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Missed days test limits of education


Roger Thornton was an assistant superintendent at Rochester School Corp. when the Blizzard of ’78 struck. Snowdrifts as high as 20 feet shut down travel in the days and weeks that followed, with Indiana schools recording snow days in the double digits. The lost instructional days weren’t unlike what administrators face today after weeks of snow, ice and sub-zero temperatures.

What is different is the threat of damaging consequences from missed classroom time. Accountability requirements tied to standardized tests have created a balancing act easily toppled by something as simple as Indiana weather, with disastrous effects for students, teachers and schools.

Thornton points out that no make-up days were required in 1978. But teachers and administrators weren’t facing high-stakes ISTEP+ tests or end-of-course assessments in those days. Schools whose classes have been canceled for as many as 16 days, such as Blackford County Schools, have already missed as much as one-twelfth of the school year. Two-hour delays add another 24 hours of lost instructional time for the district. Those hours are irreplaceable in covering academic standards measured on the elementary- and middle-school level ISTEP+ and end-of-course tests administered by high schools.

“No one can argue that missing 16 days of school isn’t a problem,” said Thornton, a 40-year educator and Bluffton resident. “Seat time under the instruction of a highly competent teacher is invaluable. I don’t have a lot of argument with the make-up days, but we need some creative help with how to do it.”

While state officials are offering some flexibility in extending the length of the school day or year, there’s no way to make up for lost hours before ISTEP+ testing must begin. The State Board of Education voted this month to extend the testing window for the first section of the test to March 21, seven days beyond its original close. The punitive IREAD-3 test, which determines whether third-graders can be promoted to fourth grade, was extended just two days.

“There’s nothing sacrosanct about the dates ISTEP has to be offered,” said Thornton, former director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents. “The testing company might find that cumbersome, but wouldn’t it be nice to put the students first?”

Testing schedules, in fact, are carefully designed to allow for grading and reporting scores that are used to determine whether students can transfer to a private school with a taxpayer-supported voucher. The havoc created last year when testing vendor CTB/McGraw-Hill’s computer system failed revealed how tightly the accountability web is woven.

Republican officials used the testing meltdown to heap more blame on Democrat Glenda Ritz, superintendent of public instruction, for delays in releasing school letter grades. The grades, in turn, are used in teacher evaluations and to award raises.

The end-game is just what the so-called reformers sought in calling for unreasonable demands on schools: Frustrated parents, teachers and administrators blaming one another for problems none of them created.

Untangling the mess created by Indiana’s damaging education policy won’t be easy, but it must be done. Voters can help by insisting lawmakers reconsider the high-stakes accountability demands – this time with Indiana students, not testing companies and voucher expansion, as its focus.