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Educators Say They're Teaching In Spite Of ISTEP, Not To It

Alberto G.

Indiana teachers began this school year under the gun.

First, new math and English requirements were approved just months before classes began.

Then, the U.S. Department of Education said Indiana had to take a completely different type of ISTEP exam this year -- a year earlier than expected --  if the state wanted to maintain its federal waiver.

“I know our anxiety level was extremely high,” says Kathy Herald, an English Language Arts coach for the Indianapolis Public Schools. She helps design how English and reading is taught at the district’s 60 or so schools.

In IPS and other public districts, teachers and curriculum directors rushed to absorb these new guidelines that replaced the Common Core -- an earlier but increasingly controversial set of math and English standards that Indiana had adopted only a few years ago.

More than a semester into the school year, many teachers have adapted.

But the real test is yet to come: how will students fare on the new ISTEP?

“We have a lot of the same skills this year - a lot of the same concepts carried over from the old standards," says Herald's fellow coach Felicia Sears. "However, what students are expected to do with those standards has gone to really a higher level. So the depth of knowledge that they go into with each of those standards is really what has increased. So they are asked not only to identify a central idea but they are asked to analyze it and find certain elements within the text that are going to support it as well.”

Indiana’s new standards are called College & Career Ready -- standards very similar to Common Core and related to an even older set of standards some grade levels were using until this school year.

These new guidelines emphasize critical thinking, reasoning, and communication skills. The new test draws on that and asks student to not just provide the answer but to explain how they got there.

But teachers worry some students are falling into learning gaps because of Indiana’s revolving door of classroom expectations.

“For my current eighth graders this is their third set of state standards they've been learning under in the last four years," says Thomas Hakim, a math teacher and department chair at Northview Middle School in Washington Township. At the start of each class, students run through a series of math problems to get their brains pumping.

“So we've started the year and we are teaching the new standards but you are finding and at no fault of a prior teacher or the kid themselves or the families, there are learning gaps there," Hakim says. "As standards have kinda moved around between grade levels there is the possibility that a child didn't get something in seventh grade under old standards, they are now expected to already know under new eighth grade standards.”

Hakim says if teachers remain focused on teaching these new rigorous standards, students will be prepared for the ISTEP’s complex questions.

"We don't just ask questions like, 'what is the answer to number four? It is 32?' No. It's not good enough, right? It’s 'explain how you got there or what if this happened, here is a mistake that was made' -- explain what you have to do to fix it,” Hakim says.

State Deputy Superintendent Danielle Shockey says there is no question that this year’s ISTEP is more difficult than last year’s.

“Now it is about the depth of knowledge," she says. "How can you take this three skills and how can you bring them together and apply that knowledge and show a depth of learning? So I do think there is a pretty big broad difference between the ISTEP of old and the College and Career Ready ISTEP.”

So how are students expected to score on the new ISTEP? Based on precedent, not good, Shockey says. In New York and Kentucky -- states that also faced new standards and a college and career ready exam -- the number of students passing the math and reading portions dropped drastically.

“We anticipate a similar thing to happen in Indiana. Again, it is is not because our students are less qualified or our teachers are not still doing an amazing job teaching to the standards and supporting their students -- but rather we are measuring something different. So it is like resetting the baseline," Shockey says.

Back at IPS, Kathy Herald says teachers are waiting to see how students handle the new ISTEP before they recalibrate how they teach the new standards.

“Our teachers approach these standards the same as they did the Indiana Academic Standards, I don’t think they are really nervous about them," Herald says. "But I think they may be after this round of ISTEP. They may decide they need to change some things instructionally.”

Indiana schools have until March 20 to complete part one of the ISTEP. The second part of the test begins April 27.