In 1988, I completed my doctorate and went to work for the Indiana Department of Education. I became a consultant in what was then known as the Division of Performance Based Accreditation. Gov. Robert Orr was on his way out, Gov. Evan Bayh was on his way in and Dean Evans was the superintendent of public instruction.
Prior to the election of Bayh, Orr and Evans had instituted what they called the A+ program for Indiana schools. ISTEP was a part of this program. The first year for the A+ program and ISTEP was 1987-88.
The A+ program changed the way that schools were accredited in Indiana. Under the old format, a consultant would visit a school. The purpose of this visit was to determine adequate space for various programs, number of books in the library, and other resource type measurements.
The new system called for a more performance based approach. It came to be called Performance Based Accreditation. This system was based on effective schools research. This research was based on the premise that if School A was doing well in the area of student achievement, and School B was not, there must be something going on in School A that was not taking place in School B. The premise was to identify these "best practices" and attempt to replicate them in under performing schools.
Each school in Indiana was required to appoint a school improvement committee. This committee was charged with studying the effective schools' research and identifying which practices were taking place in their school and which were not. The committee was further charged with the responsibility of developing a school improvement plan which would implement these practices. My job as a consultant with the Division of Performance Based Accreditation was to travel the state and work with these individual school improvement committees. This was a most rewarding experience. I learned a great deal about the effective schools' research, what works, and what does not. I also learned that Indiana schools in 1988 were all over the lot in this regard. Some were doing very well and some were not. Perhaps most rewarding was the realization that educators all over the state were dedicated, hard working professionals dedicated to their students. It was not a matter of working hard; it was a matter of knowing what worked.
Today, a somewhat different version is known as the Indiana Standards. This was a listing of what student in each grade level should know in math and language arts.
ISTEP was developed to measure student progress on these indicators. I recall numerous conversations within the DOE centered on how we would know that those performance indicators were actually being taught. I remember Evans saying, "What gets tested gets taught." In other words, if we hold teachers accountable for what we want taught through a required test, they will teach that material. The department's concern was that a child in eighth grade language arts in Angola would be receiving the same instruction as a child in Gary, South Bend, Evansville, etc.
At that time, there was much concern over how to compare the relative performance of individual schools. Within the department we developed a somewhat complex matrix to make these comparisons.
This procedure was abandoned several years ago. I think the primary reason had to do with holding schools of varying socio-economic conditions to varying expectations. Those schools with very low free lunch percentages and high cognitive skills scores had much higher expectations than others. In addition, there are many other variables which account for the level of student achievement. Some research tells us that the highest predictor of student achievement is the amount of time a parent reads to the child in the early years of development.
Originally ISTEP was given in March. The original thought was to have the test scores back before the end of the year. Then the thought was that they would be back for the start of the new school year. Then it was thought it best to give the test in the fall so that teachers would know where their students were in terms of learning to start the new school year. Of course, there is now major debate in the education community regarding whether to give the test in the spring or the fall.
The ISTEP test was and still is a part of what is called PL229. This is Indiana's school improvement law. It is a good law and one we in the process of implementing when the federal government came up with No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Now ISTEP is also the accountability test for NCLB. The requirements in both laws make changing when ISTEP is given problematical. This is because NCLB requires an accountability test which is given at the same time during a three year period.
The practical matter of ISTEP is that it has become a very high stakes test for schools. Each subgroup of students in a school is held to the same standard. These subgroups include those on free lunch, special needs students, minority students, male students, female students, etc. The larger the school district, the more significant subgroups will be present. Should any of these groups not meet the standard, the school is determined to have not met the required annual yearly progress under NCLB. The consequences for the individual school become more severe with each year the school fails to make AYP. This accounts for the extraordinary focus on one test.
Each school is required to give the test during the third week of September each year. It takes most of the week to administer the test. You would be correct to conclude that there is a major focus on ISTEP from the start of school until testing is concluded. Since students are tested over last year's material, much time is spent in review of that material. The test has become so high risk that the Indiana Department of Education has developed very strict security guidelines regarding the testing materials. The consequences of doing poorly on the test are so high that every year we read of schools that have actually disregarded these guidelines.
It appears that the debate will continue. Gov. Mitch Daniels is determined to appoint folks to the State Board of Education who agree with him that the test should be moved to the spring. Superintendent of Public Instruction Suellen Reed continues to believe that the test should be given in the fall.
It seems to me that there needs to be a determination of the purpose of the test before deciding when to give it. Is it a diagnostic test? Are we giving this test so that teachers can determine what their students know? Our teachers are much more capable of determining this at a much lower cost in much less time. In fact, our teachers assess student learning all the time. This process has forever been known as quizzes and tests. Teachers make these determinations and adjust instruction every day.
Or, are we giving this test to hold our schools accountable? Since each school's scores are placed in the newspaper, ranked, and compared, it is probably accountability that we seek. Taxpayers have every right to hold their schools accountable for student achievement. We welcome the opportunity to show the abilities of our students and teachers. We also welcome the opportunity to always strive for improvement.
DAVID GOODWIN is superintendent of the Metropolitan School District of Steuben County.