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Teachers Trying To Keep Kids Focused As ISTEP Uncertainty Continues

Kristin Malavenda

As the state tries to come up with ways to shorten this year’s ISTEP, parents and educators are saying that’s not even the biggest problem with the test.

Concerns remain about whether the questions on the test are appropriate to each grade level and whether the format of the test gives students the best chance to succeed.

Rebecca Combs is a 4th grade teacher at Burnett Creek Elementary School in the Tippecanoe School Corporation. She says as the ISTEP debate continues, she’s been doing the best she can to prepare her students.

Combs says while a 10-12 hour test certainly isn’t appropriate for young children, she doesn’t consider an 8-hour test much of an improvement. Combs spent some time Monday reviewing sample questions with her students and encouraging them to stay focused.

Combs fully expects to give her students the ISTEP later this month, even though what the test will look like is still in question.

Combs says even though today’s students are generally very comfortable with technology, there are some formatting challenges with the online test.

“The part that we’re finding that we really have to practice with them is if the question is longer than the computer screen itself,” says Combs. “We have to teach the kids to scroll down and scroll across and read all of it and see all of it. As a teacher I did the practice test, and I missed one because I did not scroll down. So it’s very big to think that our 10-year-olds, and even our 8- and 9-year-olds, are going to be doing this.”

Combs says it’s frustrating that all of the discussions about ISTEP are being held at the state level, with schools just being told what to do. She questions whether the test can effectively be changed for this year.

“To be honest it feels very chaotic already, because every day it’s something different,” says Combs. “There’s buildings that already have the test. I mean, what are they going to do say “Tear out every other page?” For me I just don’t think there’s a super effective way that they’re going to make it fair for everyone.

TSC Assistant Superintendent Christy Fraley agrees the back-and-forth over the ISTEP at the state level has caused extra anxiety for teachers and administrators.

She says the first stress test, designed to make sure computers could properly administer the exam, was, in her words, “terrible,” and while the second was better it still caused a lot of concern.

“After about 25 minutes we did start to experience slowness, not being able to move quickly through any of the test questions,” says Fraley. “A couple of the test questions they weren’t able to put an answer to.”

That same scenario played out at schools across the state. But Fraley says what teachers and parents can do is try to calm students.

“We wish everybody to continue to be positive,” says Fraley. “We want to create a positive learning environment for all of our students. And we’ll do our best to keep the distractions away from our students and continue to be positive with them.”

Traci Robison has two sons-- one in Rebecca Combs’s 4th grade class at Burnett Creek and another in 7th grade at Battle Ground Middle School. She says the elementary school had a meeting where parents could see sample questions and discuss some of the challenges students might face. But Robison came away feeling the tests weren’t grade-appropriate.

“The length of the passages they needed to read, I would say, were probably longer than what I took on the SAT,” says Robison. “The paragraphs, the content that was in them, I have a hard time believing they were at the 4th grade level. And it makes me really question whether the state tested the test to make sure it was appropriate for the level they’re giving it to.”

In fact, that’s part of the problem – the questions haven’t been tested, so the useless ones haven’t been weeded out and the tests take longer than they need to.

Robison says she has friends who are considering not bringing their kids to school for the ISTEP because they’re so disappointed with what’s going on at the state level. Teacher Rebecca Combs says she understands the frustration, but would encourage those parents to reconsider because NOT sending their child will ultimately hurt the school, earning it an ‘undetermined’ score that will figure into the school’s overall A-F letter grade from the state.

All of Indiana’s 3rd through 8th graders are still slated to take the ISTEP this year. But what those tests will look like and what they will measure is still anyone’s guess – and that’s what’s causing teachers to stress out, even as they try to keep their kids relaxed.

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