Students pay the price for ISTEP calculator mix-up

By Adrianna Pitrelli
TheStatehouseFile.com

 INDIANAPOLIS — Sarah Jansen isn’t a fan of math and the thought of having to retake part of the math ISTEP in early December for a reason that isn’t her fault frustrates her.

“I worked hard to prepare for the test. How was I supposed to know I wasn’t allowed to use a calculator?” said Sarah, an 11th-grade student at St. Joseph High School in St. Joseph County.

Sarah is one of more than 450,000 Hoosier students who spent months studying for the hours-long ISTEP test, and she’s one of more than a thousand in 20 schools whose test scores were thrown out.

It happened in the spring after the test administrator, Pearson, incorrectly told schools calculators were permitted during the test.

However, the calculator mix-up isn’t the first ISTEP-related issue to affect students in recent years. In 2013, computer problems caused the test to crash for 80,000 students, while in 2015 a grading issue delayed the release of test scores.

McGraw Hill administered the ISTEP exam until 2015 when Pearson, an international learning company with offices in Washington, D.C., took over.

“Pearson is aware of isolated issues that occurred with ISTEP online calculator accommodations during the spring 2017 administration,” Scott Overland, director for media at Pearson, said. “Pearson regrets that any Indiana students, teachers and schools were impacted by this issue.”

Overland said Pearson will work with the Indiana Department of Education throughout the year to address concerns and implement changes to improve the process prior to the spring 2018 test. IDOE officials are expected to announce school grades based on ISTEP some time in October.

Meanwhile, students like Sarah live with the consequences of Pearson’s mistake.

“I feel like because it wasn’t my fault or any students fault, we shouldn’t be punished,” she said.

More than half of the grade 10 students who were not affected by the calculator mix-up at St. Joseph High School passed the math portion of the exam, and Sarah can’t help but think she would have passed.

“I don’t like math but I’m not a bad student, so I doubt this would have been an issue otherwise,” Sarah said.

In the midst of giving the exam, two teachers from the DeKalb Central United School District — located two-and-a-half hours northeast of Indianapolis — raised concerns about students using calculators, as they believed the calculator guidance seemed different than prior years. They called Pearson and were told to continue administering the test as directed.

“What happened was put out with no explanation,” Lori Vaughn, assistant superintendent of the school system, said. “It is going to impact our accountability grade and participation rate.”

Indiana schools are required to have a 95 percent participation rate that is calculated into their state grade. However, IDOE has yet to decide if the undetermined scores will affect the participation rate, meaning the mix-up could potentially have no impact on schools.

According to the IDOE, in grades three through five, calculators are not allowed on ISTEP unless a student is part of a special education program. For grade 10, a calculator is permitted in some sections, but not in others.

Officials in the Rochester School Corp. in Fulton County, where nearly 700 students were affected, first brought the issue to the IDOE in June.

In DeKalb, 53 of the students at Waterloo Elementary were given “undetermined” scores. Because undetermined scores are considered neither pass nor fail, Vaughn and other school officials fear their schools could be hurt when IDOE issues its grades in October.

Meanwhile, students like Sarah want to see a change in the testing process.

“I personally don’t like standardized testing anyways,” Sarah said. “So for me to have to retake it and for the schools and teachers to get docked for something that isn’t on them, it’s truly not fair.”

A change is planned for 2019 as Indiana schools will administer ILEARN rather than ISTEP.

ILEARN is expected to be a shorter test with faster results, but is still being developed.

Adrianna Pitrelli is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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