Mary Beth Schneider recently wrote a column about ILEARN, (I’ve misplaced the link) the most recent iteration of Indiana’s obsession with education testing. In the column, she recited an incident in which–following a standardized test– a teacher had informed her then third-grade daughter that she was suited only for minimum wage labor. (That daughter has since graduated college with honors.)

In Indiana today we are using a standardized test that is meant to help track students’ progress along with teacher and school effectiveness. It’s just the latest in a string of standardized test iterations Indiana has tried over the years, starting with the “A plus” program launched by Gov. Robert D. Orr in the 1980s. From there we went to ISTEP; then Gov. Evan Bayh tried to change that to the IPASS testing program, but we ended up back with ISTEP, then ISTEP+ and now ILEARN.

We’ve held the tests in spring, then fall, then spring and fall, and spring again. We’ve changed who takes them and how they take them.

It’s no wonder many teachers want to say IQUIT.

As Mary Beth writes, there are plenty of reasons why educators are unhappy with what has come to be dubbed “high stakes” testing: for one thing, teacher evaluations are pegged to results, based, evidently, on the assumption that poverty, parents, peers and a multitude of other real-world influences–including test anxiety– don’t have at least an equal effect on outcomes;  and resentment over the fact that preparation for and administration of the tests steals valuable instructional time.

This is not to say that testing can’t be useful. When tests are administered as a diagnostic tool, they provide teachers with valuable information about a child’s progress, and help them tailor instruction accordingly. But Indiana’s legislature–which includes few educators–prefers to use testing as a punitive (and inaccurate) evaluation tool.

Mary Beth points out that it isn’t only teachers who react negatively to high-stakes testing.

As a parent, the part that concerns me most is that the tests are used to tell children as young as third grade that they are not career or college ready.

In third grade I still planned on being a cowboy.

As she acknowledges, there are perfectly reasonable uses for tests.

Parents and teachers do need to know if their child is keeping pace, and what steps need to be taken to help them become their best selves. And we all need to know if our schools are educating our children or failing them.

But even if the test accurately finds that a child is struggling, that should be the starting point for finding out how to help them learn — and not the time to tell him or her to prepare for a life as a grocery store bagger.

Mary Beth notes that Richard Branson–who dropped out of school at 16– was dyslexic, not stupid. There’s a limit to what school performance can predict.

Recently, schools and parents received the results of the new ILEARN test. And while the exact data hasn’t been officially released, Gov. Eric Holcomb and Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick have both said they are disappointing. State Rep. Bob Behning, the Indianapolis Republican who is chairman of the House Education Committee and one of the biggest drivers of this new standardized test, issued a statement saying that “the value of Hoosier students and teachers are not defined by test scores, but by the learning being accomplished in the classroom.”

Great. But if their value is not defined by one test, Indiana needs to stop acting like it is.  And while giving up testing isn’t an option, how we handle the results is.

The widespread misuse of what should be a diagnostic tool is just one more example of our depressing American tendency to apply bumper sticker solutions to complex issues requiring more nuanced approaches.

Are we concerned about the quality of our public schools? Easy. Let’s just give out vouchers allowing parents to send their children to mostly religious schools that may or may not teach science or civics or accurate history, and are turning out graduates with lower test scores in math and English.

For the 90% of children who still attend our public schools, let’s spend lots of tax dollars on standardized tests that we can then use as a blunt weapon to pigeonhole the kids and penalize their teachers.

Those approaches are so much easier than acting on the basis of in-depth analyses of both strengths and shortcomings, giving our public schools and public school teachers the resources–and the respect– they need, and properly evaluating the results.


  1. …“the value of Hoosier students and teachers are not defined by test scores, but by the learning being accomplished in the classroom.”

    “Great. But if their value is not defined by one test, Indiana needs to stop acting like it is. And while giving up testing isn’t an option, how we handle the results is.”

    At age 82, much has changed in education during the many decades since I was in school; I was not faced with those standardized tests on all subjects with results to be used as measure of my success or failure in life. Understanding that teachers are overburdened, and that too many parents are uninvolved and/or uninterested; there should be a record of each student’s grades throughout the year to show where they need to concentrate on improvement. The tests appear to require all students during the relatively brief test period to remember everything they were taught about everything throughout the school year, high level stress for a child. Is there no way to compare the average of their grades during the school year to compare with the test grades for a truer value of the tests themselves? Not the ability of the student or the teacher; the tests need to be tested for their intrinsic value to the students. Some students, as well as adults in higher education, are stressed about test results before the tests even begin which works against them.

