Scores from last April’s ISTEP tests were released to the public last week, but local school administrators aren’t dwelling on them; they’re moving on.

“It’s so out of date at this point. It is what it is,” said Deborah Harman, Brown County Schools Director of Student Learning.

School administrators and parents learned the results early in December.

Overall, slightly fewer Brown County students passed both the English and math portions of the test than the state average: 53.1 percent compared to the state’s 53.5.

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During 2013-14 ISTEP testing, 81.8 percent of Brown County students passed — well above the state’s 74.7 percent.

However, state and local education officials have said for months that the two years’ scores can’t be compared equally and aren’t a true assessment of students’ progress.

“If it keeps changing as it has, it will become even more meaningless. This year, the only thing it has done is kind of give us a baseline of, ‘So when the test is cut in half and delivered to us in this format, here’s how we do.’ That’s basically all we get from it,” she said.

“When we have kids who have historically passed and they now have not, that student didn’t lose skills. That student is being asked to do something different, perform on a different stage. We have to give them a chance to understand the new demand.”

ISTEP issues

In a letter to parents Dec. 11, Superintendent David Shaffer placed blame on the state for the drop in scores:“The State Board of Education has used its authority to allow a political agenda to override reasonable practices in determining Indiana’s learning standards and its process of administering the ISTEP + test last spring,” he wrote in the letter.New learning standards were put in place early in the 2014-15 school year. Students were tested on those standards when they took the ISTEP that spring.

“Normally, learning standards changes would be phased in and testing over new standards would not be done for at least into the second year of new standards,” Shaffer said.

“Unfortunately, our students — and students statewide — became the pawns of a political agenda intended to make public education appear less successful than in the past.”

The state board also raised the score needed to pass the test and lowered the score needed to earn a “pass-plus.”

In addition, Helmsburg and Van Buren elementary schools took one version of a paper test, while Sprunica Elementary took another version. Many schools across the state took the test online instead. The SBOE determined the online test was more difficult than the paper/pencil versions, so extra points were awarded to students who took it online.

“I want to further assure you that while the record will show that our children did not do nearly as well as in the past, we think they were prepared well by their teachers and that the problem rests with the flawed administration by the State of Indiana,” Shaffer said.

Legislators step in

Amid ISTEP frustrations bubbling up throughout the state, two bills were introduced and passed last week in the House and Senate that would minimize the impact of these test scores.Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, introduced a bill Jan. 6 that would prevent this year’s ISTEP scores from being used to give a school district a lower “accountability grade” than the previous school year.Brown County as a district and all individual schools received straight A’s from the IDOE for 2013-14. The State Board of Education is expected to issue grades for 2014-15 in a few weeks.

The A-F accountability grade is partly based on the percentage of students who pass English and math assessments, like ISTEP. Student growth, or how a student improved since a previous assessment, also factors in.

Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, introduced House Bill 1003 to prevent 2014-15 ISTEP+ scores from negatively affecting teachers’ effectiveness ratings, and ultimately their pay.

ISTEP results for third-through eighth-grade teachers in the tested subjects, the school’s letter grade and the teacher’s evaluation factor into teacher raises. By state law, pay increases can no longer be based primarily on teacher experience or education.

Harman said the legislative action is advocacy at work. She and Shaffer have contacted legislators multiple times along with posting direct links for the community to contact Rep. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, and Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, on the district’s website.

State legislators have also felt heat from education associations, including the Indiana School Boards Association and the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents.

Harman said not punishing school buildings or teachers for these ISTEP+ scores is something State Superintendent Glenda Ritz had been calling for since before ISTEP was administered.

Ritz, Harman said, was following the direction of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan who encouraged states to hold students and schools harmless as the new Common Core standards were put in place across the country. Indiana opted out of Common Core last year.

“The whole thing was, ‘Let’s just see how the kids do,’” Harman said.

“Unfortunately, they didn’t listen to those of us who were (saying), ‘We’re telling you this is very different. We’re telling you this is going to have a significant effect on our scores.’ They didn’t listen.”

Moving on

ISTEP testing over this school year’s material will take place in two months.Third- through eighth-graders will take ISTEP in two parts: the first in March and the second in April, Harman said.Harman said administrators have been continuing to modify their curriculum and instruction to align with those new state education standards.

“We’ve got plans to move forward with some different initiatives in math. We had that before we even looked at the (most recent ISTEP) scores, because we haven’t had any scores. We couldn’t stand still.”

“We don’t move forward based on ISTEP results. They’re just one piece of information that we look at to make decisions about what to do.”

Ready for another round?

Third- through eighth-grade Brown County students will take part one of the ISTEP+ test in March and the second part in April, said Deborah Harman, director of student learning. This test will be over material learned this school year.

Tenth-grade students will take the College and Career Ready ISTEP exam along with the English end-of course assessment. “Our 10th-graders, unfortunately, will see two state tests together this year,” Harman said.

Before testing starts, tutoring will be available to students based on their classroom performance — not just their recent ISTEP results which showed many more students not passing than normal.

“When you have a pass rate of 50 percent or 60 percent, it’s just ridiculous. Half our students don’t need tutoring,” Harman said.

As the test nears, parents may see practice items in their child’s backpack that will prepare them to  different types of questions on the test, Harman said.

“It’s like a sport. You don’t prepare the night before for the game; preparation is ongoing. You’re always in training for that next event,” she said.

Sounding off on ISTEP

From our Facebook page:

Amy Williams-Sherman: Wait. Tell me again why we are using this useless test again? Didn’t they just say that there were all kinds of problems with it, again, for the umpteenth year?

Marissa Wager: It is so sad they we are forced to continually put our children through this kind of testing and pressure.

Jenn Day: I’m a teacher and I can tell you these scores mean absolutely nothing! We have the best students I have ever worked with. This test was harder than ever before and the legislature KNEW scores were going to be low. But MY PAY is based off these scores. Hey, big government, let’s make your pay based off an unfair test score and see how much you will make.

Mindy Summers: Let it be noted that the assessment was created with the intention that more students would fail. Now, that’s how you motivate a learner! Not!

Mindy Weddle: This is the best way to measure the effectiveness of our governor.

Michelle Johnson: You know what? I really don’t care what my son’s scores are. We all have the right to refuse these tests and stand up against standardized testing!

Suzannah Couch grew up in Brown County, reading the Brown County Democrat. A 2013 Franklin College graduate, she covers cops/courts, education and arts/entertainment.