71 percent of Indiana students passed both the math and English portions of this year’s ISTEP+ exam, the state’s benchmark standardized test for children in Grades 3-8, according to figures released Tuesday.
The result reflects a modest increase in the passing rate — about 1 percent over last year.
Overall ISTEP+ scores are higher than they’ve ever been, but stubborn socio-economic achievement gaps remain. While low-income and minority students’ scores have increased slightly faster than the population as a whole, they still lag behind.
“In general, I think [Tuesday's results] are very good news,” Jonathan Plucker, director of Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, told StateImpact. “But clearly we have a lot of work to do.”
Indiana students took the ISTEP+ in two sittings last Spring. Schools administered the “applied skills” portion of the exam in early March and a separate multiple-choice exam between late April and early May. Aside from the core subjects of math and English — on which the statewide passing rates are based — students are tested on science and social studies in specific grades.
Non-public schools performed best on the exams, with 80 percent of students at the average private school passing the test. The average passing rate at a traditional public school was 71 percent. More than 74 percent of students at the average charter school passed the exam.
The test scores form the backbone of Indiana’s system for assigning A-F letter grade ratings to more than 1,500 schools with elementary and middle school-aged students statewide. State officials received a waiver from the federal government releasing Indiana from the controversial mechanisms of the No Child Left Behind law, replacing them with the A-F ratings.
Few Indiana high schools are affected by the exam results released Tuesday, as their state letter grades are based on different exams.
—Tony Bennett, state superintendent
While the passing percentages of black students, Hispanic students and students receiving free or reduced price lunch all increased by double-digits in the same timespan, they still lag behind the rest of the state:
- 48 percent of African American students passed both the English and math portions of the test, up 11 percentage points from 2008-09, but still more than 20 percentage points below the state average.
- 59 percent of students receiving free or reduced price lunches passed, up 12 percentage points. (Free and reduced price lunch numbers are commonly used as an indicator of students coming from low-income backgrounds.)
- 60 percent of Hispanic students passed, an increase of 12 percentage points.
“We’ve seen really impressive improvements in the number of black and Hispanic students who pass. But those numbers are still very, very low,” says Jonathan Plucker. “That’s clearly not acceptable at all.”
Have Scores Leveled Off?
After voters elected him to office in 2008, state superintendent Tony Bennett set a goal of having 90 percent of the Indiana students pass the ISTEP+ exam. In a press release accompanying the results Tuesday, Bennett heralded the scores as continued movement in the right direction.
“More students are getting a world class education in our schools,” Bennett’s statement read. “Thanks to the efforts of Indiana’s great teachers, we’re successfully educating a new generation of leaders and innovators who will build a more prosperous future for our state.”
The state’s overall passing rate has increased by 8 percentage points over the past four years. We even wrote last year that test scores had broken a holding pattern that had characterized the ISTEP+ results before Bennett took office.
But as Jonathan Plucker noted in an interview with StateImpact, this year’s smaller increase in the statewide passage rate may be an indication scores are beginning to level off:
That’s totally to be expected, though. In general, scholars have said that you see big jumps in passing rates when you really start to focus on those passing rates. I think we see that at the tail end of the last decade we saw fairly big jumps — five, six, seven points. It has definitely slowed …
I was actually still impressed that there still are steady one- to two-percentage point gains each of the last couple of years. There’s definitely a positive trend. Now, a really interesting question here is, with all of the major reforms that have been passed the last 18 months or so — most of which are just starting to be implemented now — will those lead to another big jump? Will they help us maintain this slow and steady progress? Those are really open questions and we really need to watch those things carefully. There’s probably a middle ground between those two options. It will be interesting to see.
Plucker adds he was most impressed by the increases in students who moved into the “pass-plus” category — effectively the state’s “advanced passing rate.”
“The data I’ve seen suggests Indiana teachers and educators are doing a really good job of getting more and more students — still not enough, but more and more students — into the highest levels,” Plucker says.