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ISTEP+ gains come amid increasing accountability

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Indiana students made improvements across the board on the state's standardized test this year amid a push for more school accountability and the first state takeovers of failing schools.

Scores released Tuesday show 71 percent of the 500,000 students tested in grades three through eight passed both the language arts and math sections of the ISTEP+ exam, an improvement of 1 percentage point from last year and 8 percentage points from the 2008-09 school year. The passing rate for the math portion rose 2 percentage points to 81 percent, while 79 percent passed the language arts section, up 1 percentage point from a year ago. Students also showed improvements on the science and social studies exams.

This is the first time that more than 80 percent of students tested demonstrated proficiency on at least one of the four subjects tested, Department of Education officials said.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett said a "standing ovation" was in order for the improvements, which come as Indiana has toughened its school accountability measures. The state Board of Education voted last year for the first time to take over schools because of poor performance on the tests. Three high schools and a middle school in Indianapolis and a high school in Gary were turned over to private operators.

"I'm going to characterize today as a day of congratulations, a day of thanks and a day of challenge," Bennett said to applause from teachers, principals and a handful of students gathered in his Statehouse office. "For the third consecutive year, our state has seen an increase in student performance on our ISTEP tests."

Dickinson Fine Arts Academy in South Bend showed the most improvement of any middle school in the state. The school was placed on probation for four years and faced possible state takeover if it remained at that level for six consecutive years.

Bennett said Dickinson's performance on both the language and math ISTEP+ sections — the school improved its combined passing rate from 32.9 percent in 2011 to a 59.2 percent this year — was enough to remove it from the state's probation list.

Principal Tom Sims said the key to pulling up his school's scores was telling parents the gravity of what they faced in a state takeover of the school and helping them get more involved with their children. Improving that passing rate also required adding Saturday classes and pulling some students out of classes to place them in math and English language remediation courses, he said.

"What we did in one year, I think any urban school district can do," Sims said.

However, critics including Indiana State Teacher's Association President Nate Schnellenberger say those approaches have created a "teaching to the test" strategy that deprives students of a broad education.

"We should be developing well-rounded citizens who have at least some idea that life is more than math and science and English," Schnellenberger said. "I just think there are so many kids whose interest in school is in one of the areas that are being cut."

Indiana's school takeover law predates Bennett by almost a decade, but he has worked since then to reduce the time before a takeover can occur from six consecutive years of probation to four and expand the candidates for takeovers to include schools that score a D on their annual performance.

Bennett said people tend to resist change but contended staying the same can be more painful.

"We're human beings and we kind of like to stay the same," he said. "Accountability is not all punitive."

While the threat of a state takeover may force some schools to action, it's not a concern for most schools and districts that face little chance of ever being taken over, said Wayne Barker, superintendent of the Bluffton-Harrison Metropolitan School District in northeast Indiana.

Bluffton-Harrison MSD posted one of the state's best gains over the past year, improving its passing rate on both math and English tests by 6.9 percent. Barker took over as superintendent three years ago. He said the district has analyzed Department of Education data to see where students aren't testing well and adjusted the curriculum to fill the gaps.

"I really feel like our people are doing a great job at really diving into the data to understand where students are and what they need," Barker said. "I was hopeful we would see the results to back that up, and we did."

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