ISTEP: Changes and what they mean

The latest changes to ISTEP testing will impact your school and teachers more than ever.

Posted on June 16, 2014 at 4:58 p.m.

In 2011 there was an overhaul on how teachers were to be evaluated. The two Senate bills made teachers’ pay and promotions dependent on an evaluation of student performance. One of these quantified measures is through the ISTEP testing that is administered to third- through eighth-graders. Now that test is drastically changing.

How teachers feel

The new test will be more rigorous and will require teachers to drastically amend their teaching plans for the coming year. If students don’t do well, teachers will feel the brunt of the blow.

There are several resources already in place online for teachers to refer to and use to prep. An Outreach Division of School Improvement (with nine locations around the state) focuses on helping each school district build on its own strengths. Discussions have only started to scratch the surface on how and if this department will assist with the new ISTEP preparation.

Krista Riblet, who’s already getting her classroom at Elkhart’s North Side Middle School ready for next year, waves her hand like she’s brushing away a fly when asked about state regulations for teachers.

“I can’t dwell on that because it’s out of my control,” she said. “I've learned in my life not to worry about things I can’t control.”

She’s angry when people think teachers aren't doing their jobs. In the 20 years she’s been teaching, she’s seen public perception change from being generally supportive of teachers and schools to an ugly distrust of educators.

The alarming part is that most teachers don’t know what is happening with the new ISTEP.

Alex Holtz, president of the Elkhart Teacher’s Association, admitted his own lack of understanding. “I don’t know that much,” Holtz said. “I know that the test is going to change.”

He went on to say that the lack of knowledge is part of the problem. Teachers don’t know what is coming, much less how to prepare. “It’s almost like a bad joke,” Holtz said. “Tests and standards change every three or four years.”

Elkhart Community Schools have previously tried to stay ahead of the curve by tailoring curriculums to be very similar to the Common Core (Indiana was one of the first states to drop the Common Core standards). By prepping for the Common Core, Elkhart teachers were able to transition to the new standards much more easily.

“I think because we have been proactive I feel we are prepared [to take on a new ISTEP],” Holtz said. He rests his hope on the proven ability to adapt to new standards.

What’s at stake?

The ISTEP is known for being riddled with glitches and was in need of an update. The new test will comply with the standards that are Indiana’s replacement for the Common Core standards. The test has long drawn criticism from educators.

McClain, who teaches seventh-grade math at Pierre Moran Middle School, used the word “painful” when he explained that some kids speed through the ISTEP without even trying.

McClain also touched on another bone educators could pick with the system — the fact that teachers are expected to do more for students than teach, but they are only evaluated on students’ academic achievements on tests.

"If you want us to be their parent away from home, stop measuring our success by their academics,” he said. “Don’t evaluate everything I do based on the two days of performance of a kid out of the 180 they were here with me. There’s way more to it than that.”

The current focus on testing, assessments and data started with No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which required, in part, that public schools get 100 percent of students to pass the ISTEP by 2014.

Indiana was waived from participating in some of the yearly regulations that come with NCLB, namely how schools are evaluated by the state. Indiana now grades its schools on a letter grade system instead of whether they meet a list of improvement goals. If schools fail or don’t show enough improvement, they are flagged by the state. In order to keep the letter grade system, schools must impose a new standardized test (ISTEP) that will reflect the new state standards that were approved in April.

At times, it seems like the test is all that matters.

What students get on the test has huge implications for McClain as a teacher — between 10 and 20 percent of his teacher evaluation is scored based on students’ test results, he said — and even greater implications for his school, as a failing letter grade would mean more oversight from the state.

In extreme cases, this oversight could involve a school takeover. Five schools were taken over by the state in Indiana in 2012 and were placed under the direction of private operators in 2012 because they couldn’t meet test standards.

Teachers who do not have high enough test scores could see a drop in pay or a school funding cut if students continue to miss the mark. Because the scores will likely be significantly lower, the state is still trying to flesh out ways to help teachers as much as possible.

The Battle

Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz has been sparring with lawmakers throughout her time in office, and now with the U.S. Department of Education — which created a check mate when it told Ritz what needed to be done in order to remain on the NCLB waiver.

The original plan was to give schools one year to administer pilot versions of the new ISTEP test, allowing teachers to get their feet wet before diving in head first.

That plan is now cut.

Schools will be administering a new standardized test this school year, and the state is scrambling to provide as many prep resources as possible for teachers. Ritz has vocalized her objection to the removal of a pilot year, stating that it will only worsen the inevitable perceived drop in performance that comes with a new set of criteria. Students, schools and teachers will be measured against a much higher standard.

In an op-ed piece by Ritz, she mentioned that she has “concerns regarding school and teacher accountability based upon these new assessments.”

Teachers can look online for resources to prepare for the new test. 

Follow reporters Lydia Sheaks and Emily Taylor on Twitter at @LydiaSheaks @emrotayl

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