EDITORIAL: Testing, testing ISTEP+ replacement troubles continue

Journal Gazette |

A new name, a new company and a new focus for academic assessment in Indiana schools. Could the state finally have turned the corner on its standardized testing troubles?

Not yet. An unsuccessful bidder is crying foul over the state's award of a three-year, $43.5 million contract to the American Institutes for Research. Data Recognition Corp. claims the state's assessment director, Charity Flores, had a conflict of interest. Between posts at the Indiana Department of Education, Flores was deputy director of content for Smarter Balanced, a partner to the winning vendor.

Chalkbeat Indiana reports that Data Recognition Corp. has protested the Indiana Department of Administration contract award, also challenging its validity on the grounds it violates the state's prohibition on use of Common Core State Standards. Smarter Balanced is a state-led consortium created to develop the tests aligned to the Common Core standards. AIR serves as the testing platform for questions developed by the consortium.

The charges offer more evidence of a testing culture gone awry, with entanglements in the so-called "education reform" community compromising well-intentioned efforts to ensure school accountability. The time and money involved are growing along with the frustration for educators.

The announcement last week of AIR's selection to create, implement and score the new ILEARN test looked like a fresh start for Indiana schools, which have struggled year after year with the problem-plagued ISTEP+. ILEARN, which stands for Indiana's Learning Evaluation Readiness Network, will replace ISTEP+ and promises to give teachers and schools a more effective tool for assessing students in grades three through eight. AIR also will create a new IREAD-3 test, the reading test third-graders must pass to advance to grade 4. An Indiana Department of Education spokesman told Chalkbeat the state's Office of Inspector General was advised of Flores' connection to Smarter Balanced, but no disclosure filings appear on the inspector general's website.

With millions of tax dollars in play, there's nothing simple about student testing. Only a handful of vendors are up to the task of creating and then administering and scoring hundreds of thousands of assess-ments simultaneously. But the state saw problems with both McGraw-Hill and Pearson, its previous test vendors.

Indiana doesn't have the option of eliminating testing because the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, the replacement for No Child Left Behind, requires a statewide assessment. Nor would it <i>want</i> to eliminate testing, which serves as a check on school performance. But there's tremendous flexibility with ESSA: States don't have to administer a major summative test each spring - they can use smaller interim assessments and also evaluate students through portfolios or projects.

Indiana chose to stick closer to the ISTEP+ model, however, and is likely to see its test troubles continue. Until the General Assembly, the muscle behind the testing juggernaut, accepts that assessments should be used to guide instruction instead of as a costly tool to measure and rank schools, the testing intrigue and infighting will continue.

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