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Why the IPS superintendent isn’t worried that test scores are down

Meghan Mangrum

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee has this message for IPS parents who are worried about test scores: Don’t trust the numbers.

The ISTEP scores released last week show the percentage of IPS students passing the state exam declined for a second straight year, but Ferebee said he has little faith in the scores.

That’s because testing in Indiana has gone through so much turmoil in recent years that he says the scores cannot be compared from one year to the next.

“It’s not fuji apple to fuji apple,” he said. “It is very unfair to try to make that comparison.”

Though scores fell across the state, IPS saw more significant declines than the average Indiana district. However, dozens of other districts, including Washington and Warren townships, saw more precipitous declines.

The low scores for IPS were made harder to swallow by the fact that even some of the district’s top schools saw drops in scores. The dip ignited a firestorm of criticism online in part because the scores were released the same day IPS board awarded Ferebee a $26,999 bonus.

The bonus was not connected to test scores and was based on previously agreed upon criteria.

Ferebee is not alone in his criticism of ISTEP. After years of testing turmoil as the state changed standards and switched test makers, many school leaders, policymakers and observers have concluded the ISTEP is simply broken.

But Ferebee was hired three years ago on a promise to turn things around in the struggling district. Test scores are one of the clearest ways to determine whether changes he’s made such as partnering with charter schools and recruiting new leaders are bearing fruit.

With those scores on the decline, it’s no surprise that Ferebee would take issue with them but he argued the fact that schools across the state saw a second year of declines shows the new test is out of sync with typical exams.

“When you see a drop in the second year, that tells you that something is wrong,” he said. “If it was unique to one or two school districts, that’s understandable. It’s just a few districts being impacted. But it’s statewide issue.”

Although passing rates dropped in the district, unreleased, early data the district provided about its A-F score suggests that students are making improvements on the test.

Ferebee argues those growth scores are a more useful measure of student learning.

“I’ve said since the onset as we looked at our accountability model that a year’s growth annually is the expectation for all students,” he said. “Given that philosophy and that lens, I believe growth data is a better indicator of school success.”

Indiana has been going through testing turmoil throughout Ferebee’s tenure as superintendent. During his first year leading the district, when the state used an older version of ISTEP, scores increased slightly and the number of schools receiving Fs on the state accountability scale were cut by a third. Those are improvements district leaders have touted, and Ferebee said he has more faith in that earlier version of the test because it was more consistent.

When he arrived, Indiana had adopted the Common Core State Standards and was preparing to switch to the PARCC exam, a national test aligned with the standards. But the state legislature pulled out of the Common Core State Standards in 2014, and the state education department rushed to develop a replacement test.

That new, harder test was plagued by problems and student scores plummeted. But eventually lawmakers concluded the results would be good enough to set a baseline for future years. Although the state switched to a new vendor in 2016, the tests were designed to be comparable and there were few widespread issues with administration or scoring.

Still, the new version of ISTEP has proven so unpopular that lawmakers are aiming to replace it with yet another new test.

Ferebee said that as the state looks for a new exam, he hopes lawmakers find an option that can be used to give teachers feedback on what students know rather than the current system where teachers don’t learn how their students are doing until long after it’s too late to help them. He also said that if the test is used to measure teacher effectiveness, the focus should be on student growth.

“If a teacher has a classroom of students that were academically advanced, and you are basing it on proficiency, that teacher already has a leg up,” he said. “If you are basing it on growth, that can give more insight.”

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