Smith: Republicans’ “hold harmless” plan doesn’t solve testing problems

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INDIANAPOLIS - Indiana State Rep. Vernon G. Smith (D-Gary), ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee, recently released the following column for publication:

Unfortunately, it’s not news when I say that teachers and students in Indiana are overwhelmed. They are under immense pressure to perform due to the high stakes testing that has taken root in our education system over the past decade. Students are consumed by the influence these tests have on their futures, and teachers are frustrated because they are forced to teach to a test that carries so much weight it crushes innovation in the classroom.

I have seen many changes in education and policies in my 53-year teaching career. However, the negative effects of tests like ILEARN are unprecedented. Nine years ago, school culture began shifting when student test scores were tied to evaluations. These new accountability standards do not accurately reflect what is occurring in schools and is only adding to the frustration for teachers and students.

The environment ILEARN and its predecessors created is only part of the problem. The other part is the content itself. This year alone, we have seen headline after headline delineating the flaws in ILEARN:

“System failure: New student test produces familiar headaches”

“ILEARN fails as effective student measuring stick”

“Fewer than half of Indiana students meet ILEARN standards…”

How many more do we have to see before we agree that something needs to change?

ILEARN scores have been poor throughout the state, especially in English and mathematics. In August, it was predicted that only 40 percent of students would have passing test scores. It is evident that this test and the environment it creates do not accurately reflect the abilities of our teachers and students. Accountability and monitoring are very important, but when it gets in the way of a quality education, we need to reevaluate how we’re doing it.

Though standardized testing is federally mandated, we do have the capacity to improve the testing culture and ensure higher credibility moving forward. The Republican proposal to “hold harmless” ILEARN results from this year solves the problem for now. But what about next year, and the year after that? While I think this is the best move for us in the short term, we as legislators need to take a hard look at improving this high stakes testing environment by listening to and empowering teachers and students.

So much of what has been decided on this all-encompassing test has been discussed by everyone but the people it affects. Republican lawmakers—with little to no long-term experience in education—implemented policies that tie teacher evaluations to student test scores. It is imperative that legislators and members of the State Board of Education be highly invested in schools by visiting and engaging with stakeholders. There is a huge disconnect between the powers that be at the statehouse and the classroom and it needs to be fixed.

We have gone from doing our due diligence in the installment of new testing to hastily implementing new plans without considering the input of those directly involved. We have rushed teachers into learning new standards before they had time to acclimate to the previous testing. We have skipped over the idea that there might already be a test on the market that would be appropriate and decided to start from scratch yet again.

The latest implementation of the ILEARN test is the sixth time that either administrators of the test, test standards, or the tests themselves have changed in ten years. How do we expect our teachers to succeed if we constantly change what we expect of them? We are creating an unnecessarily challenging atmosphere around a test that is vital for evaluating how our state is doing. It is almost impossible for students and teachers to overcome this pressure.

Testing should not define teachers’ or students’ success in the classroom. Moving forward, it is imperative that we continue to pose questions to the people this impacts the most: our teachers and their students. It is impossible to create a perfect test, but it is our duty as legislators to use every resource available in ensuring the success of Indiana’s future leaders—our children. The best way to do this is to slow down and pay attention to teachers’ input. We have been too quick to pull the trigger on senseless changes that have been harming the productivity of our teachers and students.

Instead of penalizing schools and teachers with constant grading and micromanaging, we should empower them by genuinely listening to feedback and providing adequate funding.

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