Practice ISTEP reveals problems

GREENFIELD — “Stress test” was an appropriate name for it.

Hundreds of students across Hancock County took a practice ISTEP test Tuesday, only to face frozen computer screens, skipped questions and more.

Problems were statewide in the drill to ensure some 470,000 students in Grades 3 through 8 could use the online system, local school officials say. But with flashbacks of computer woes that plagued testing in 2013, local administrators hope all of the issues are ironed out before the high-stakes exam begins this spring.

“I think we’re really glad this wasn’t May,” said Ann Vail, Greenfield-Central assistant superintendent.

Schools across the state were required to test nearly all of the computers students will use to take the online portion of the exam, determining whether both the local technology and the ISTEP servers were working properly.

Vail said within minutes, problems arose in all seven Greenfield-Central buildings. The trial test began at 10 a.m.; by 11 a.m., school officials received a memo from the Indiana Department of Education to scrap the test entirely, Vail said.

New this year, she said, are technology-enhanced questions. As opposed to mostly multiple-choice questions on the computer, now students will use the online system to click and drag answers, choose multiple correct answers and more.

“We’re not sure whether that is what caused the issues (Tuesday), but obviously something hasn’t completely worked out yet in the infrastructure that will run the assessment,” Vail said.

The stress test was held to determine appropriate settings for company CTB-McGraw Hill to use in its new cloud-based system, Department of Education press secretary Daniel Altman wrote in an email.

“In short, the stress test achieved one of its main objectives in that it helped determine how settings needed to be configured to minimize problems during the actual ISTEP+ administration,” Altman wrote.

Another test will be held next week, but Eastern Hancock Superintendent Randy Harris worries that won’t be an accurate picture. Next week’s stress test is optional, Harris said, and if fewer schools are participating, that might not trigger problems that will arise in the spring.

Similar computer problems halted ISTEP testing in 2013 for days. The frustration for students and teachers alike was immeasurable, school officials say, and it’s unclear how the interruptions affected test scores.

“I hope they get the problems solved,” Harris said. “When we spend all these millions of dollars for testing, why are we in this situation again? They ought to know what the stresses are of the system. This should have went off without a hitch. Obviously, it didn’t.”

The stress test took away time from the classroom, said Mt. Vernon Assistant Superintendent Mike Horton. Still, he’d rather problems with testing arise now while students are just practicing.

“I’d rather they know their problems before they get to the actual test because the test is high-stakes for the kids and the schools,” he said.

Rhonda Peterson, Southern Hancock’s director of curriculum and technology, is also trying to look on the bright side.

“Luckily, the kids knew it wasn’t a real test, but it’s still obviously a frustration to our teachers and our kids because it’s loss of instructional time,” she said. “But if it helps prevent issues during the real test, you have to look at the positive side of the coin … It may prevent this from happening during the real testing.”

The Daily Journal of Johnson County, the Brown County Democrat and The Republic of Columbus, sister newspapers of the Daily Reporter, contributed to this report.