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Teachers return to class, revamped ISTEP

– Indiana teachers are heading back to classrooms starting this week and face the daunting task of preparing students for a standardized test that’s been retooled three times since 2009.

Some teachers and district administrators worry the exam that’s still being revamped by a state contractor could be detrimental to them and their students, since performance on the high-stakes test helps determine whether teachers get a raise and how schools are graded on an A-to-F rating system.

The changes come after nearly two years of ideological and political battles over education policy between Democratic state schools chief Glenda Ritz and Republican Gov. Mike Pence’s Center for Education and Career Innovation. It could be September or later before students see example questions and the new format.

Thomas Hakim, an eighth-grade teacher and the mathematics department head at Washington Township Schools in Indianapolis, said teachers are frustrated about the uncertainty that comes with the revised test.

“What every teacher and every superintendent wants to know is how we are going to measure our students successfully. We start school in a week and we still don’t know,” he told the Indianapolis Star.

The new test will assess students’ mastery of Indiana’s newly adopted math and English benchmarks – which changed after the state dropped the national Common Core curriculum – and also will be more interactive, possibly requiring students to highlight passages of text on a computer to show how they reach certain conclusions.

The exam will be administered early next year to more than 400,000 students in third to eighth grades across Indiana. The test is being revised by CTB/McGraw-Hill, the company that created and implemented the ISTEP during the past four years under a $95 million contract that was extended June 30.

Many had anticipated a revamped ISTEP tied to teacher evaluations in the 2015-16 school year. But last month, Ritz said federal education officials told her Indiana must impose a new standardized test in the spring of 2015. Without that new test, Indiana would likely lose its waiver from the No Child Left Behind law that determines the use of some federal funding and sets benchmarks for student pass rates.

John Coopman, executive director of Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, said it’s unrealistic for adjustments not to be made to teacher and school ratings to account for the expected drop in student scores on the new test. He said that otherwise, educators could be unfairly affected.

“I have never heard a teacher, principal or superintendent talk about not wanting to be held accountable,” Coopman said. “This is a huge implementation of new standards and a new assessment and we are doing it without a phase-in.”

Deputy state superintendent Danielle Shockey said educators will soon have more details about the test. Exam blueprints are already available online; an example of the test’s interactive portion should be posted online in September.

The new type of testing will replace rote memorization and require students to grapple with complicated texts, prove answers with evidence and develop deep critical thinking skills.

William Schmidt, the co-director of the education policy center at Michigan State University, said Indiana schools should not see too much turmoil as they shift to the new standards. Indiana’s previous academic standards – English was adopted in 2006 and math in 2000 – have been ranked as some of the county’s best by the conservative Fordham Institute.

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