By Louis Wyatt
FORT WAYNE — The superintendents of Allen County’s four school districts weren’t surprised to find that less than 40% of Indiana’s students passed the new ILEARN standardized test last spring — a significant drop in performance numbers from last year’s ISTEP+ results. However, much like ISTEP+, which has been phased out, district leaders don’t believe ILEARN is an accurate representation of the hard work and proficiency of their students and educators.
“We know what the standards are, we know the environments we have to create, and we don’t believe that the ILEARN test adequately reflects that any more than the old ISTEP test did,” Fort Wayne Community Schools Superintendent Wendy Robinson said.
The Indiana Department of Education released the first ILEARN results Sept. 4, deeming only 49.7% percent of students in grades 3 through 8 proficient in language arts and only 47.8% proficient in math. Only 37.1% of students passed both, compared to the 50.7% of students that passed the ISTEP+ test last year.
Less than 50% of students in each of Allen County’s school districts tested proficient in math and English. Northwest Allen County Schools had the highest amount of passing students at 47.5%, followed by Southwest Allen (41.6%), East Allen (38%) and Fort Wayne Community Schools (25%).
The same day the test results were released, Allen County’s four district superintendents gave a press conference at the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, highlighting what they believe to be a misguided attempt at holding schools accountable.
East Allen County Schools Superintendent Marilyn Hissong stressed the need to question current accountability methods and put pressure on policymakers to listen to input from public schools, as well as building stronger relationships between schools and businesses to develop individualized talent rather than focusing on boilerplate curriculum.
“We are here because we need to take a look at the amount of testing and the purpose of testing that is facing our students,” Hissong said.
Standardized testing in Indiana dates back to 1987 and was initially intended as a means to “provide information about student learning,” Northwest Allen County Schools Superintendent Chris Himsel said. That all changed in 1999, when the General Assembly passed Public Law 221, which created a performance-based accountability system, “and the seeds were sewn for creating why we’re here today, which is purely misusing tests and getting away from using tests for informative purposes to help classroom teachers but more about judging individuals — and standardized tests were never about that,” Himsel said.
The creation of ILEARN was the sixth time the state-mandated test, the standards tested or the company administering the test have changed since 2009. Each change has also shifted the score required to pass, causing a decrease in the percentage of students earning a passing score each year over the past decade.
“Each time the change occurs with our test scores, we increase the number of kids who are labeled by our state as failing, and we also narrow the curriculum because teachers feel more and more pressure to teach what is on that test even though it is a moving target,” Himsel said.
Narrowing that focus has placed more emphasis on math and reading skills rather than developing the talent sought by local businesses, Himsel said. Instead of focusing on testing standards, schools should be working with local business leaders to identify their needs, and equip students with the skills to fit those needs, Himsel said.
“The conversations that I had with these different individuals throughout our community led to us having a computer science program at Carroll High School,” Himsel offered as an example. “We would not have a computer science program if I did not have interactions periodically with business leaders to know that we need talent in this area to sustain ourselves.”
Southwest Allen County Schools Superintendent Phil Downs stressed the importance of focusing on those needs as well, urging lawmakers to give public school employees a more prominent role in the discussion of accountability systems.
“There is a wealth of knowledge across the state as to the diversity of districts, the diversity of children and the diversity of families,” Downs said. “That expertise should be brought to the table in a prominent way to help craft accountability systems — to recognize individual communities, individual families and work toward the greater good in Indiana rather than dividing and ranking schools.”
As a temporary safeguard for schools, the State Board of Education approved a resolution Sept. 4 to delay the issuance of A-F accountability grades to prevent schools and teachers — whose evaluations and bonuses are affected by the scores — from being penalized for the test results until legislators make a change in the law.
Downs thanked Gov. Eric Holcomb and state legislators for their “hold harmless” effort, but described it as only a temporary fix.
“We use multiple assessments to measure the growth of our students, and ILEARN is one of the measures,” Hissong said in a news release. “We will continue to teach students and prepare them for their future, whether it is college and career or other opportunities. While assessments are part of the educational process, so is educating the whole child and meeting his or her specific needs.”