    “The widespread misuse of what should be a diagnostic tool is just one more example of our depressing American tendency to apply bumper sticker solutions to complex issues requiring more nuanced approaches.”

  2. It’s what happens when public education and it’s cost becomes another political football and the legislature’s first impulse is to “manage” the budget to “improve the outcomes”. The Indiana legislature proves itself unworthy of successfully managing public education again and again, and returns to the same failed approach. It’s probably connected to the war against the teacher’s union.

  3. Legislators seem to think that when kids walk into a school building, they shed, along with their coats, the impacts of living in a community – mostly the bad impacts. What the legislators should do is ask themselves why they allow substandard living conditions to exist in the cities whose schools are the ones which are not “performing.” Spend some money on improving conditions in the cities and school performance will improve too.

  4. daleb; per the flyer I received from Republican State Senator Michael Crider regarding the new Indiana 2-year budget, 50% of the budget is slated for K-12 Education and 15% to Higher Education. He states on the flyer, “Indiana’s new 2-year budget continues our strong track record of fiscal responsibility.” The past few years that “responsibility” has been to support private, primarily religious schools, via the voucher system with no proof of improvement of education of those students. Which, incidentally is the highest number of voucher students in the country. Meanwhile; the public education tax budget shrinks where the majority of our students are seeking education. Of the quoted $763 MILLION slated for K-12 Education, how much is going into religion based schools? Indiana is at the bottom of the national academic list year after year. Whoever the Indiana Legislature is against; it is the students who are the victims in their cross hairs.

  5. Driving this fixation on testing, the change in the tests from year to year, is … wait for it … money. Someone is making big bucks of taxpayers money off this backdoor attack on the public school system.
    What ever happened to those parent teacher nights when the teacher gave the child’s parents the news on their little darlings’ progress? The teachers are suppose to be on top of this sort of thing, aren’t they? And for the parents who don’t show up for their child’s report, what is the state to do with their report? How does having the over expensive test results coming from the state any better than the teacher’s evaluation?

  6. We have the wealthiest country in the world so why do we still have communities living in poverty?

    Also, the correlation between lower test scores and brown kids are well known so teachers in an urban setting are automatically punished. In Delaware County, we’ve witnessed white flight from the city schools to county schools where the kids are whiter and the schools have better “performance”.

    All very predictable based on Indiana’s policies surrounding education. Oh, and we have saddled college graduates with $1.3 trillion in debt which will lead the overall economy into a recession.

    I work with former teachers and they tell me there is no way they’d venture back into the classroom. I’m surprised we don’t have a much bigger problem with teacher shortages. I believe it will get much worse before it gets better.

  7. A cousin was “educated” in a small town and was a poor student. His 3 siblings were high achievers. He dropped out of high school, committed a misdemeanor, avoided incarceration because of intervention by an uncle, tested in his mid teens and diagnosed with dyslexia. It was too late. He died young. A nephew grew up in a large metropolitan area and wasn’t diagnosed with dyslexia early. He struggled, likely unnecessarily. Education can be, ought to be, the avenue to personal fulfillment and good citizenship. Skinflint legislatures with a goal of lifting the tax burden, burden our children with less than personal fulfillment.

  8. Daleb – BINGO! You hit the jackpot. I worked as an attorney for both the Indiana General Assembly and the IDOE during the 1980s when the testing movement began. I continued to spent a sufficient amount of time at the State House as a lobbyist, but not associated with education, until 2013 when I retired. As a former teacher, I was always astounded at the overt hostility of the Indiana Republican Caucus exhibited toward ISTA . I can’t speak for the attitude in the last few years, but I would expect that nothing has changed.

  9. I see a bit of an analogy to the “guns don’t kill people” mantra. It’s not the tests that are problematic, it’s how they are (mis)used. In other words, people are the problem. There is just such a pervasive lack of critical thought in so much of policy-making … and in responses to it. The teacher who told her student she was only suited for minimum wage labor: that’s not the test’s fault. It was incredibly stupid comment from a teacher — probably an overworked & underpaid & frustrated teacher who regretted the comment the next day (or next hour).

    And as a final remark: “ILEARN” is such an unfortunate name. Let’s not try to put lipstick on an assessment and to try to fool people into thinking it’s a learning tool.

