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Test debacle is more than a school issue

Imagine if a contractor hired to improve Interstate 69 near Fort Wayne or Indianapolis used inadequate equipment and tore up the highway, disrupting traffic for weeks. Imagine if emergency vehicles were blocked and motorists delayed or rerouted miles off course. Imagine if the contractor, due to collect nearly $100 million for the job, left the project so badly botched that the interstate couldn’t be used for a full year.

There would be public outrage, of course. Business owners would demand immediate action. Elected officials would call for the company to be held accountable and the state made whole for its losses. Those responsible for awarding the contract would be called to task, and the contractor would be barred from doing further state business.

That scenario is not unlike what happened this month when a computer server failure disrupted ISTEP+ testing in Indiana schools.

CTB/McGraw-Hill’s performance in fulfilling its $95 million contract to develop and administer ISTEP+, the state’s standardized test for students in grades 3-8, is the schoolhouse equivalent of a botched highway job. Fort Wayne Community Schools, the state’s largest district, has wisely announced it will not accept results from the flawed testing unless an independent, third party verifies them.

Superintendent Wendy Robinson’s announcement drew a response from elected officials who have repeatedly promoted the high-stakes test by passing laws tied to its results, including teacher evaluations and merit pay, school letter grades and private-school voucher eligibility.

“(For) a highly paid vendor to have this occur is totally unacceptable,” said Senate President Pro Tem David Long.

“Gov. (Mike) Pence believes it is important to understand how and why these issues occurred and to take steps to ensure Indiana’s students and educators are not affected by such issues again,” said Kara Brooks, the governor’s press secretary, in a statement.

They should go further and endorse Robinson’s decision to reject the results.

But even if the contractor is held accountable, there’s no way to assure teachers, parents and taxpayers that the results weren’t compromised. FWCS administrator Laura Cain described disruptions that required holding children in classrooms for up to three hours – with missed lunch breaks – so as not to violate strict testing protocol. There were special education students and English language-learners whose adapted tests gave them incorrect choices on the multiple-choice exams.

How could the scores possibly be considered an accurate representation of student performance?

The focus of the outrage must not be limited to CTB/McGraw-Hill, however. Nor should it come only from legislators. Local Chamber of Commerce officials should take as interested a role in an issue threatening area schools as they have in the city’s fiscal health. State Chamber officials, the most vocal supporters of the high-stakes testing program, should ask why an entire school accountability system hinges on an out-of-state contractor’s performance.

The problem is not that standardized tests are used; the problem is how they are used. As Robinson notes, they should be one of several tools in measuring student progress and holding schools accountable. But lawmakers turned a technology malfunction into a serious problem by passing laws that use the test scores alone to reward and punish teachers, give tax dollars to private schools, threaten neighborhoods with F-graded schools and more. It’s time to reconsider the testing monster they created here.