To the point week of 10-11-07


INDIANA GOVERNOR MITCH DANIELS and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Suellen Reed announced last week that the state’s ISTEP student tests and the Graduation Qualifying Exam that is given to high school students will be moved beginning next year.

In fact, students next year will take the tests twice – once in the fall and once in the spring. After that, the testing will be done in the spring of the year.

It doesn’t seem like such a big deal if a state test is given in the fall or spring, but when you consider the financial ramifications of those test scores, it could have a major difference.

As it stands now, students take the ISTEP test in the fall of the year. In fact, Switzerland County students joined students around the state in recently completing the testing.

The testing in the fall allows the results of those tests to be returned to the individual schools around the Christmas holiday, which gives teachers information that they need in order to work with students based on their weaknesses as defined by the tests.

That all sounds good, but each school corporation has a financial stake in what those test scores are.

High test scores can mean more funding from the state and federal levels coming into a system. Low test scores can land a school or probation, and lead to sanctions at both the state and federal levels.

The problem with the test being in the fall is also that students are just coming back from summer vacation, so they are being tested to some degree on what they learned the year before – and what they retained over the summer.

Although state school administrators organizations refute it, I believe that it is also the reason that kids are going to school more and more early each year.

If the state sets the testing date for all schools in Indiana so that the tests are at the same time everywhere, then what develops is a “footrace” to get kids up and running educationally as much as possible before those tests start.

Schools spend hours and hours reviewing principals in order to help kids do better on the tests; and they provide all sorts of incentives to students to come to school and take the tests, and also to do their best and not simply “kill time” and mark a bunch of things incorrectly.

But schools have also moved the start date back so that there are more school days before the testing starts in order to prepare kids.

State officials say that school calendars with schools starting earlier are a result of trying to get a 90-day semester in before Christmas break; but you have to believe that it also helps to get those extra 5-6 days in for remediation purposes.

Now the test is moving to the spring, where children will be tested at the end of the year on material that they have been learning during the year.

It sounds more reasonable, but it also has its flaws.

First, results will most likely not be available until the very end of the school year at the soonest. That means that schools will not be able to identify students who are having trouble and get them into summer school classes or other programs that can help them improve those skills.

With spring testing, that remediation may not be able to begin until the student returns in the fall of the following year, which again brings into play the fact that the student has had all summer to forget what they did learn.

But the real problem with spring testing around the state is that school systems may turn the testing into a thermometer on how teachers are doing.

Schools could censure teachers based on the test scores that their students attain at the end of the year. Is it reasonable to base a majority of an evaluation on one test?

In 2001, students were talking ISTEP tests on September 11th when our nation was attacked. Is it reasonable to believe that those events impacted our children’s ability to concentrate on a test? I think so, which means that there are all sorts of outside influences that can directly affect the mental state that a student is in when taking a test.

Some kids simply aren’t good test takers. They know the material, but can’t move that information from their minds to a sheet of paper. Others may not do well in large settings. It may be a rainy day with lightning and thunder.

Who knows? Which precisely why no one – from parents to state officials – should get overly concerned and place too much emphasis on one test, no matter when it’s given.

You don’t have to show me an ISTEP test to tell me that our schools are doing a good job. Our elementary schools are among the best in the nation regardless of whether or not they have a “Blue Ribbon School” plaque hanging on their walls. You don’t need awards and ribbons to tell me that our middle school and high school are making progress.

I believe that moving the ISTEP to the spring is the right thing to do – but the reason I believe that it is the right thing to do is because I believe that it is right for our children.

Afterall, we should be focused on providing our children and grandchildren with all of the tools that they need educationally to be successful in the future.

Spring or fall, that’s the real test of our educational system.