ISTEP troubles show test considered too big to fail

The failure of Indiana's online standardized test last week showed that the ISTEP+ exam is too big to fail, on many levels.

Beyond the obvious and critical role it plays in determining how children advance in school, the test has more recently become a barometer for whether teachers get pay increases and whether schools are making the grade. The successful completion of the test also determines whether education mega-contractor CTB/McGraw-Hill gets all the money it seeks from the state.

Incoming Indiana State Teachers Association President Teresa Meredith said that makes ISTEP+ "intensely high-stakes" testing.

With so many things at stake, it's not surprising that McGraw-Hill and state schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz would make their first focus after last week's testing disruptions getting the testing back on track. Determining who should be held accountable—and what to do about the scores on tests that were affected—will come later.

"Our first goal is to get through the actual testing window and to make sure all students are taking the test," Ritz said following a Wednesday meeting of the state school board. DOE spokesman Daniel Altman said later that Ritz is considering hiring a third party to review the validity of the test scores but said the department's first goal was completing the test.

Indeed, by the start of this week, state schools are expected to begin testing 100 percent of the students they had planned on before the system collapse.

But the question of who will be held accountable still weighs heavily on parents of the children whose tests were stalled, among many others.

Don Current, a 42-year-old web designer from Shelbyville, said he was frustrated by the experience. His twin sons attend Loper Elementary School, where the one-hour test period stretched to two hours Monday. Students weren't allowed to leave to go to the bathroom and their lunch was delayed an hour.

"Somehow, they should be held accountable for what they're being paid to do," he said of CTB/McGraw-Hill.

Many educators have reported students in tears as computers froze or logged them off repeatedly during the exam. That frustration has many school officials wondering whether the results will accurately reflect students' knowledge.

Under the most recent contract, a four-year deal worth more than $95 million, the state could fine McGraw Hill $50,000 for each day last week the test was down. The contract allows for fines of up to $250,000 per day, but only if the troubles persist more than 10 days in a row.

"From my stance, it's almost a breach of contract," said Tony Walker, a school board member representing Gary said during a hearing on the troubles.

State lawmakers tied ISTEP+ test scores to merit pay for teachers in 2011 and reaffirmed this year that schools would be judged based on how their students test, sticking to a grading system for schools and starting a program that pays schools on how they score.

All of those answers depend on what the state and McGraw-Hill decides are the most accurate results. In 2011, up to 10,000 students statewide were logged off and some were unable to log back in for up to an hour while taking the test. The state invalidated 215 scores that year because they were lower than expected.

Perhaps the clearest determinant will be whether the state decides that the tests completed during the system problems are valid. Many school officials have questioned the validity of the scores given the problems, and ISTA has demanded assurance that teachers' pay won't be adversely affected by scores lowered because of the testing glitches.

BJ Watts, a school board member representing Evansville, encapsulated the state's dilemma when he said the data might not be good, but it's also impossible to move forward without some sort of testing data.

"I don't necessarily think that you can toss it out, but I think there has to be some realization and some understanding that it's a little tainted," he said.

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