ELKHART — Fewer than half the students in most districts in Elkhart County, and across the state, met expected achievement levels on a new standardized test, leading some local educators to join the call for changes in how those results are used for rating schools and teachers.
Released Wednesday, statewide results for the spring ILEARN exam show that 47.9 percent of students in grades 3-8 met or exceeded proficiency standards in language arts and 47.8 percent met or exceeded them in math. Those are both more than 10 percentage points lower than the passing rates for last year’s pass-or-fail ISTEP exam, when 64.6 percent passed language arts and 58.9 percent passed math.
Even before ILEARN results were released to the public, Gov. Eric Holcomb and GOP legislative leaders were calling for lawmakers to approve a one-year delay in using those test scores so they don’t hurt teacher evaluations or the A-F ratings for schools.
State schools Superintendent Jennifer McCormick on Wednesday said the two exams aren’t comparable, as the new test covers some different material and uses tougher standards for determining whether students are making sufficient progress as they advance through grade.
More than half of Indiana’s schools would receive D or F ratings if the state Department of Education used the new test results to produce those ratings, she said. About 15 percent of schools received such ratings based on last year’s ISTEP exam.
McCormick said she doesn’t believe the state’s students are backsliding, pointing to national tests that show Indiana students exceeding the national average scores. For example, Indiana 4th- and 8th-graders slightly exceeded the national averages on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam and the SAT college entrance exam, where Indiana’s 2018 high school graduates’ mean score of 1086 was 18 points better than the national mean.
“We are seeing some promising trends of our student performance going up; this assessment is just much more rigorous,” she said.
Mixed local results
Local school officials were looking at mixed results, with some districts, individual schools and grades scoring higher than state averages and others much lower.
“They were testing things we’ve not yet had the ability to teach to the kids,” Fairfield Community Schools’ Superintendent Bob Evans said.
The state average for percentage of students who passed both the math and language arts portions of the new test was 37.1 percent. The highest-scoring school district in this area in that category was WaNee with 51.7 percent while the lowest locally was Elkhart Community at 22.2 percent.
While results from Concord Community Schools came in near the state averages, no one wanted to compare the results of the new test with results of the old one.
“We view these scores as a baseline,” Concord Community director of primary education Mickey Wagner said. “Given that this is the first year of a new assessment, we exercise caution when comparing these results to the previous year’s ISTEP results.”
School officials in Elkhart County agreed it would be appropriate to hold off on teacher and school accountability scoring based on these results.
“Training takes time and changes often increase anxiety for teachers and students,” Baugo Community Schools Superintendent Byron Sanders said. “Changes in assessment often move the target for high stakes testing outcomes and can negatively impact student performance on exams.”
Baugo schools scored higher than the state average in math and language arts.
“Performance outcomes continue to frustrate me since they are not a complete picture of the ability of our students or the quality of instruction that our teachers provide,” Sanders said.
WaNee Superintendent Scot Croner said it can take three to four years for teachers to meet newly assessed standards like the ones seen for possibly the first time in the ILEARN from this past spring.
“Our teachers do such an outstanding job across the state. They’re really put in an unfair situation right now,” he said. “None of these scores are indicative of the incredible work that they do.”
The ILEARN sought to be an improvement over ISTEP by including better computer-adaptive functionality, translation options and a glossary, being more aligned to the common core requirements, and prioritization of content standards. But educators say new testing systems can be difficult to convert to and holding districts accountable in beginning years can be an inaccurate representation of the state’s education system.
Elkhart Community Schools Superintendent Steve Thalheimer said results varied significantly from school to school.
“Teachers did not have adequate time to really know what the test would look like or prepare students for the stamina they would need for the tasks.”
Despite the perceived lack of preparedness and inaccurate results, educators commended the state for implementing a better program.
“The actual administration of it went really well,” WaNee’s Croner said. “It was far more reliable than the previous system.”
Robby Goodman, Middlebury Community Schools assistant superintendent, had positive remarks about the distribution of the test electronically.
“We had a few minor issues, but nothing unexpected,” he said. “After the first few days we were able to test seamlessly.”
Goshen Community Schools Assistant Superintendent Alan Metcalfe also was happy to see a decrease in minority disparity on the test compared to the general population scores from previous years.
“We’re probably closer to the state average than we have been in a long time,” he said. “Even though we might be disappointed, there are bright spots in there once we start digging into the data.”
Still, many local administrators are not fans of the ISTEP, the ILEARN or any other standardized testing and it’s negative impacts on teacher pay and school grades regardless of the results.
“I hope this causes a larger conversation about standardized assessment and what tests should be done,” Croner said. “We are still asking the tests to do things they were never designed to do.”
Too many changes
Nearly 500,000 Indiana students took the ILEARN test this year after the Republican-dominated Legislature ordered it in 2017 as a replacement for the ISTEP exam, which faced years of complaints about the number of days it took students to take, technical problems administering it and long waits for the results.
ILEARN is computer adaptive, meaning questions change depending on whether a student answers a previous question correctly. State officials have said it will assess a student’s abilities better than the ISTEP, which gave all students the same questions.
McCormick, a Republican who previously worked as a teacher and school superintendent in Yorktown, disagrees with the state’s reliance on the results of a single student exam to determine school ratings. That’s a key difference in her taut relationship with Holcomb and GOP legislative leaders that contributed to her decision not to run for re-election next year.
McCormick said too many changes have occurred with standardized testing in recent years, including the development of a revised ISTEP after then-Gov. Mike Pence’s 2014 push to withdraw Indiana from the national Common Core standards and the later switch to the ILEARN exam.
“We are who we vote for. Policy fatigue is certainly setting in in the state of Indiana and I know we are not alone,” McCormick said. “At some point, Indiana needs to listen to practitioners as some of those policies are being developed and be smart about how we move forward.”
Keith Gambill, the head of the state’s largest teachers union, said he believes legislators are placing too much reliance on how a third-grader performs on a single test to rate the effectiveness of schools and teachers.
“It’s this fallacy of this one-stop shop, that this one thing will do everything and the test simply isn’t constructed to do that,” he said.
Contributing: Associated Press reporter Tom Davies.
Percent of students tested in Grades 3-8 who met or exceeded proficiency standards:
District Math ELA Both
Fairfield 57.2 57.4 46.5
Baugo 59.3 52.1 44.7
Concord 48.7 47.4 35.9
Middlebury 52.4 48.0 37.7
WaNee 63.4 60.6 51.7
Elkhart 32.3 31.7 22.2
Goshen 43.8 42.9 33.1
INDIANA 47.8 47.9 37.1
More information: https://www.doe.in.gov/