Just how much have we ILEARNed?
25 Apr 2021 — Journal Gazette
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James Dettmer
James Dettmer

Testing season is upon us. It is that time of year when principals turn the heat up on themselves and their teachers. They "dig into data" to try to find that nugget of truth about children that will help turn the tide and get them to move from a "non-passer" to a "passer."

I have a unique perspective on schools and testing; I was once one of the people who made the test. Many teachers and principals in the community may recognize me as the test guy because I was the one calling and visiting and checking and verifying that the test all went to plan.

I witnessed and participated in the transition from a wholly paper test to a wholly digital test. More significantly, I saw the test change.

It is a completely different beast than when I stepped into the classroom on my first day as a teacher in 2002. I know this is true because I was one of the people under the hood, turning the nuts and bolts that helped to build the test and the statewide accountability system with the Indiana Department of Education. I was working on the test before it was named ILEARN.

In fact, I suggested a different name: Indiana College and Career Readiness Assessment Program -- ICCRAP for short. At the time, I didn't know how accurate my nickname was.

ILEARN was built from a large bank of test questions. The bank was created and used by the American Institute of Research as the backbone and basis in many states across the country in the PARCC test. PARCC is a test for Common Core academic standards, not Indiana academic standards.

The Indiana Department of Education spent a lot of money paying me and other Indiana educators to review these questions under the guidance of the American Institute of Research. We spent a lot of time in small rooms looking over questions to better align them with Indiana's expectations.

We are to believe that the new coat of paint we put on the assessment was supposed to make it the Indiana test.

After the first administration of ILEARN, the state and the institute worked with Indiana educators to decide what was considered "passing" and "not passing." It is a complex process and takes significant time and effort with considerable expense.

Educators are the ones who draw the "passing" lines in the sand under the close supervision of the institute and the state Department of Education.

My understanding is that, after lines were drawn, educators were shown how their scores would be reflected in pass rates across the state. Committees were then shown comparative pass rates for tests not aligned to what teachers were teaching in Indiana and asked to reevaluate their passing expectations.

The result was a raised bar and lower pass rates than committees initially proposed.

We all know what happens next. Passing rates are published and hit the news cycle. We all get to hear for the next week about how awful our schools are and how superintendents across the state are incensed.

After the news cycle is over, the public tends to forget about the scores. Parents believe their teachers and schools are good. The right of a parent to move a child to a different school is generally ignored and when parents do move kids, it is not based on test scores.

But superintendents don't forget. And neither do principals. By extension, teachers don't either.

They spend their year pouring over data and agonizing over the search for the nugget of truth to change the outcome for the kids in their classroom. Educators are driven by what is right.

School leaders locally have spent millions of dollars over the past decade on consultants to help change these scores. Changes are lauded as improvements in school culture or curriculum. When we peel back the layers of that onion, the consultants usually have a background in testing and have made a career out of being self-professed "school improvers."

All this money and all this effort is for nothing because we have yet to see any significant improvement in student achievement.

As I started teaching in 2002, significant emphasis on testing was just starting. Since that time, our schools across the country have been retooled to improve on the one measure used: performance on the test.

It changed education for the worse. The promise of better schools was made on the idea that educators could and should use results to improve teaching practices. In my life, I have not met a single teacher who had not entered the profession to make a difference for kids. Unfortunately, there has been little to no investment allowing all teachers to have a hand in a meaningful assessment or in providing support in interpreting results to make positive changes.

Accountability for student performance without teachers, schools or districts understanding what scores mean or how school policies and processes need to change is a serious issue. Results of the state summative test can't be used to change classroom instruction directly, but the reality is that we tell teachers they aren't doing it right and we tell them to do it better without any support as to how.

The overemphasis on testing and scores has caused a loss of focus on what kids can and can't do.

When I walked into my own child's parent-teacher conference, I was given a paper with numbers to explain my child. I politely set the paper aside and looked the teacher in the eye and said, "That's fine. Please tell me what my child can do. I don't really care about the test score."

My son is one of the lucky ones. She understood what I was asking and responded in real terms about his abilities.

Unfortunately, educators have been conditioned to fit kids into the testing box. The result is lower ability to problem solve and make connections with the real world.

Educators have been led down the path of measuring students by the scores and teaching accordingly.

At the beginning of this testing season, I feel the need to atone and apologize for my participation in the test. I no longer work in education, in part, because I was not making any real difference with policies or practices that would be of any help to kids or teachers.

School reform does need to take place, but it needs to be different.

Teachers need to stop paying attention to tests and start assessing students. Assess what kids can actually do instead of pretending a test score is an assessment. Principals need to stop forcing data meetings on priority standards instead of supporting quality teaching. Superintendents need to believe that tests are not the only measure of schools and then act accordingly. Parents need to not take test scores as an evaluation of their child's performance or an indication of their success. The public needs to believe that the scores live up to the name ICCRAP.

We must make an investment in educators creating assessments for their students that actually measure what kids can do in a way that a test can't.

James Dettmer, a Fort Wayne resident, is a former school district assessment coordinator.

This story is provided free courtesy of The Fort Wayne Newspapers.
"Just how much have we ILEARNed?" Journal Gazette 25 Apr 2021: A9