  10. Kudos Over It! Reference for the 49th time….”Teaching As A Subversive Activity”, Postman and Weingartner….

  11. Here, the powers-that-be fought and sued to get vouchers for parents who wanted to send their kids to so-called “private schools.”

    The vouchers are in a form of $11,000 or more checks written by the school board for each of these students. To me, it seems like a precedent has been set for the state to write checks and give certain individuals tax money to send their kids somewhere other than public schools in that district. this really destroys a school district’s budget, and puts a crimp in what can be done to repair a broken public school system. I recall an old three stooges episode where water was leaking into the boat and curly took out a hand crank drill and started punching holes in the boat, Moe asked him what he was doing, curly responded, I’m drilling water leter outers.

    There are a lot of things wrong with the public school system, but siphoning money out of the sinking school districts is not going to make things better for the majority.

    Another issue is, parents or guardians cannot just dump the kids off at school without buying into the child’s educational process. Television and social media cannot raise your children.

    With that being said, it seems that there needs to be a more equal form of distributing funds and consolidating school districts. There is too much spent on these high salaries for school board members and their administrators.

    All they need is a district manager and maybe an accountant. The school board should be parents rotating through every year. The money saved on getting rid of these ridiculously high salaries will be incalculable and benefit the students.

    The voucher system needs to be stopped because it guts the tax base for the districts. when you don’t have kids in the school district, and your property taxes double in a couple of years, and you see the district writing checks to these folks to send their kids to a private school, I have a problem with that!

  12. This summary accurately depicts the “trickle-down” economics of Milton Friedman’s abortive Supply-Side Economics, where social services that work for the public are basically illegal. Republicans embrace this philosophy because of the mutton-headed Reagan administration’s attachment to it for the sake of the rich and Wall Street:Are we concerned about the quality of our public schools? Easy. Let’s just give out vouchers allowing parents to send their children to mostly religious schools that may or may not teach science or civics or accurate history, and are turning out graduates with lower test scores in math and English.

    “For the 90% of children who still attend our public schools, let’s spend lots of tax dollars on standardized tests that we can then use as a blunt weapon to pigeonhole the kids and penalize their teachers.”

    In my book, “A Worm in the Apple: The Inside Story of Public Schools”, I address the horrific results and waste of money for the sake of a failed and corrupt economic system embraced by Republicans. The assault on teachers unions is the basic thrust of this part of Friedman’s seditious ideas. To whit: In 1975 the average teacher salary in Colorado Springs, CO was $7,500 per YEAR! As a junior engineer working in industry, my salary was $13,500 per year. In 1977 Colorado Springs teachers struck to form a union. They’re still paid crap wages there, but at least are able to feed their families a decent breakfast.

    And some on this blog whine about why we despise Republicans so much. Ask a kid with test anxiety about that.

  13. “The widespread misuse of what should be a diagnostic tool is just one more example of our depressing American tendency to apply bumper sticker solutions to complex issues requiring more nuanced approaches.”

    As much as that, this testing crap is used to slap down and deprofessionalize preaching.

    Sure, there’s a place in our school systems to employ plumbers, say, as teachers—in a plumbing or trades program, but probably in no other in academic area.

    Indiana’s legislature is just pursing the latest whim in a proud tradition which dates back to legislating the value of pi to be 3.0. Easy, but without brains.

  14. Oops. Let’s make this (“used to slap down and deprofessionalize preaching. “) read “teaching.” Not sure we could truly professionalize preaching, other than as a money pump.

  15. Testing should be used as a diagnostic tool with a design to ferret out individual differences and treat them. How many budding Einsteins are working second shift at a 7=11 due to misdiagnosis by one size fits all diagnoses? Politicians should leave educational theories in how to assess tests results to the experts and not to insurance agents and “businessmen” masquerading as state legislators.

  16. Here in South Carolina we don’t concern ourselves much with educating our youth. But we sure have great football programs.

    When the Charleston Post and Courier shamed the legislature into addressing the education crisis in our state (“minimally adequate” is the formal goal of SC education), the Speaker of the House , with no teaching credentials, sat down and wrote an 84 page bill despised by one and all. Nothing passed, so in 2020 the legislature (which fell all over itself promising a solution) will fix the problem, as they’ve promised many times in the past. The only way to keep a state in the solidly Republican column is to deny critical thinking and educational opportunities, and SC excels at both. It is also the shortest path to successfully fleecing the public, and the lambs in our state lie down for the experience. But SC has been a criminal conspiracy for so long that it regards that as a workable system.

