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Could new plans to adapt a test teachers love work for Indiana?

Alan Petersime

Indiana educators who want the state to consider replacing ISTEP with an exam that would give teachers immediate feedback about their students might have new reason to be optimistic.

Chalkbeat reported last week that teachers have called on the state to use something like the popular MAP test, which is beloved by teachers for providing real-time information about what students know. At the time, the company that makes the test said MAP isn’t designed to meet testing requirements demanded for federal accountability and Indiana law.

Now, however, the Oregon-based testing company that makes MAP says it’s looking for a way to respond to demand from states like Indiana that have school accountability systems that require a single yearly score to indicate which kids are performing at grade level.

“Our state assessment experts will work with states to understand their goals and devise full solutions to meet those needs,” Jason Mendenhall, the senior vice president of strategic solutions for the testing company, the Northwest Evaluation Association, wrote in an email.

The email said NWEA will soon be creating a new division to work specifically with states to create tests and accountability systems that both meet state and federal education guidelines and encompass aspects of MAP — Measure of Academic Progress — that teachers say they like.

The MAP, which is typically given three times a year, not only gives immediate results that can help guide instruction, teachers say, it also takes less time to administer than year-end comprehensive exams like ISTEP.

Plans to adapt to state accountability systems like Indiana’s had been in the works for some time, Mendenhall said in the email, but the company decided to announce it sooner than originally planned in response to questions raised by Indiana educators after Chalkbeat reported on the issue.

It’s not clear yet what the new NWEA tests will look like or how the company will manage to create a test that both meets Indiana testing and accountability requirements and works well as a teaching tool.

The NWEA initiative bears some resemblance to a vision for Indiana’s testing program that came up today during the second meeting of the state’s ISTEP replacement panel.

The committee, charged with choosing a new suite of tests for Indiana schools once ISTEP ends in 2017, convened at the state capitol Tuesday morning. Some educators and administrators spoke in favor of a “computer adaptive” testing system that measures how students improve over the course of a year, which is how MAP currently works.

“(Teachers) want a growth model, and they want it short and sweet,” said Roncalli High School Principal Chuck Weisenbach.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz said she thinks new flexibility under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act would allow Indiana to move away from a pass/fail test and toward a MAP-like exam. Ritz said she thinks such a test could be modified to include parts that can measure students according to grade level, too.

“When the federal government gave the states, so to speak, the rights to use a computer adaptive test, I think they really did have in mind that you don’t have to have a pass/fail approach,” Ritz said.

Ritz’s vision, however, is likely to meet resistance from other members of the committee including House Education Committee Chairman Bob Behning and the panel’s chairwoman, Indianapolis Public School 93 Principal Nicole Fama.

Most members of the ISTEP panel were appointed by Gov. Mike Pence and the GOP leaders of the state legislature who have long supported high-stakes testing in schools.

Behning, Fama and other policymakers say they are more likely to support an exam that’s more similar to the current ISTEP in how it is administered once a year and measures where students perform within grade level expectations.

“At the end of the day, we have to come up with something that assesses (students) on grade level,” Fama said.

Behning also said he worried that using MAP-like tests that are given on computers could create issues for schools with fewer computers or less updated technology systems.

When the conversation ended Tuesday afternoon, there wasn’t a clear way forward. Parts of the panel’s conversations were very premature, some members said — It’s pointless to try to figure out test specifics before there’s a solid understanding what the test should be for.

At the group’s last meeting, discussion focused on the purpose of state exams. Experts said tests could be designed to determine whether students have improved from one year to the next, evaluate teachers or help rank schools and districts.

But they cautioned that a test that tries to do everything at once would be quite long.

Today, teachers and principals seemed against taking on too much with one test and instead urged the panel to remember that their charge involves more than coming up with a single new state test.

“I’m just concerned we’re getting (too much) into the details,” said Wendy Robinson, superintendent of Fort Wayne Schools. “Teachers don’t know any more what the state is expecting … We have a broken test that is being used like it’s a system, and it’s not.”

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