Governor Mike Pence of Indiana, along with other state officials, have rounded up a collection of twenty-three educators and political appointees in a panel to choose a new student achievement test to replace the ISTEP. Unfortunately, the panel is faced with an impossible task. The law requires the test to measure student achievement, school quality, and teacher quality. There is no such test which can validly and reliably do all three tasks at once.
According to a May 10 article in the Indianapolis Star, the chair of the panel, Nicole Fama, principal of School 93 in Indianapolis, said that ISTEP was too long.
“The test is just too long,” said Nicole Fama, principal of a charterlike Indianapolis school. “So we want to look for a better option — collectively. I think we want to do right by kids…”
Another member of the panel, Scot Croner, superintendent of Blackford County Schools, said, “I want to make sure we get it done right.”
Ken Folks, superintendent of East Allen County Schools, said, “I want it to be accurate. I want it to be what’s best for the children…”
The way to “do right by kids” – the way to “make sure we get it…right” – the way to make it “best for our children” is to make sure that no high stakes decisions are based on any standardized test.
The American Psychological Association has information about the appropriate use of testing and emphasizes that high stakes decisions about student placement and achievement not be based on the results of a single test.
…high-stakes decisions should not be made on the basis of a single test score, because a single test can only provide a “snapshot” of student achievement and may not accurately reflect an entire year’s worth of student progress and achievement.
The replacement test for the ISTEP shouldn’t do that. The sole educational purpose of the test should be to ascertain what the students know relative to what they were taught.
Finding a test which can do that is not impossible. Whether the state will use the test in an appropriate and valid way is another story.
[IREAD-3, for example, is an additional achievement test given to third graders. It is a high stakes test and is used to punish third graders for not learning to read.]
But there are two serious problems associated with testing in Indiana which the panel cannot solve simply by choosing another assessment. Both of those problems are based on the political purposes behind testing and both of those purposes do use the tests for making high stakes decisions.
INVALID USE OF TESTS
1. The test is used to evaluate and grade schools. It is used to label some schools as “failing” in order to allow the state to take over so-called “failing” schools and transfer control and fiscal responsibility (aka “profit”) to charter operators. It is also used as a reason to divert public tax funds to private and parochial schools through vouchers.
Unless a test has been developed to evaluate and grade schools it should not be used for that purpose.
The evaluation of a school program is much more complicated than how well its students score on a single standardized test. Such an evaluation ought to also include
- how does the school work to involve the community in its program?
- is the school’s curriculum developmentally appropriate for its students?
- is the school climate conducive to learning?
- how is the school attempting to meet the needs of all its students?
- what wraparound services are available for students who need them, such as social workers, guidance counselors, and school nurses?
- does the school have a library? is it staffed by a trained librarian?
- what is the physical condition of the school?
- are students provided a complete and varied curriculum including physical education and the arts?
Those questions, of course, are not answered by looking at student test scores. Furthermore, if a school has unsatisfactory answers to any of those questions then the state and local school board ought to work together to improve the conditions. The school and its staff are not to blame for inadequately funded, resourced, or maintained schools. The state’s policy makers should take responsibility for their inability (or refusal) to support public education instead of blaming the school by labeling it a “failure.” Fix it. Don’t throw it away.
2. The test is used to evaluate teachers. It is used to support a state-mandated merit pay plan which denies the value of a teacher’s experience and denies the influence of external variables on student achievement. It makes a career in teaching less attractive, and opens the door for lowering the standards required for teachers to enter the classroom.
Unless a test has been developed to evaluate teachers it should not be used for that purpose.
Nicole Fama said, “…and we want to do right by teachers.”
Doing “right by teachers” means not using student test scores for their evaluations. Like school programs, the evaluation of teachers is much more complicated than tallying students’ scores on a single test. Instead, teachers ought to be evaluated on things like…
- does the teacher have a sufficient knowledge of their subject matter and child development?
- does the teacher have a firm grasp of the curriculum?
- can the teacher communicate well to her students?
- how well does the teacher motivate his students?
- are the teachers lesson plans complete, well-developed, and organized?
- how does the teacher support their own professional growth?
- is the teacher’s classroom organized?
- does the teacher have good classroom management skills?
- does the teacher demonstrate professionalism in her relationships with students, parents, and colleagues?
The answers to those questions cannot be measured by student achievement test scores.
MISUSE IS LAW
The panel-to-choose-another-test can likely find a test which will evaluate a child’s achievement (though how well standardized tests actually do that is another discussion altogether). But the current state legislature, the Pence administration, and its predecessor, have built the misuse of tests into state law.
No test exists which can validly and reliably fill the three disparate goals of tracking student achievement, grading schools, and evaluating teachers.
The overuse and misuse of testing needs to end.