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Is Indiana’s troubled state ISTEP test a ‘broken thermometer?’

Student testing can be a tool for diagnosing problems in schools — just as thermometers help doctors diagnose their patients.

But at a forum last night on the future of testing in Indiana, critics noted that a bad test — like a bad thermometer — is useless.

“You wouldn’t want to use a broken thermometer,” Chad Michalek, Assessment Director for Washington Township, told the about 70 teachers, educators and community members who assembled for the testing discussion hosted by Chalkbeat Indiana, WFYI Public Media and the Indianapolis Public Library.

Michalek’s comment drew laughs from the crowd, and none of the other panelists disagreed even as the panel featured leaders such as Cynthia Roach, director of assessment for the Indiana State Board of Education, and Sen. Pete Miller, R-Avon — who argue that state tests are necessary and valuable.

After years of turmoil over the development and administration of Indiana’s ISTEP exam, the whole idea of state testing has become relatively unpopular. Indiana lawmakers voted this year to eliminate ISTEP but exactly what will replace that exam is still unclear.

Even speakers who defended the importance of continuing to test students annually supported plans to reduce the stakes and to use test scores in concert with other measures to assess schools and teachers.

“As long as they are kept small scale and low stakes, it is helpful for parents and teachers and students to have that information,” said Miller, a member of the Senate Education Committee. “We just want to know what they know and what they don’t know.”

But some of the panelists challenged the idea that state tests offer educators any additional, useful information.

“There are so many ways that teachers informally measure their students in their classrooms,” said Danielle Shockey, Indiana’s Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction. “Teachers have every single thing they need to adjust their instruction for their students without an ISTEP test.”

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which is set to take effect in 2017, offers states more flexibility in how they test students. But Indiana must continue to administer annual state exams that measure student achievement.

What the new test that replaces ISTEP might look like is an open question that’s now being reviewed by a panel of educators, lawmakers and experts who will make recommendations to the state for new testing options later this year.

While speakers at last night’s event generally agreed that testing in Indiana has been plagued with problems, there was little clarity on the best approach going forward — or even which approaches would meet new federal guidelines.

Michalek endorsed an idea that’s been floated by state Superintendent Glenda Ritz: giving shorter state tests several times a year that add up to a final score. Changes in federal law, he said, might allow Indiana to create such a system.

“We can set up a testing system that we want,” he said “The focus should be on quick assessment that gives teachers results that they can use in the classroom. That’s what the assessment should be about.”

But Roach said the problem with meeting the widespread demand for shorter tests is that it requires trade-offs that might diminish the value of the information teachers get back.

“The only way to do it really quickly is purely online with no applied skills like essays,” she said. “It takes humans to score and that takes more time.”

A test without longer written responses, she said, also probably wouldn’t meet the state’s needs based on what it expects kids to know and to be able to do.

“If we move away from that, we have a misalignment with our standards,” Roach said. “We have to have assessments that are well aligned to our standards. I don’t know how to make those two things work together. I really don’t. It is a Catch-22 we are kind of in.”