Indiana public schools needed some good news and they got it – ISTEP+ scores on the rise for the third consecutive year since the state switched to spring testing. Three years of increases can’t be dismissed as a fluke, particularly when Indiana’s non-public schools saw more than a full percentage-point decrease this year.
Students, teachers, administrators and parents deserve credit for the achievement, which comes not from the criticism, threats and budget cuts heaped on them by public-school critics, but from years of hard work. Public Law 221 was adopted in 1999, when a refreshingly bipartisan tone marked the state’s education discussions. Democratic Gov. Frank O’Bannon and GOP Superintendent of Public Instruction Suellen Reed were co-chairs of an effective and responsive Indiana Education Roundtable, and the legislature’s leaders were Republican Senate President Pro Tem Robert Garton and Democratic House Speaker John Gregg.
Indiana’s school accountability law preceded the federal No Child Left Behind law by more than two years, arguably setting the state’s public schools on a path to improvement with the support and participation of teachers, the business community, higher education representatives, parent groups and more.
It’s disingenuous to suggest today’s school improvements happened without the strong, bipartisan foundation set more than a decade ago.
The results are clearly encouraging, particularly in Fort Wayne Community Schools, where the districtwide passing rate climbed to 66.9 percent from 50.8 percent in 2009. It’s still below the 72.4 percent average passing rate for public schools statewide, but the district’s rate of improvement is more than double the statewide figure.
Any concerns about Indiana’s school performance overall should be about the academic achievement measure itself, not the scores. The high-stakes push in recent years has made standardized testing the be-all and end-all of school reform. Some observers are growing increasingly worried that emphasis on the tests is squeezing critical thinking and creativity out of U.S. classrooms. South Korea, China and Japan – nations the U.S. has been trying to emulate in test performance – are urging teachers not to focus solely on test-taking.
Students don’t only need knowledge; they have to learn how to act, to use their brains, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said in 2010. We must encourage students to think independently, freely express themselves, get them to believe in themselves, protect and stimulate their imagination and creativity.
As long as Indiana and other states chase the very model Asian nations are beginning to question, Hoosier educators have no choice but to focus on the measures demanded. They can, however, demand the same measures be applied to the competitors who are supposed to spur them to greater achievement. With more and more tax dollars flowing to charter and voucher schools, the Indiana Department of Education should offer data to compare traditional public schools with charter schools and with voucher schools. School choice is an empty promise without the tools to make the best choice.
Now, following encouraging news on school performance, public-school supporters should insist on less emphasis on a single test and more transparency in how all schools are measured.