I’ve Got 99 Problems and ISTEP Testing is One

As a teacher, I take a great interest in the latest happenings in education. I have been fairly vocal about my skepticism of standardized testing and the notion that high test scores equate true learning and knowledge. My experiences with giving students clunky multiple choice scantron tests has also made me fairly jaded about public education’s focus on testing history students on their memorization of “facts” from textbooks, when the focus should be on challenging students to construct and defend their own arguments around primary source evidence.

In Indiana, the ISTEP test is the big kahuna. Schools, administrators, teachers, and students are graded based on the outcomes of these tests. I can only laugh, however, because the company that was contracted to administer the test, CTB/McGraw Hill, has actually been the group failing. For the third year in a row, their technology has had serious malfunctions as roughly half of all Indiana students taking the ISTEP were prevented from logging in and actually taking it. This is bad considering that CTB/McGraw Hill has a healthy four year, $95 million dollar contract with the Indiana Department of Education. Erika D. Smith of the Indianapolis Star had this to say about the fiasco:

There’s simply too much riding on the results of the ISTEP exam to keep having these kinds of glitches. Standardized tests have become the litmus test for all things education. That means students’ scores are used not only to evaluate their skills but also the performance of teachers, schools and entire districts. Imagine if you were a student in Indianapolis Public Schools, an urban district that’s been harshly criticized in recent years for turning out lousy test scores. Imagine how much pressure you would be under as a student sitting down in a computer lab to take that test on Monday and then getting unexpectedly booted off the system, not knowing if your scores had been recorded correctly or not. (CTB/McGraw-Hill insists no data was lost.) And then imagine the same thing happening on Tuesday. And then having to come in on Wednesday to try to do it all over again. 

Or imagine that you are a teacher at IPS. You would know that your competency, in part, is being judged on the competency of your students. You could lose your job if your students don’t perform at their best. Or imagine you’re an administrator. You have to take responsibility for the performance of everyone in your school. If students get nervous and bomb the test because they’ve been waiting for days to take it, your job is at stake, too.

Perhaps it’s time to rethink this strategy. Perhaps it’s CTB/McGraw-Hill, not students, that should be tested for competency.

McGraw Hill is the largest distributor of standardized tests in the United States. They’ve also given financial contributions to politicians like George W. Bush and Tony Bennett, former Superintendent of Public Instruction in Indiana. Here’s the contract between McGraw Hill and the Indiana DOE, which could possibly be voided after these continued malfunctions.

Speaking for myself only, I believe that testing (or measurements of assessment for those who like fancy pedagogical terms) can be an effective way of ensuring that students understand the content being taught in class, but the forms, functions, and types of questions we ask in those assessments are critical to ensuring that those tests are effective. I just don’t see how standardized assessments that focus on rote memorization are effective for our students, nor does it make any sense to me how outsourcing these tests away from the actual teachers is the best method for creating good assessments.