Ind. Governor, School Chief Spar Over Test Program

By Deborah L. Cohen — November 01, 1989 4 min read

Indiana’s Democratic Governor and Republican schools chief are sparring over the state’s student-testing program and its role in evaluating school performance.

The debate was touched off by the release last month by a state panel of a review of the the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress program.

ISTEP, which is one of the most sweeping state testing programs in the nation, is given each spring to pupils in the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 6th, 8th, 9th, and 11th grades. Pupils in 1st to 8th grade who fall below state standards on the tests can be required to take summer remedial courses. (See Education Week, April 13, 1988.)

The panel, appointed by Superintendent of Public Instruction H. Dean Evans last June, indicated that ISTEP places too much emphasis on topics such as mathematical calculation and reading phonetics and too little on “a student’s grasp of the underlying curriculum.”

It proposed a five-year plan to bolster the program by developing a ''better match between ISTEP and the important proficiencies” and improving staff training.

Responding to the findings, Gov. Evan Bayh raised concern that the test does not adequately measure thinking and reasoning skills.

The Governor also voiced reservations about whether the state should proceed with a new program, backed by Mr. Evans, that offers schools cash awards for progress partially on the basis of ISTEP results.

“We’re on the verge of awarding $10 million a year on the basis of tests that the superintendent’s own advisory committee now says meet neither of the criteria established by state law,” Mr. Bayh said.

While backing the panel’s recommendations on ISTEP, however, Mr. Evans defended the program and characterized the criticisms as an attack on key elements of the A+ Program, a 1987 education-reform law he helped craft.

“This is just the beginning of what is likely to be a prolonged assault on acountability,” he said.

Joseph DiLaura, a spokesman for Mr. Evans, charged last week that the chief’s opponents were using the findings “in a political manner.”

“If they are able to cast aspersions on the testing program, they are also able to cast aspersions on the performance-awards and accreditation program,” he said.

Bayh aides denied, however, that he wants to scrap the A+ Program.

“I find it ironic that when they suggest a change, they’re refining it, but when anybody else suggests something, it’s dismantling A+,” said Representative Stanley G. Jones, Mr. Bayh’s chief education aide.

In addition to the cash-awards program, the state also began this year to implement a performance-based school-accreditation program that weighs such factors as ISTEP scores and graduation rates.

The state board of education put the program on hold last month, however, in response to public furor over a preliminary list of schools that failed, after an initial review, to qualify for accreditation.

The accountability debate intensified last week when Representa4tive B. Patrick Bauer, vice chairman of the State Budget Committee, revealed that some 20 of the 800 to 900 schools slated for performance awards had failed the initial accreditation review.

The awards had been scheduled for consideration by the budget panel the previous week, but were withdrawn from the agenda at Mr. Evans’s request, Mr. Bauer said.

Schools that failed to meet accreditation standards, Mr. Bauer argued, should not be rewarded for progress.

“I question whether [performance awards are] a valid idea, but if it’s going to be workable at all, schools should first attain basic minimal competency and then be rewarded for improvements,” he said.

But Mr. DiLaura suggested it would not be “illogical” to reward schools for progress in areas unrelated to accreditation.

“These are two different programs for two different purposes,” he said, suggesting that a school that failed to meet all safety standards, for example, could still be rewarded for improvements in attendance and ISTEP scores.

He added that a school could show sufficient academic gains to merit an award even if it fell below the level required for a school of its demographic makeup under the accreditation standards. “Mr. Evans believes a school that receives an award might use the money to focus on an area of deficiency” cited in the accreditation review, he said.

But, Representative Bauer said, “if schools are unsafe and we have to use reward money to make them safe, something is basically flawed with the way they are funded.”

In view of the ISTEP panel’s report, Governor Bayh has also “questioned whether the test results should be used” in accreditation decisions, said Nancy Cobb, his assistant for elementary and secondary education.

Mr. Evans, the state chief, maintains that the panel’s recommendations do not justify the criticism ISTEP has received. The test helps schools assess pupils’ progress and target resources, he said, adding that the panel’s recommendations, “if implemented, will improve our student-assessment efforts.”

The recommendations, which the legislature is expected to consider in the 1990 session, call for:

Improved training and the use of technology to help school staffs analyze and interpret test results;

Use of a national norm-referenced test and criterion-referenced supplements designed to match state assessment goals;

Expansion of the use of writing assessments to gauge higher-order skills, and development of a pilot test that requires pupils to perform tasks that demonstrate skills “not easily measured using a paper and pencil test"; and

Creation of procedures for teachers and administrators to comment on and evaluate the testing program.

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1989 edition of Education Week as Ind. Governor, School Chief Spar Over Test Program