Local educators favor waiving effects of state test

ELKHART — Local educators are praising efforts by state officials to postpone any repercussions against schools and teachers for poor performance by students on the state’s new ILEARN test.

Gov. Eric Holcomb issued a statement Monday calling for lawmakers to approve a one-year delay so English and math scores, which reportedly will show lower achievement levels, don’t hurt teacher evaluation grades or school letter grades.

Indiana students in Grades 3-8 took the new standardized test for the first time this past spring. It replaces the ISTEP-Plus test.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick confirmed the drop in scores. She has proposed legislative action addressing the negative impact on the first round of ILEARN scores.

“While the 2019 ILEARN results do not provide a true reflection of the performance of Indiana’s schools, they do once again show us the importance of developing a modernized state legislated accountability system that is fair, accurate and transparent,” McCormick said in a statement on Wednesday.

“With this in mind, the Department will propose the following legislative actions: place a ‘hold harmless’ year on 2018-2019 letter grades, pause intervention timelines for all schools, and provide the State Board of Education with emergency rulemaking authority to review and reestablish the state accountability system,” she said. “The success and well-being of our students, educators and schools are dependent upon these actions.”

In Elkhart County, school officials said they believe the state is taking the correct approach. 

“With yet another change in state assessments, schools in Indiana have witnessed a drop in proficiency passing rates statewide,” Elkhart Community Schools superintendent Steve Thalheimer said in a statement. “As it stands, this would impact school accountability letter grades as well.

“While no one is satisfied when students are not truly able to demonstrate what they know and can do, it is important to note that it is difficult to build capacity to teach skills and content and have students perform well when the state assessment format keeps changing,” he said. “It is because of this that Elkhart Community Schools supports efforts by Governor Holcomb and State Superintendent of Instruction Jennifer McCormick to not have these lower scores affect Indiana educator and school accountability”

Thalheimer said detailed guidance for various grade levels and subjects helped, “however, those documents were provided the summer before and teachers did not have adequate time to really know what the new test would look like or to prepare students for the stamina they would need for a series of tasks. It simply asked too much of the students and teachers too quickly.”

Alan Metcalfe, assistant superintendent of Goshen Community Schools in charge of primary education, expressed his appreciation to the governor and other state officials for their efforts to delay the penalties.

“Hopefully none of our schools would be subject to any penalties, but I think delaying penalties for a new exam is appropriate while we work out exactly what our instruction needs to be to make sure our kids are proficient,” he said.

Metcalfe said he believes the switch to ILEARN was a good move because it’s computer-adaptive, meaning that the difficulty of the test will adjust to each student’s skills, and that factors into the scoring. The students will be identified as below, approaching, above or exceeding proficiency.

“This gives us a little more specific information about where a student is on that continuum,” Metcalfe said. “The state still only cares about if you’re proficient or not proficient for scoring for our letter grades. But the new assessment does at least tell us who those students are pretty easily that are below or approaching proficiency, whereas in the past we would have to look at data to determine that, so there are some positives in the reporting piece of it.”

Mickey Wagner, director of primary education at Concord Community Schools, said he, too, appreciates the recognition by the governor and others that a transition from one test to another requires a pause.

“Comparing apples to oranges (ILEARN to ISTEP) is going to be imperfect,” he said. “We would hope the IDOE and Indiana General Assembly would consider the undue stress that failing to provide a pause would present to our teachers. Our teachers seek to educate the whole child and one imperfect data point is not going to be an accurate depiction of a student’s growth and as such would not be an ideal way to judge a teacher or school’s effectiveness.”

Baugo Community Schools Superintendent Byron Sanders said he’s always concerned when assessments change. He said training takes time and changes often increase anxiety for teachers and students, neither of which is good for schools.

“Changes in assessments often move the next target for high-stakes testing outcomes and can negatively impact student performance on exams,” he said. “Performance on high-stakes tests can paint a picture about our schools that is not an accurate representation of the quality of teaching and learning that is occurring on our campuses.”

He also expressed concerns about the amount of energy and money being spent on an assessment when he said the outcomes are “flawed enough that lawmakers are being asked to delay accountability.”

“I would rather see that money spent responding to teacher compensation concerns being discussed in our state today,” he said.

Robby Goodman, assistant superintendent at Middlebury Community Schools, said he believes the district was prepared for the new exam as the depth of knowledge on the test questions was greatly increased.

“Now the work must be done to analyze the why,” he said. “Was it simply our students not ready to meet a higher expectation of testing rigor? Were there test-question formatting issues for the students? Are we confident that every question truly aligned with our Indiana Academic Standards for the grade level tested?”

ILEARN scores will be made public at the Sept. 4 meeting of the State Board of Education.

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