Advocates, unions react to big drop expected for ISTEP scores

The general consensus on fairly steep projected 2015 ISTEP score drops from local business and education reform advocacy groups? It’s par for the course.

Indiana’s move to more demanding standards means a tougher state test and, at least at first, lower scores, they said. But to at least one teachers union leader, big drops in the ISTEP passing rate could create big problems.

The Indiana State Board of Education is expected to vote on recommended ISTEP passing scores at its meeting tomorrow. On average, the passing rates would drop by 16 percentage points on English tests and about 24 percentage points in math if the board approves the recommended cut-off scores.

Those dips are significantly deeper than typical score changes have been year to year. But Institute for Quality Education President Betsey Wiley said in a statement that with a move to a new test, that’s not unheard of.

“Indiana raised the bar for students by increasing its academic standards to better position our next generation for success after high school,” Wiley said. “When states transition to new and more rigorous academic standards, a drop in scores is expected. The decline Indiana saw is not unusual or a cause for panic – other states transitioning to new academic standards saw similar or larger reductions in assessment scores.”

The institute advocates for school choice and other educational changes in Indiana.

The score drops also indicate, in a way, that Indiana is doing a better job of educating kids overall, said Stand for Children’s executive director Justin Ohlemiller. His group had pushed for changes in IPS like more school autonomy and has backed state policies calling for greater expectations for students and teachers.

“For far too long, we had high standards, but a low-quality ISTEP test that fell well short of truly measuring whether a student has the tools needed to succeed after high school,” Ohlemiller said in a statement. “This old system put kids at risk of dropping out of college before graduation, and even more tragically, gave others false hope that they were on a college track, when they didn’t qualify.

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce President Kevin Brinegar also argued Indiana is doing no better or worse than other states that switched to more challenging academic standards, which are expectations for what kids should be learning each year.

But lower ISTEP scores could have big consequences for schools as the state’s test-based, A-to-F accountability system was not adjusted to anticipate a drop in scores or account for two tests that are based on different standards.

Rick Muir, the president of the Indiana chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said the result for troubled schools could be overly harsh while benefiting outside organizations, including for-profit companies, that could more easily take over those schools.

“Do I think they should move away from (A-to-F grades)? I most certainly do,” Muir said. “Do I think they will? No. If the people currently in control of decisions stay where they are, this is what will happen.”

Schools that earn poor grades year after year can see serious action from the state, the most severe being that the state could take over the school after four years of F-grades.

Testing has a place, Muir said, but it’s been way too much of a focus.

Kim Clements-Johnson, spokeswoman for the Indiana State Teachers Association noted the recommended passing scores aren’t final yet.

“It’s a new test and difficult to assess the impact or differences from prior years without the final scores and analysis,” she said. “We continue to stress that standardized tests have a place, but the overemphasis on testing has lost its balance.”

The score drops could, however, be the spark needed to start more conversations about change in how states measure success on tests, Muir said.

“I think the truth is coming out,” Muir said. “I think the public is starting to see it. I think politicians might be waking up to the fact that this isn’t just in Indiana. We’ve been set up for failure.”