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July 2, 2013

OUR VIEW: ISTEP test needs less weight

The Indiana Department of Education wants $614,000 in damages from CTB/McGraw-Hill, after server failures disrupted the online administration of ISTEP tests across the state.

“Overwhelmed” servers kicked off students in Oklahoma and Indiana over a two-day period in April, McGraw-Hill executives told state legislators. Company president Ellen Haley said her technicians couldn’t anticipate the demand on equipment.

Many lawmakers and educators are reacting to the ISTEP failures with indignation. But some self-reflection is warranted.

If students weren’t taking the test all at once, McGraw-Hill servers wouldn’t have crashed. Yet students were taking the test all at once because of past cheating scandals.

In 2011, the number of investigations into ISTEP testing irregularities increased to 19, according to The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne. Among those irregularities was the ISTEP test’s biggest breach ever, when an eighth-grade essay question was posted on Facebook. More than 80,000 students around the state had their results on that item tossed out in a case that involved teachers in three districts.

In other cases, teachers were accused of using live test items to practice with students, of creating practice problems that matched test questions, of teaching lessons specifically geared to those questions and of telling students to change their answers.

An analysis of the 2011 tests showed almost 4 percent of the state’s schools were flagged for having at least one classroom with an excessive number of answers that had been changed from wrong to right. In all, about 90 of the state’s 2,400 schools were sent notices about suspicious test results.

Clearly, the pressure for students to do well on the test has gotten to some teachers. After all, the test scores can now influence not only a school’s reputation but a teacher’s paycheck, a school district’s graduation rate and its overall state funding. Consistently bad scores can even lead the state to step in and take over a struggling school.

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