Questions arise over fairness of ISTEP+ tests

(WTHR file photo)

There are new and serious questions about the fairness Indiana's high stakes and controversial ISTEP+ exams.

From what State Board of Education members are learning, all the tests may not have been created equal. The ISTEP+ math test students took with pencils and paper may have been easier than the one students were given online.

Board members who raised suspicions months ago had them confirmed Wednesday night as they prepared for Thursday's meeting. As board members compared notes and listened to their own testing experts, vice chairperson Sarah O'Brien spoke up.

"I feel we need more information on this," she said.

A draft report from testing company CTB found possible discrepancies. The revelation came just as the State Board of Education prepared to set passing and failing scores on exams affecting 400,000 students, their teachers and schools.

"As a parent and a teacher, I get the importance of why we need to get these assessments, but we have an obligation to get it right," O'Brien told reporters. 

CTB and the board's independent experts will examine the tests to determine whether one is more difficult than the other. Pass/fail scores are on hold. 

Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz sounded confident.

"So we are going to step back, make sure it all gets resolved, try to stay on our time schedule," she explained.

In the spring, students took a new version of ISTEP+. It was written to Indiana's new, more rigorous, education standards. That, on top of grading problems, have already delayed test results by six months. Information teachers typically rely on to help students learn won't be available until this school year is half over.

"At this point, we are getting them so delayed that we have students that are not getting fine-tuned adjustments to their education," O'Brien said. 

One board member called it "another self-inflicted wound" for a test that's had so many problems, many educators question whether the results, no matter how long they take, can be trusted. Although O'Brien said she trusts the test results, she conceded, "It is no question to anyone in the state of Indiana, that we are in a position these teats are not necessarily seen as credible."

Credibility is a significant issue. 

Results, when they are released, will assess student learning.  But test scores and pass/fail rates are factors in determining teacher evaluations and compensation. The state uses the scores to assign A through F grades to individual schools as well as entire school systems. There is a lot at stake for teachers, schools and communities.