HANCOCK COUNTY — Weeks ahead of the official release of ISTEP scores, Eastern Hancock School Corp. officials have issued letters to parents calling the test “an inaccurate reflection of our students’ academic accomplishments and the quality of teaching in our classrooms.”
Officials from other local school districts have followed suit, describing the burden the test poses on districts and warning of the results to come.
Statewide results aren’t expected to be released to the public until January, months later than initially planned; but on average, scores are expected to drop 24 percentage points in mathematics and 16 percentage points in language arts, according to projections from the Indiana Department of Education.
While educators remain mum on the preliminary results they’ve received, they say scores from the test, which is given to students in Grades 3 through 8 and is based on more rigorous standards than previous years, are substantially lower than in the past. The results affect teacher pay, as well as how schools are rated by the state.
On Monday, Eastern Hancock issued a letter to all families of students who took the assessment last spring.
In a letter to parents from Mt. Vernon School Corp., Superintendent Shane Robbins writes, “It is important to remember Mt. Vernon is a great district with great teachers, staff, students and community. The flawed testing environment in 2014-15 has not changed that.”
Administrators from Greenfield-Central and Southern Hancock school corporations say they have not sent messages to parents but plan to do so in coming weeks.
At the end of Eastern Hancock’s 447-word message, which is signed by the district’s interim superintendent and school principals, the administrators urge families to contact local lawmakers to express concerns about the test and ask that ISTEP not be tied to school’s accountability grades or teacher compensation.
Teri Anderson, the mother of two children from Mt. Vernon who took ISTEP last spring, said she’s never supported the concept of high-stakes testing, like ISTEP. She describes last spring’s test, which was plagued by technology troubles, as a fiasco and said it has only affirmed her position.
“How kids perform on a single test at one point during the year … shouldn’t be a key factor in how teachers or schools are assessed,” she said.
Anderson added she is considering withholding her children from testing this year.
“I struggle to see the value of it,” she said.
School accountability grades, which use an A-F scale, are directly tied to student performance on ISTEP. While state lawmakers haven’t decided how lower scores might impact those grades, administrators argue it would be unfair to let the lower scores impact accountability grades, which they say color the public’s perception of a school system and also — if grades are low enough for long enough — dictate whether the state can step in and make changes.
Dave Pfaff, principal at Eastern Hancock High School and Middle School, said a shift in testing procedures put many students at a disadvantage.
Last spring’s ISTEP test was designed to be completed online, but technology issues forced thousands of students across the state to complete the test on paper. Those discrepancies put some students at a greater disadvantage, Pfaff said, and he doesn’t want to see his district’s accountability grade suffer as a result.
“The students didn’t change; the teachers didn’t change; the schools didn’t just deteriorate,” Pfaff said. “The test changed. We shouldn’t be penalized for that.”
Greenfield-Central Superintendent Harold Olin said districts are now gearing up for the 2016 ISTEP exam, which will be given in the spring by a different testing vendor than last year.
While schools have methods of preparing for the upcoming exam other than gauging deficiencies from past test results, the delay has put all districts at a disadvantage, he said.
But administrators are forced to do everything they can to prepare for next spring’s ISTEP, which will begin in March.
“The most important step for us to take at this time is to retool and make sure we don’t duplicate the results from last year,” Olin said.
Still, the delay has introduced a lot of uncertainly for schools, he said.
“All eyes are on these scores,” Olin said. “It’s certainly a stressful time for a lot of educators for that reason.”
The complications from last spring’s ISTEP testing triggered a series of setbacks in the release of results.
Here’s what’s happened so far:
March: Administrators are told to expect the ISTEP scores to come out in the fall, after the school year started.
August: State officials announce a scoring issue between the two versions of the exam, one students completed with paper and pencil and one done entirely online, pushes back test results to December or January.
December: Release of scores, which were supposed to be given to schools Dec. 8 and to the public Dec. 22, are pushed back in order to accommodate parent requests for portions of the ISTEP exam to be rescored.
Dec. 14: A new deadline is set for when schools will receive their ISTEP data electronically.
Jan. 6: A new deadline is set for posting the ISTEP exam results publicly.