Here’s why a test loved by teachers isn’t likely to replace Indiana’s ISTEP

As Indiana attempts to overhaul its student testing program in hopes of replacing the unpopular ISTEP test, teachers around the state have been pushing for an exam they’re already using in their classrooms: The MAP test.

The MAP — Measure of Academic Progress — is a favorite of teachers who appreciate the real-time data it provides about how well students have mastered specific skills, such as decimals or fractions in elementary school math.

The test, created by the Northwest Evaluation Association, can be administered two to four times per year in English and Math. It takes far less time than typical state exams — about an hour per subject per session — and teachers can see the results immediately, enabling them to tailor their lessons to areas where kids are showing deficits.

“(With ISTEP) I might be able to see if they can answer eighth and ninth grade level math questions” said Reuben Benzel, a math teacher at Herron High School. “But (with MAP) I can see whether they are able to do something like answer a proof even before I teach it. I can see immediately how much my students grew.”

But teachers pulling for the MAP to become Indiana’s new ISTEP are likely out of luck.

Even though rules are relaxing around what kinds of tests students in Indiana and other states need to take, exams like MAP that show how students improve over the course of a year do not yet meet federal or state testing requirements for use in state accountability.

Federal law requires states to measure student performance at a single point in time — whether through one end-of-year exam or multiple exams given throughout the year that are combined to form one score. State Superintendent Glenda Ritz has raised the possibility that the state could adapt a test like MAP by figuring out a way to combine multiple test scores, but there are few existing models for how to do that so it meets federal guidelines.

Indiana law also discourages the use of tests like MAP — so-called “formative” or “interim” assessments — as an annual state exam because the state’s A-F grading system is based on the percentage of students who pass or fail the test. MAP isn’t designed to determine which students have passed or failed according to state expectations for what kids should know at each grade level like ISTEP is — students can theoretically score anywhere on the MAP scale in any grade.

Someday, it might be possible to make MAP more adaptable so that it could be used in states like Indiana that need a pass/fail result, said Jason Mendenhall, NWEA’s senior vice president of strategic solutions.

“Measuring student growth independent of grade level … that is a different purpose then measuring student performance against grade level,” Mendenhall said. “If we provide a measure of academic performance, we’d design the structure and content of that assessment differently.”

But for now, it seems the test is best used as a teaching tool.

Cynthia Roach, testing director for the Indiana State Board of Education, said she’d be open to exploring ways to use something like the MAP in the state’s assessment program but notes that Indiana is limited by federal law requiring states to annually test kids in grades 3-8 to determine how many are performing at grade level.

“(Federal law) requires we have a grade level test on grade level standards,” Roach said. “While we do generally like (MAP), and it’s very useful to us, I think…that would need to be studied in-depth.”

These also are not the kinds of changes that can be done quickly. The state’s current accountability system took years to design and implement, and ideally tests should take anywhere from two to five years to create, experts say.

Some educators and test experts are concerned that using a test like MAP that is given multiple times during the year could force teachers to teach the same things at the same time to stay on schedule. Others worry that multiple tests throughout the year would increase the amount of time kids spend testing. If MAP suddenly gets stakes attached to it, will more tests pop up to prepare for it?

At that point, the state might just be replacing one longer exam with multiple shorter ones.

But it’s hard to ignore that teachers say they appreciate the more specific feedback from MAP over any kind of results they get from ISTEP or A-F grades.

Before Benzel came to Herron, he taught at Emmerich Manual High School, where he learned how to adapt his teaching to different groups of students based on their MAP scores. Students on the lower end of the scale might need more of the basics, like how to think conceptually about numbers and arithmetic. But higher-achieving students might be able to handle more on their own. Benzel said he might encourage those kids to use geometry to prove the pythagorean theorem, rather than just teaching them about the theorem.

“We have to meet students where they’re at,” Benzel said. “Standardizing their education system … may show policymakers what we’re producing, but a lot of kids are being lost.”