to administer the ISTEP+ tests apparently didn’t fully test its online testing system. As a result, the high-stakes, standardized tests had to be shut down mid-stream Monday and Tuesday last week after school districts around the state experienced connectivity problems and students getting booted offline.

So, the equally frustrated state Department of Education resumed ISTEP at half-speed on Wednesday. The state asked schools to reduce the daily test-taking pace by 50 percent and promised to be flexible with local districts hustling to meet the May 15 completion deadline.

The company, CTB/MacGraw-Hill assured the DOE that students’ responses before the online shutdowns will be saved, and that the validity and accuracy of the ISTEP won’t be compromised.

The company had an explanation.

In a news release, CTB said it tested the system in a simulation of “live school assessment scenarios. However, our simulations did not fully anticipate the patterns of live student testing, and as a result, our system configuration experienced service interruptions that impacted the testing process.”

Pardon Hoosiers, staring skeptically at the CTB statement, arms folded, foot tapping on the floor.

In a different era, it would be easier to take the problem in stride. A kid’s thought process and preparation gets abruptly halted one day, forcing a restart the next day. The youngster might score a little lower, but stuff happens, and life goes on, right? Sometimes Fido chews up the math workbook. Sometimes the testing company miscalculates the volume of test-takers.

The day of high-stakes standardized testing is different. The political push for school accountability reforms in recent years has elevated the impact of standardized tests beyond just measuring a student’s progress. Instead, ISTEP now plays a prime role in determining a school’s grade and teachers’ evaluations and pay. Thus, a disruption in the execution of the test — for which entire districts prepare all year — is kind of a big deal.

“The difference between one or two students’ scores can make a big difference to a school,” Vic Smith, a board member of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, said Wednesday by phone from Indianapolis. Smith was attending a meeting of the state Board of Education, where he said “everyone’s concerned.”

Since the four-year, $95-million deal with CTB began in 2011 under former superintendent of public instruction Tony Bennett, ISTEP has encountered online problems in various parts of the state. This week’s snafus are more profound. Current superintendent Glenda Ritz, who inherited the situation, called for testing to shut down on Tuesday after 27,000 students were affected.

As testing apparently resumed with minimal problems Wednesday, Ritz promised to find answers to the testing breakdowns. “We are well aware that the results of this high-stakes test inform school accountability, as well as staff performance evaluation/compensation,” she said in a news release. “After the testing is complete, the IDOE will be identifying any factors that may affect these areas and determine what action might be needed.”

During her successful campaign in last year’s election, Ritz questioned the over-emphasis of standardized testing. Too much “teaching to the test” was draining creativity from classrooms, Ritz and many other educators contended. Even without two days of online testing system crashes, such standardized tests — especially those loaded with all of ISTEP’s implications — add another factor that schools and educators have to handle:, tension. “There is a lot on the line,” state Sen. Tim Skinner, D-Terre Haute, said Wednesday. “And there’s a lot of pressure, and the kids know it.”

Ideally, last week’s problems will have a humbling effect on those who keep pushing new reforms into reality before the previous round’s effectiveness can be measured. A student taking the ISTEP can have an uncharacteristically bad week. And, as Hoosiers have now seen, a testing company can have a bad week. Maybe the reform movement should reconsider the impact of those bad testing weeks on kids, their parents, educators and schools.

Mark Bennett writes for the (Terre Haute) Tribune-Star. He can be reached at mark.bennett@tribstar.com

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