ISTEP practice lengthy due to ‘a lot of new’

GREENFIELD — First came the stress about frozen computer screens and fumbled questions, administrators concerned about the reliability of the ISTEP system and how long students were being pulled out of class to test it.

Then this week, schools got a second surprise regarding the upcoming test: The typical, 20-minute to 1-hour practice test students take to get comfortable with the high-stakes exam has grown, grown, grown.

Elementary and middle schools are required to spend three to four hours during the course of several school days taking practice tests this year.

All that, before they take the actual ISTEP.

“Practice testing in the past has been short, short bursts,” said Jim Bever, principal of Greenfield Intermediate School. “This is all something that’s related to the fact that they’re trying to roll out a new test over new standards using a new format. It’s a lot of new.”

All that “new” has administrators worried about what it will mean for results and frustrated the mandated practice testing is taking away time from classroom instruction.

The annual exam, which tests third- through eighth-grade students on what they’ve learned in school, typically has been preceded by a practice test so students know what to expect before the actual assessment. But in the past, that practice took less than hour.

The new practice test will take three to nearly four hours, depending on a student’s grade level. That means third-graders, for example, will have three hours of practice tests followed by six hours of actual tests. Third-graders also must take the IREAD-3 exam in mid-March, and they must pass that test in order to move on to fourth-grade reading lessons.

The ISTEP practice test is separate from another hourlong test that will be conducted next month to ensure the servers that will be used for the online portion of ISTEP are working properly. Local administrators were frustrated earlier this month when the first so-called stress test failed.

All of the tests mean less time in class for students, local principals said.

Administrators received an email from the Indiana Department of Education this week about the ISTEP practice test, and they’re worried about the amount of time that will take and that the hours of testing will exhaust students.

“I struggle with that because of the loss of instruction time,” said Scott Shipley, principal of Mt. Vernon Middle School. “I just feel like we’re in the business of what’s best for students, (but we’re) taking four hours to practice a test. We have teachers that have great lessons, and we have instruction that we’re losing.”

But Daniel Altman, spokesman for the state department of education, said the additional practice tests are being required so students will have more time to get used to the new exam. Students will take a new form of ISTEP this year, based on Indiana’s new academic standards.

Those results will factor into teachers’ annual evaluations, which determine whether they qualify for raises. The state also uses ISTEP scores to assess and assign letter grades to schools.

“Because it’s a new test, we wanted to make sure students had plenty of time to familiarize themselves with the rigorous content and the types of questions,” Altman said.

The practice test is broken up into four sections, each lasting 25 minutes to 75 minutes, which cover math and language/arts lessons. Fourth- through seventh-graders have a fifth practice test session of about 40 minutes that covers either science or social studies.

The 75-minute sections on the practice test will be longer than any of the sections on the actual ISTEP exam, none of which is longer than an hour, according to documents the department of education sent to schools.

Schools are not required to give the practice test for the entire length of each section, so if all students in a class finish early, then the class can move on to another lesson, Altman said. The additional time is necessary to make sure all students are fully prepared for the high-stakes test, he said.

“If it’s going to exist, we’re going to make sure that students and schools are as ready for it as possible,” Altman said.

Bever agrees that standards are more rigorous, and he worries the questions will be more vague and difficult to interpret. Students must have more test savvy to understand this year’s questions, but the time crunch to administer all of the practice exams is a burden.

Shipley added, “I think we need some accountability. We need to know what our students know. That’s important. I was just surprised when I saw the number of practice tests.”

Tom Lange of the Daily Journal in Franklin contributed to this report.

Editor's note

The wrong version of this story was inadvertently printed in Friday’s edition. The Daily Reporter regrets the error.