GREENFIELD — Students were bound to catch wind of the political hype and trepidation surrounding this year’s lengthy ISTEP test, area educators say.
But as Hancock County students in Grades 3 to 8 crack open their exams for the first time this week, local administrators are betting they are resilient enough to brush the drama aside.
Less than two weeks after Gov. Mike Pence, Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz and state lawmakers rushed to make a drastic cut in the state’s high-stakes exam, which was deemed way too long, local administrators say they are pleased the change was made and are optimistic students will do just fine.
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“They don’t live in caves. I’m sure they heard the television, the news, their parents,” Eastern Hancock middle/high school Principal Dave Pfaff said of the atmosphere surrounding the test. “But I don’t know if anybody is shaken. Kids are very resilient. They’re going to be fine.”
The paper-pencil portion of the exam for most local students begins today, while the online version kicks off in May.
But the road leading up to this day has certainly been long and winding. First was a so-called “stress test” on computers to see how well a statewide system could handle the traffic. With frozen computer screens and fumbled questions, teachers had flashbacks to 2013 when the botched exam caught nationwide attention.
Then they received practice pencil-paper tests. What used to take 20 minutes to an hour grew to be three to four hours.
But then came the real shock: Testing time on the real exam soared to up to 12 hours.
An uproar caused both the governor and the Department of Education to look into completely revamping the test, and in late February, administrators received word on how: Chop the paper-pencil portion in half.
Each school was instructed on which portion of the exam they were to complete, which required extra training for teachers. It was worth it, say administrators, who were relieved about the reduction in time for their students.
Still, teachers worry other issues could arise as a result of the changes being made so quickly.
“This has all been a joke,” Pfaff said. “It’s ridiculous what has gone on. So I know that there’s going to be problems.”
And as it turns out, those lengthy practice tests didn’t have to be done after all. Schools were instructed to use them as a learning tool to coach their children for the ISTEP.
“They even indicated you can do them during or after the regular ISTEP as a learning thing,” said Mike Horton, assistant superintendent for Mt. Vernon Community Schools. “It’s been a total fiasco all the way around.”
The test was revised after Indiana abandoned the Common Core educational standards and crafted its own. Pence ordered the exam be shortened and hired consultants to work with the Indiana education department and lawmakers to make it happen quickly.
Bruce Miller, principal at Southern Hancock’s Brandywine Elementary School, said he wasn’t sure students in his building realized what they were up against before the test was shortened.
“I don’t know that they realized it was going to be longer,” Miller said. “To them, seven hours and one hour is about the same. It’s still a test they have to take.”
Schools have flexibility on how many days students can take the exam. Some are going to complete the ISTEP this week, while others are stretching the test out over a two-week period.
And then there’s the IREAD-3. Many third-graders will have to take their reading proficiency test one to two weeks after the ISTEP.
It’s all par for the course, said local educators, who have become used to back-and-forth among state officials on how students are evaluated.
“It’s just part of what we have to do, and what has frustrated me as an administrator is the changes at the last minute and trying to work through all that and make sure the teachers understood what parts of it they were supposed to give and what parts you’re not,” Miller said. “We have the whole test booklet, but we’re only going to use half of it, basically.”
At Greenfield Central Junior High School, eighth-grade students said they’re as ready as they can be for the test to begin today. With five years of testing already under their belts, they’ve sort of become experts, and they’ve heard all the talk about this year’s lengthy test.
“You can’t really do anything about it because you’re gonna have to take it,” Bobby Newcomb said.
Still, they were glad to hear it wouldn’t be as long as originally projected. Brooke Andrus said students should listen to their teachers, who review materials for the test.
But perhaps the simplest piece of advice: Don’t sweat it.
“I sort of think of it as just another test,” Brooke said.
Principal Dan Jack said, if anything, the older students who paid attention to the questions surrounding this year’s test might go into the exam with a skeptical attitude over its importance. He said that, while it’s a high-stakes exam, it’s also vital for students to not overthink it.
“Just come in with confidence that they’re going to do well on it,” Jack said. “They’re well-prepared; their teachers have prepared them well. A lot of it is just a mindset.”
From providing students with a pep rally featuring Pacers mascot Boomer to sending home instructions on the importance of a healthy breakfast, local teachers have been encouraging children to do their best and come to school prepared for a successful ISTEP. Here’s a few pointers on what children and parents can do to prepare:
Eat up: “Have a good breakfast, whether they eat breakfast at home or here at school. Maybe something a little more nutritious or more protein than just a doughnut or a Pop-Tart.” — Bruce Miller, principal at Brandywine Elementary School
Catch those z’s: “Get plenty of sleep the nights before the test. Don’t let (students) be out late and do anything wild. … Remind them at home to do their best on their test but don’t stress them out. Don’t scare them.” — Dave Pfaff, principal at Eastern Hancock Middle School
Slow down: “Take your time. You have plenty of it, and lots of times that’s how they grade it, (by) showing your work.” — Hayden Bottorff, Greenfield-Central eighth-grader
Take review time seriously: “Listen to what your teachers say, because they’re preparing you for it.” — Brooke Andrus, Greenfield-Central eighth-grader
Come with the right attitude: “(Students should) just come in with confidence that they’re going to do well on it. They’re well-prepared; their teachers have prepared them well. A lot of it is just a mindset.” — Dan Jack, principal of Greenfield Central Junior High School