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ILEARN scores are expected to be low. Holcomb, McCormick don’t want that to hurt teacher pay, school grades.

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ILEARN scores are expected to be low. Holcomb, McCormick don’t want that to hurt teacher pay, school grades.

Photo: Alan Petersime

With the scores for Indiana’s new standardized test expected to be low, state officials fear that what was supposed to be a more reliable measure of student, teacher and school performance may prove meaningless.

ILEARN scores are said to be low across the state in both English and math. As a result, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb is asking legislators to pass a “hold harmless” exemption, which would protect schools and teachers from being negatively affected.

Such a move undercuts the test’s role as an accountability metric for the state. It could also fuel the debate over whether the test is a useful measure of student achievement, especially if it isn’t comparable year-over-year.

The 2019 ILEARN results are slated to be made public Sept. 4, but concern over the impact of the new standardized test has been building since schools received their scores earlier this month. The state’s A-F school grading system and individual teacher evaluations weigh test scores heavily.

The first public call for a “hold harmless” legislation was an op-ed written by three Indiana superintendents. Those educators told Chalkbeat that teachers and administrators were largely surprised by how few students passed.

“We had principals literally in tears in my district when they started reviewing these scores,” said Tippecanoe Schools Superintendent Scott Hanback.

Then referring to a principal in his district, Hanback said, “He was anticipating with high hopes the scores on the new ILEARN, and it’s not going to look good, and he feels frustrated and he feels dejected. He was fearing conversations with teachers.”

Wayne Township Schools Superintendent Jeff Butts said that in some grades his district saw a 30 percent drop in the number of students who were passing compared to last year, when students in grades 3-8 students took ISTEP.

What about ILEARN caused low scores

ILEARN was administered for the first time this spring and is the state’s replacement for ISTEP, which was frequently criticized for being too long and fraught with technological issues.

In anticipation of low scores, Holcomb on Monday asked lawmakers to protect their effect on schools’ 2019 A-F grades and teacher evaluations. State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick also released a statement in support of a “hold harmless” exemption, confirming that scores will show lower achievement levels across the state in both English/language arts and math.

McCormick pointed to a few factors that caused the low scores in her statement, including the test’s new focus on college and career readiness, and where the state set cut scores that determine if a student passes or fails.

Lafayette Schools Superintendent Les Huddle, who co-wrote the op-ed with Hanback and West Lafayette Community Schools Superintendent Rocky Killion, told Chalkbeat that although the state’s academic standards haven’t changed, the test covered some “new information that has hardly been seen by students and teachers, and I think that’s unfair.”

All three superintendents also pointed to ILEARN’s format as a challenge. Unlike ISTEP, it is computer-adaptive, meaning it gives students more difficult questions as they answer correctly and easier questions as they answer incorrectly.

In a letter to schools sent last week, the state department of education said this new technology allows the test to measure standards that weren’t previously measured. The idea is to more thoroughly test their mastery of a subject, but it’s a format students may not be familiar with.

“[Teachers] saw some frustration in students,” Huddle said. “It became, ‘How quick can I click?’”

Butts said Wayne Township also ran into problems with accommodations that were supposed to be available to English language learners and students with special needs. He said the practice test was never available in Spanish, for example, and closed captioning wasn’t working for students who need hearing assistance.

Butts also said fewer students requested a rescore of the subjective portions of the test, like essay sections, because the window to do so opened before they knew if they passed or failed. Typically the district has a handful of students ask for a rescore, but didn’t have any this year.

Considering a ‘hold harmless’

Without a “hold harmless” teacher pay could be affected by lower scores. Schools are waiting for finalized scores in order to finish their 2018-19 teacher evaluations, which will be used to determine who qualifies for a raise or, subsequently, the state’s Teacher Appreciation grant. And any pay change negotiated this fall would be retroactive to the beginning of the school year.

The state has approved a hold-harmless exception for schools before. Scores sank after a new version of ISTEP, based on more rigorous academic standards, was introduced in 2015. In response, lawmakers passed legislation that prevented schools from receiving A-F letter grades that year that were lower than the ones they received the year before.

Scores for 2019 will drop even more significantly than they did in 2015, Killion said.

In their statement’s Monday morning, some lawmakers said they expected a transition period as students acclimate to the new test. But the General Assembly did not put any “hold harmless” exceptions in place preemptively.

Senate education leader Jeff Raatz, House Speaker Brian Bosma, and Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray joined Holcomb in releasing statements Monday morning in favor of a one-year hold harmless provision.

“I believe in our teachers and schools and know they are working hard to benefit our kids,” Bray said.

House education committee chair Rep. Bob Behning said legislators are taking a “hard look at our overall state accountability system,” but stopped short of explicitly calling for a hold harmless exception.

“While these results are not the ones we had hoped for, the value of Hoosier students and teachers is not defined by test scores, but by the learning being accomplished in the classroom,” he said.

In addition to the requested hold harmless this year, superintendents Huddle, Hanback and Killion said they’d like to see the state move away from this kind of standardized testing. All three leaders said they get more useful data from formative tests, which are taken throughout the year to track students’ growth. Typically by the time teachers see their students’ standardized test scores, those students have already moved to the next grade.

“If we want to produce letter grades that are appealing to the state then we could drop science and social studies and social skills,” Hanback said. “We could focus on making good test-takers, but I don’t believe that’s our objective.”

Federal law requires that states give yearly math and English/language arts exams to all students in grades 3-8 and high school.

Beginning in 2020, schools will be able to get preliminary score reports from ILEARN tests within 12 days of students completing the exams, according to the department of education.

For now, superintendents encourage parents to talk directly with their child’s teacher to get a sense for how they are doing, and how well the school is preparing them academically.

“I don’t think the shift to ILEARN was a bad thing,” Hanback said. “I would much rather have the technological ability that we have. But I also believe that … we need to be understanding that there is a transition period and with that period comes some unanticipated consequences.”

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