Extensive Tests In Indiana Make Teachers Uneasy
An extensive standardized testing program being used in Indiana to screen students for summer-school remediation and possible grade retention has drawn fire from some teachers and parents and could face a legal challenge by private schools.
Other states have mandated systematic testing as part of their reform blueprints, and some use the tests as promotional "gates'' in some grades or require remedial help for failing students.
But experts say Indiana's mandate may be the most sweeping in the nation, both in terms of the numbers of grades it includes and the extent to which results are used to require summer-school placement and retention.
Officials of the Indiana State Teachers Association say that early results from an informal survey of its members indicate that opposition to the Indiana Statewide Test for Educational Progress, known as ISTEP, is running "at about 99 to 1.''
Teachers, they say, report that anxiety over the first administration of the test last month was so great that some students became physically ill. Others, certain of failure, have decided to "give up'' for the remainder of the school year.
"Until you watch a 6-year-old student drop his head to his desk and sob, 'I'm stupid, I can't do it,' you cannot realize the impact ISTEP has had,'' one teacher wrote to the union.
Private-school administrators, meanwhile, are considering whether to file suit to force the state to provide remedial lessons to their students if they fail the exam. Nonpublic schools can opt not to participate in the ISTEP program, but if they do they will face the loss of their state accreditation.
Despite such criticism, state education officials continue to defend the testing requirement vigorously. They describe it as an integral part of a decade-long reform drive aimed at boosting student achievement and holding schools accountable for results.
Complaints about ISTEP represent "the vast minority'' of public sentiment and will probably fade over time, said H. Dean Evans, the state superintendent of public instruction. "Anytime there is change, there is stress to all parties involved. A little bit of stress doesn't hurt anybody.''
The $40-million testing effort was approved by lawmakers last year as part of the "A+ Program,'' a sweeping education-reform plan developed by Gov. Robert D. Orr and Mr. Evans.
The tests were administered in March to about 500,000 students in the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 6th, 8th, 9th, and 11th grades.
The battery of tests includes the language-arts and mathematics sections of the California Achievement Test and additional items designed to reflect achievement standards set by the state board of education.
Students between the 1st and 8th grades who score below acceptable cutoff levels on the test will be required to attend summer school and could be held back in their grades if they fail the test again after completing the remedial program.
Local superintendents may waive those requirements only if a teacher and principal agree either that a score does not accurately reflect a child's ability or that a student who had been held back previously would not benefit from further retention.
Tied to Accreditation
Beginning with the next school year, ISTEP results also will become a factor in the state's procedure for accrediting schools. Those that show gains will become eligible for "performance'' awards, according to William B. Strange, senior officer for the education department's center for assessment.
Mr. Strange said 8 percent to 10 percent of the students taking ISTEP are expected to fail the first time. But he estimated that roughly 70 percent of those in grades 1 to 3 and half of those in grades 6 and 8 would pass the test after the remedial program.
He noted that the testing program was piloted among 15,000 students and that validation studies demonstrated about 85 percent agreement between test results and teachers' assessments of students.
Mr. Strange said the program allows for "ample professional judgment'' in retention decisions and reflects standards developed by educators and passed unanimously by the state board.
If teachers have been teaching those standards, Mr. Evans added, "then they were teaching to the test, and that's what we hoped would be happening.''
ISTEP's supporters also maintain that it is an appropriate tool for ensuring that children are capable of doing the work that will be required of them in their next grade.
"The legislature tried to deal with the issue of social promotion. This is a studied attempt to do away with that,'' said Mr. Strange.
Mr. Evans also argued that data gathered from the test can be used "in a very overt away to identify what needs to be changed'' in the state's educational system.
ISTEP "emphasizes a new attitude reflected in the whole of the A+ Program, and that is an emphasis on performance--not only of the individual student ... but of individual schools and school corporations,'' said Nancy DiLaura, the Governor's top education aide.
Too Much Pressure?
Critics contend, however, that the test places undue pressure on teachers and students and weighs too heavily in retention decisions.
Barbara S. King, director of professional development for the ISTA, said some members fear that it will narrow the curriculum and that school rankings based on the exam and published by the media will pit schools against each other.
She also noted that the program could prompt some parents to hire private test coaches--creating an unfair advantage for wealthier students--and will not help students who narrowly pass the test.
Damon P. Moore, the union's president, said that about 1,000 of the group's 40,000 members have thus far returned ISTEP survey forms that were published in the ISTA's April newsletter. Many members, he added, have enclosed lengthy essays detailing their concerns.
While the union supports testing as a diagnostic tool, Mr. Moore said, "what we put our kids through'' with ISTEP "is more than anyone anticipated. We have reports of kids breaking down in the classroom.''
Student Stress Seen
Several teachers responding to the survey cited high levels of stress among students and parents, and said they felt compelled to suspend the regular curriculum to prepare students for the test.
They also complained that ISTEP covered material that had not yet been presented in their classes and that some students lost interest in school after the test was administered.
"Since ISTEP, four students have basically quit,'' one teacher wrote to the union. "Since they 'know' they 'flunked,' they wonder aloud why they should put any more effort into this year.''
Child Advocates for Rights in the Education of Students, a 100-member group formed by parents in southern Indiana, has begun a petition drive to urge lawmakers to amend the remediation and retention provisions of the ISTEP law.
The group also recommends that the tests be administered in the fall to enable remediation to occur year-round rather than during the summer, according to Deborah A. Howard, an assistant professor of law at the University of Evansville and a CARES board member.
Private Schools React
Private-school officials, meanwhile, say that although they support the testing program's goals, its failure to provide remediation for their students is discriminatory.
Under the law, private schools will be held accountable for the same ISTEP "outcomes'' as public schools to qualify for state accreditation.
But the state is not footing the cost of the program for private schools, and the state board has thus far recommended that their students be enrolled in summer school only on a "space-available basis.''
Although they may opt out of the program, private schools must be accredited in order for their teachers to maintain their licenses and for students to compete in athletics and enter accredited colleges.
Concerned that private schools "have no recourse'' to aid students who fail ISTEP, State Senator V. Richard Miller has requested an opinion from the state attorney general on the legality of the department's position.
Eugene Piccolo, superintendent of schools for the Roman Catholic diocese of Lafayette, said the Indiana Nonpublic Schools Association and Catholic Conference are lobbying the state board to extend summer-school enrollment to private-school students and will mount a legal challenge if necessary.
Mr. Evans noted that he also had sought the attorney general's guidance on ISTEP to determine if "we have more latitude than we assumed'' in serving private-school students. He said the state board hoped to devise a plan by October that would accommodate private schools without compromising public-school accreditation standards.