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Test of leadership

Lost in debates over school spending and reform is this important note: Indiana students are doing well. The latest results of a test measuring performance on international measures for math and science show that the state’s 8th graders outperformed their U.S. peers and some of the top-performing nations, including Finland, Hong Kong and Israel.

Indiana’s performance on the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study shouldn’t, of course, be the final word on student achievement, but as the General Assembly assesses blame for a multi-million dollar testing blunder, the student success is important to note. Preoccupation with measuring, grading and ranking shouldn’t get in the way of teaching.

Lawmakers on the Commission on Education seemed to miss that point as they grilled representatives of McGraw-Hill Education about the contractor’s botched ISTEP+ testing session this year. Their questions over minute details of the disruption suggest they still don’t understand why the company’s failure was a problem.

Even a flawless administration of the test makes no difference in whether Indiana students continue to achieve, a point two Allen County superintendents eloquently tried to offer.

Wendy Robinson of Fort Wayne Community Schools asked the panel not to focus on the computer problems experienced, but on the bigger picture of how the test scores are used to measure student, teacher, school and district performance.

Chris Himsel of Northwest Allen County Schools noted that ISTEP+ results aren’t even the measure his district uses to guide its performance, instead relying on data from the Northwest Evaluation Association.

That’s not to downplay the seriousness of the ISTEP+ problems but to inform legislators that the $95 million four-year contract the state had with McGraw-Hill wasn’t the reason Indiana students excelled on the 2011 TIMSS. The importance placed on ISTEP+ results threatens their performance on the international assessment in the future, along with many other measures of achievement. The major corporations selling education technology offer tools teachers can use to guide and improve instruction, but their products alone can’t replace teachers. Misused, those tools can disrupt and even harm instruction, as we’ve just seen.

McGraw-Hill needs to be held accountable for its botched performance, but the more important question goes to lawmakers: Is your goal a test to hurt or help Indiana students and schools?