Business and Economics

Grading I-STEP Exams Under Scrutiny

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By a new state mandate, more than 90-percent of Indiana schools are administering the ISTEP to third through eighth graders this year online.   That means most of the state’s schools felt the effects of the testing company computer malfunction that ground exams to a halt last week.  But as StateImpact Indiana’s Kyle Stokes reports, local school officials say the challenges of giving statewide tests online aren’t just technical — they’re logistical:

Consider the way most Indiana students used to take the ISTEP:

Gruetzmacher: “Doing the paper and pencil is really easy. If we did paper and pencil, we’d be done in two days.”

Principal Brett Gruetzmacher says, with online testing, it’ll take his students at Lafayette’s Tecumseh Middle School two weeks to finish their ISTEPs – that’s including last week’s delays.  It took six staff members twice that much time to sort out the testing schedule.

Gruetzmacher: “This isn’t something you just throw together in a weekend.”

It’s Monday, the day before Tecumseh starts testing – and Gruetzmacher knows about the problems other schools are seeing.  But his staff doesn’t have a lot of time to worry about whether the problems would persist into Tuesday.

(Keys getting into lab)

Gruetzmacher unlocks one of the five computer labs his staff is setting up for the tests. Tecumseh media specialist Dave Hobbs is hunched over rows of computers – and to test the school’s 1,000 students, Hobbs needed a lot of them:

Hobbs: “I’ve begged, borrowed, and stole 250 computers to do it – borrowed from other schools. But you do the math. You’ve really gotta be on a tight schedule to make that work.”

Tight, as in down to the minute.  Hobbs spent Monday navigating each computer to the ISTEP website’s login screen.  This only takes three or four minutes per machine, but Hobbs does it for all 250 computers – any little thing he can do to make sure tests happen on time:

(Gruetzmacher: “Good afternoon Tecumseh, can I have your attention please for the afternoon announcements.”

They may be tedious preparations, but they allow students to keep their regular daily schedules… and Gruetzmacher can tell them – we’ve got you covered:

( “You do not need to bring anything to testing, we will have scratch paper, we will have pencils, we’ll have the calculators – whatever you need.” )

Gruetzmacher says he doesn’t mind online testing – the setup simply costs money and manpower.  And it only takes one snafu for the entire plan to unravel.

(“See you guys back here tomorrow, all ready to take ISTEP.” Phone click)

That was last Monday.  After a day of delays, the state gave t he go-ahead for all schools to test on Tuesday – Tecumseh’s first day of testing.  Things went fine… until about 11 a.m. – more server problems at testing company CTB/McGraw Hill.  At Tecumseh, students simply couldn’t log in to their tests… Other schools reported the testing website locked students out during the exam… CTB officials say the testing website saved students’ place on the test.  But some school district officials dispute that – and some think the damage of last week’s delays is already irreparable.  West Lafayette superintendent Rocky Killion to say the state has to invalidate this year’s ISTEP results:

Killion: “If you have some students that are being interrupted time and time again, and some students that aren’t being interrupted, to me, that’s a validity issue with regards to being able to make accurate comparisons – not only across grade levels, but across school districts in the state.”

Ritz: “Our first goal is to just get through the testing window.”

But state superintendent Glenda Ritz says after that, state education officials will review data from the testing company to figure out which student’s test results are valid.

Ritz: “We’ll be meeting with CTB, we’ll be talking about validity of the questions. That is a prime concern. It is a very high stakes test in Indiana.”

The ISTEP is the backbone of the state’s letter grading formula for schools and the system local districts must use to set teacher pay.  Ritz said she’ll revisit CTB’s $95 million contract with the state.  A CTB spokesperson offered an apology in a written statement last week.  “We understand just how disruptive and frustrating these interruptions have been.  The interruptions are not acceptable to the students and educators of Indiana, or to CTB/McGraw Hill.”  For StateImpact Indiana, I’m Kyle Stokes.

You can read the state’s full contract with the testing company at stateimpactindiana.org.

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