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NEWS-SENTINEL EDITORIAL: Use test scores to improve, not label, teachers and schools

Indiana reflects a frustration felt across the country with standardized testing in our public schools mandated by the No Child Left Behind law in 2002.

News-Sentinel.com believes standardized testing has a purpose, but we think that purpose should not be to label our schools and teachers nor to make the tests the primary focus of teaching.

Monday Gov. Eric Holcomb and other state leaders recommended the Indiana General Assembly take action so that 2019 results of ILEARN, the state’s new standardized test, do not have an adverse affect on teacher evaluations and schools’ letter grades.

Results of the new ILEARN test, which was administered for the first time last spring, are reportedly lower than prior years’ ISTEP+ results.

The annual testing of students in grades 3-8 first took shape in Indiana as ISTEP (Indiana State Testing for Educational Progress), designed by the Indiana Department of Education.

The new exams test the same core subjects for grades 3-8, but bring changes, such as the fact everyone tests during the same time window in April and May. Also, ILEARN exams feature fewer questions, as compared to their ISTEP equivalents, and are untimed.

And the new totally online test is computer adaptive, which means the difficulty of the test adjusts to each student’s skills.

Earlier this month, according to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick, districts and schools received embargoed ILEARN scores. Compared to past ISTEP+ scores, the ILEARN scores showed lower achievement levels across the state in both English/language arts and mathematics.

“The combination of the rigors associated with this newly aligned college and career readiness assessment, national normative data, and the defined established performance cuts all contributed to the lower performance levels,” McCormick said.

“While frustrating, performance dips at some level were expected, as previously experienced in 2014-2015 with the onset of the then newly implemented ISTEP+.”

ILEARN scores will be made public at the State Board of Education meeting Tuesday.

Holcomb’s statement Monday said ILEARN results “will show a decrease compared to the previously administered ISTEP+ test. Since this is the first year of the ILEARN assessment, I will ask Superintendent McCormick to support my request that the General Assembly take action to hold schools harmless so the test scores do not have an adverse impact on teacher evaluations and schools’ letter grades for the 2018-19 school year.”

While we are glad the governor is asking for this action, we think it highlights the biggest complaints against the current focus, whether intended or not, of standardized testing — labeling schools and teachers.

Because of these tests, according to an evaluation by the United Federation of Teachers, which represents most teachers in New York City public schools, “good schools have been labeled failing, skilled teachers have been called ineffective, and millions of students have been subject to scoring metrics that fluctuate wildly and inexplicably.”

Yet since the passage of the federal law, these tests have assumed unprecedented importance.

“The shift from using tests for information to holding students or educators directly accountable for scores is beyond a doubt the most important change in testing in the past half century,” says Daniel Koretz in his book “Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us.”

And Indiana’s educators are reflecting that same concern.

Even McCormick has sided with critics of how Indiana uses standardized test scores as a factor in determining teacher pay raises and for rating schools.

The Indiana State Teachers Association, which agrees with the governor’s “hold harmless” stance, issued a statement saying, “Our students, teachers and communities are much more than just a test score. We should not rely on these scores to label our schools and communities with a letter grade or negatively impact teachers’ evaluation and pay. ILEARN is yet another example of Indiana’s continued use of standardized tests and constant policy turmoil that harms students and discourages teachers to remain in the profession.”

News-Sentinel.com believes the purpose of uniform testing should be to provide a means for comparisons across students, schools and districts.

Also, ILEARN and other such tests should be a tool that lets taxpayers know how schools are educating children according to universal standards. They must be designed to make sure students reach specific levels in specific areas of teaching at the end of a school year.

We agree with the UFT, that “using standardized tests to make broad judgments about teachers, schools or school districts strays far from what these tests were built to accomplish.”

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