    Our motto, thanks to Nikki Haley, is “South Carolina, just right!” Like Trump’s MAGA, no one has any idea what that means, but it’s good enough for us bumpkins.

  17. I know this is off topic of the testing discussion, but I am wondering how many charter schools and charter school students exist in Hamilton County. These are schools that are clearly achieving high results, and I suspect that any charter school would have to set pretty high standards to attract any students in this locality. My point is, I think charter schools only gut the system and pull students away from the public schools, when the public schools are not performing up to standards. I don’t have any data to back this up, but I would suspect that it is true. Vouchers set up the opportunity to create competition, but I don’t think competition will even exist if the public schools are doing their job. Can somebody answer this question, so I can change my mind, or stop hearing about the evils of vouchers?

  18. Test-Dependent Programmed Grammar Textbook: What?

    I taught an advanced English grammar class in Escalon, California in 1967 that used an amazing textbook. The English textbook was “programmed”. What? The “programming” was heavily dependent on tests. And it — the book and its learning results — was marvelous.

    In the book and in this class, English grammar was taught like math — in an organic progression of concepts, each dependent on the student’s understanding of preceding concepts. Here is where the testing was crucial: the student could not progress to concept 2 until proving he or she had mastered concept 1. How was that done? Through tests.

    Page one taught a grammar concept, and then asked a test question about that concept. The student chose an answer. The chosen answer determined if the student moved to page 2 (and concept 2)or to page 302, which re-taught concept 1 in a somewhat different way. Each student could progress through the book at his or her own pace. The students loved this approach and sped through the book. They learned much more about the English language than I had learned in ten English courses during high school and college.

    What happened to disappear this “programmed learning” is still a mystery to me. The only other time I saw it was during my son’s junior high school gifted learning tract in which every course was “programmed”. My son’s best two years of school were in that system.

    I speculate that the parent’s preconceived notions about testing had something to do with the present rarity of programmed learning. But perhaps computers and Internet learning is bringing programmed learning back. Whatever; programmed learning cannot progress without testing.

    Testing ain’t all bad. In programmed learning, testing is done to permit the student to move on to the next concept; it is not done to evaluate the whole student, and therefore does not derogate the student’s self-image.

    By the way, teachers in my son’s gifted program were called coaches: English coach, math coach, history coach, etc., which is what they did. They coached students.

  19. My take on the reason for standardized tests is that they were a response to high school graduates who were functionally illiterate, teachers who were frustrated because they were pressured to pass children who clearly had not mastered basics for their grade level, and colleges that were fed up with students who lacked basic skills needed to study at the college level.

    Of course, every crisis creates a chance for opportunists to make money, and to use their political connections to sell local politicians on the superiority of their test. You could look at the socioeconomics of the students of a school district and accurately predict how they might do on standardized tests: parental income level, 1 or 2 parent home, parental education level, number of students qualifying for free lunch, and the list goes on. Tests aren’t the answer to improving learning.

    How about smaller schools and smaller classes? Kids did much better when they weren’t 1 in 2 or 3 thousand, but maybe 1 in 400, at the most. Teachers get to know the students and can identify those with dyslexia or other learning barriers. With smaller schools, students aren’t just another face in the crowd. How about fewer resources for athletics and more for individualized learning? How about more resources for arts? How about comparable standards for what skills are needed to pass, for example, freshman English?

  20. Standardized are designed – intentionally – to spread the scores. That requires the test to test content on which teachers do NOT focus the most instruction and which most students do not learn. Then our legislature and State Board of Education (appointed by the Governor) keep setting the passing score higher and higher. It’s all part of a plan to designate more schools as ‘failing’ to enable state takeover and transitions to discriminatory, barely accountable charter schools.

    I-STEP was originally designed to determine which students needed remediation and to quantify the state funds needed to provide it. Indiana’s Republican super-majorities have long since abandoned that concept to use standardized test scores to label and punish students, teachers, and schools with a blunt and terribly inaccurate instrument.

    Since the GOP has micro-managed and cut funding for public schools to provide more funds and less accountability for charter and voucher schools, scores have declined. So the GOP doubles down with expenditures for more testing rather than teaching. This is an excellent example of insanity.

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