About nine months after students across the state completed the 2015 ISTEP, schools and teachers finally have the results that ideally would have informed instruction going into the 2015-16 school year.

Instead, local superintendents say those test results are faulty, “a joke” and virtually useless at this point. And they’re hoping state leaders will formally agree, to the extent of not penalizing teachers and schools for the drop in scores.

“With assessment, the most important thing is timeliness. … Without instantaneous feedback, it really takes away the usefulness of the data,” said Jeff Hauswald, Kokomo School Corp. superintendent, adding that he thought the test itself was faulty. “It’s disingenuous to try to make sense of something that was a design failure. We’ve seen no evidence that the test was valid or reliable.”

Across the state, average scores on the math portion of the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress assessment are expected to drop by 24 percentage points, with English language arts scores falling by 16 percentage points. Students in grades three through eight took a new version of the annual standardized test this past spring, and there have been several issues with the test raised since then.

ISTEP results are a factor in schools’ A-F letter grades assigned by the state, and letter grades are incorporated in many schools’ teacher evaluations. State law now ties teachers’ raises to their evaluations, so some teachers could miss out on financial compensation because of lower ratings impacted by the ISTEP results.

Numerous concerns about the validity of the test have led local educators to speak out against using this data to measure student performance.

“What has changed? We didn’t have a massive change in educators, we didn’t have a massive change in the make-up of students, but now we’ve got a massive change in reported scores,” said Northwestern School Corp. Superintendent Ryan Snoddy, acknowledging that some drop in scores is expected with any new test. “The kids didn’t fail the test, the test failed the kids.”

Howard County superintendents would like to see the state suspend school letter grades for this year and not require them to be a part of teacher evaluations, or at least use a “hold harmless” approach that would allow teachers and schools to keep their ratings from the previous year if the 2015 ISTEP results would have a negative effect.

“The fact we’re going to penalize kids, we’re going to penalize teachers and we’re going to penalize schools and communities with this type of data is just horrible,” said Eastern Howard School Corp. Superintendent Tracy Caddell, adding that poor school letter grades can effect a community's economic development.

Eastern’s teacher contract ties their raises to their evaluations, as does Northwestern’s. Kokomo Schools is in a transition year to a new contract, so evaluations will not have financial impact on teachers this year. Taylor Community School Corp. and Western School Corp. are still under previous teacher contract that do not link teacher evaluations and pay.

State legislators had the opportunity at their Organization Day on Nov. 17 to pass legislation taking ISTEP results out of the equation for school letter grades and teacher evaluations, which state Sen. Mark Stoops (D-Bloomington) proposed. Instead House Speaker Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis) promised lawmakers would take up the issue when the 2016 session opens in January.

Mike Karickhoff (R-Kokomo) expects the issue to be dealt with quickly.

“We’re not going to tie these test scores to letter grades or teacher pay,” Karickhoff said. “While it may not be a done deal, the details are being worked out between the state board, the department of education, the governor’s office and the legislators.”

Parents have already seen their children’s preliminary ISTEP results, and schools have them under embargo. The results are expected to be released to the public on Jan. 6, and preliminary school letter grades should be published later in January. Schools already have access to their own letter grades.

“We should always be concerned with what our students know or don’t know,” Hauswald said. “But we shouldn’t panic at the results when we know it was a more difficult test and that the test design was faulty. If a parent wants to know about their child’s academic success, they should talk to the child’s teacher. No one knows the academic progress of a child better than a teacher; that’s their job, and they’re masterful at it.”

Concerns about this year’s ISTEP began before students even started taking the standardized test in March. Educators worried that students would be confused by new question formats; that the test was too long, initially up to 12-and-a-half hours for some grade levels; and that teachers had only a few months to begin aligning their curriculum with new state standards before students would be tested on them.

Then, when test time came around, some schools had issues with the online version crashing or malfunctioning. Some students started the test online and then had to redo it with paper-and-pencil because they ran into so many problems with the digital version.

In recent months, the Indiana State Board of Education and Indiana Department of Education have debated how to score and interpret the results of the 2015 ISTEP. Test vendor CTB/McGraw-Hill announced in August – the month when 2014 ISTEP results were released the previous year – that grading the test would take longer than anticipated because students were using unexpected methods to reach correct answers on the math test.

The state board of education delayed setting a pass/fail cut score for the results in October after finding out there was a significant difference in difficulty between the online and paper versions of the test. Cut scores are established after the test results are in, so educators and students don’t know what’s considered “passing” when the test is given.

Snoddy thinks many of the issues with the 2015 ISTEP stemmed from trying to accomplish three different goals at once: to assess students, pilot test questions based on the new academic standards and also establish the validity and reliability of the new test.

“That was the thing that was most frustrating to me,” he said. “In the past, we never would given a test that had not had at least one year in development, one year in piloting and then actually implemented. We had all three of those things in the same assessment, and yet we’re going to say that’s a valid or reliable measure of how that student did on that day.”

Now that schools finally have their ISTEP results, local educators would like to see state officials acknowledge the testing blunders and learn from the mistakes to improve the 2016 ISTEP.

“There are a lot of people at fault, whether it’s the test designers or the state board of education or the Indiana Department of Education or the legislators,” Hauswald said. “In all cases, wherever the mistakes were made, we should learn from the mistakes and improve it going forward so that something good comes from this.”

Education reporter Lauren Slagter can be reached at 765-454-8587, by email at lauren.slagter@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @LaurenSlagter.

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