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National Voice Offers Indiana Three Pieces of Advice On Testing

Mention standardized testing in the Hoosier state, and you’re sure to hear plenty of opinions.

Teachers and students spend a good portion of their instructional time preparing for and taking a variety of tests. And of late, state legislators and education officials have spent a decent chunk of their time discussing what to do about it.

Michael Cohen is president of Achieve, an independent, nonprofit education reform organization that regularly works with states on standards, assessments and accountability measures. The group has been a player on Indiana’s education scene for many years, most recently helping state officials review the newest set of academic standards before the state adopted them in 2014.

In other words, Cohen has been around the block. He’s seen several states go through situations similar to the one Indiana currently finds itself in: general dissatisfaction on the part of parents, teachers and many others with the state of standardized testing.

Lawmakers are evaluating their options. The latest discussion took place Wednesday, when the General Assembly‘s Interim Study Committee on Education met to discuss testing and the related reporting requirements imposed on Hoosier schools.

And they invited Cohen to add his two cents. Here’s what he had to say…

1. Make sure tests actually measure Indiana’s standards.

During the 2015 “education session,” some legislators suggested Indiana consider using an off-the-shelf test like those in use by other states (such as PARCC or Smarter Balanced).

The Indiana Statehouse. (Photo Credit: Jimmy Emerson/Flickr)

The Indiana Statehouse. (Photo Credit: Jimmy Emerson/Flickr)

This is precisely what Cohen warns against. He says adopting a test “off of a shelf someplace” means items are not likely to be designed with Indiana in mind.

“Those tests were developed for different purposes, and not particularly for Indiana standards,” Cohen explains.

Committee co-chair Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, agrees. He adds that from a business perspective, it wouldn’t make much sense for a national vendor to try to adapt their product to Indiana’s specific needs.

“All of our open-ended questions are released and made available to the public, so that would be a problem with a national vendor because the way they’re able to be lower cost is the fact that they’re able to use those in multiple states,” Behning says. “If you’re going to release every question, then you’re going to end up having to pilot everything in Indiana specific[ally].”

2. Better define “proficiency.”

Cohen says for the last several years, Indiana has been aiming well below the rest of the nation on their standard for proficiency, citing statistics from the statewide ISTEP+ in contrast to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), widely known as the “nation’s report card.”

The portion of fourth graders Indiana considered proficient in math in 2012-13 came in at 83.4 percent. The percentage of the nation’s fourth grade students labeled as proficient on NAEP sat closer to 35 percent.

That gap alarms Cohen.

“That means Indiana is aiming lower than most other states in the country, and that’s not good for Indiana or it’s students,” he says. “It is sending a message to students and their parents that they are proficient, when they’re actually not even on track to being prepared for college.”

“You don’t want students to go through 12 years of school, think they’re doing fine, and then discover when they get to college that they need to take two remedial courses before they can even begin to earn college credit,” Cohen adds.

He suggests the state take caution in setting cut scores – the score on a test that establishes those who pass and those who fail a test – to make sure that “proficient” translates to “prepared” and “able to succeed without needing remediation.”

Additionally, Cohen recommends the state rely on results from the state’s summative tests – those used to check how much a student learned over the course of a year, rather than the “formative” tests which give a snapshot of what students know at a certain point in time – to identify proficiency.

“It would be a mistake to mix those two up,” Cohen says. “The tests that many school district administer on a quarterly basis to check kids’ progress along the way may or may not be perfectly good tests, but they’re not the tests to use to hold schools, teachers, kids – anybody – accountable.”

3. Proceed with caution.

Cohen says he realizes lawmakers will tuck his suggestions into their back pocket to reexamine them in the future. For now, state officials are focused on making the transition to a new ISTEP+, which will be administered by a brand-new vendor this year.

As Indiana navigates the move from testing company CTB to new partner Pearson, Cohen advises officials pay close attention.

“Make sure that they’re developing high-quality items,” Cohen says. “That means educators in Indiana need to be involved in reviewing them long before they make their way onto the test. Make sure that they do a good job of setting the performance levels, of figuring out what questions you need to get right in order to be proficient.”

Indiana’s Department of Education and State Board of Education are still in the process of finalizing details from last year’s ISTEP+. CTB informed them in August that issues with new technology-enhanced items on the 2015 version of the test would delay the release of scores until late fall or early winter.

The Study Committee on Education meets once more on October 19 to discuss Indiana’s teacher shortage.

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