Claire Fiddian-Green is the President & CEO of the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation.


This week, ISTEP+ results for the 2016-17 school year were released, and the figures are deeply troubling. Consistent with last year, only 51% of Hoosier students in Grades 3-8 passed both the Math and English/Language Arts (ELA) portions of the ISTEP+. The results are far worse in 10th grade, where only 34% of students passed both the Math and ELA portions of the test.

While it’s tempting to dismiss these results as the product of a flawed state test, that would be a mistake and a disservice to students, parents, teachers and school leaders.

Recall that Indiana recently went through a comprehensive process to revise its academic standards for Math and ELA. The new standards, adopted in 2014 and implemented in schools for the first time during the 2014-15 school year, reflect the work of Indiana educators from K-12 and higher education, who collaborated to develop rigorous criteria for student learning that were benchmarked with the best-performing states from around the U.S. Here’s an example of a literature standard for a 5th grade student: “Quote accurately from a text when explaining what a text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.” And here’s another example of a standard, this time in math. Every 4th grade student in Indiana must: “Measure length to the nearest quarter-inch, eighth-inch, and millimeter.”

The ISTEP+ that students took in 2015, 2016 and 2017 reflected these new standards. And the test itself was more challenging than the ISTEP+ administered prior to 2015. That’s because, under federal law, Indiana was required to implement a state test that went beyond a simple multiple choice format and truly tested whether students comprehend the material they have been taught in the classroom.

So, we now have more rigorous standards and a harder state test. There has been plenty of criticism of the new ISTEP+, and in fact Indiana is now in the process of developing a different test, called ILEARN, which will soon replace the ISTEP+. But will student results from the new ILEARN – a test that must still align with our rigorous Math and ELA standards – paint a markedly improved picture?

A look at U.S. student performance on the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, an international benchmarking exam administered to more than a half-million 15-year-olds in developed and developing countries around the globe, may help to answer that question.

2015 PISA results place our country far behind nations such as Canada, China, and the United Kingdom. The U.S. ranks 23rd in reading and 25th in science among 72 countries and economies. Most troubling, we rank 39th in math, a standing that has declined in each three-year testing cycle since 2009. In other words, another test is telling us that U.S. students – including Indiana students – aren’t keeping pace with students in other countries, a finding that matters more than ever in our global economy.

The recent ISTEP+ results clearly demonstrate that Indiana students aren’t where they need to be in terms of learning outcomes. Rather than dismiss these results as the product of a flawed state test, we should instead focus on providing intensive training and support to teachers so that they receive the tools they need to effectively teach Indiana’s new rigorous standards. We should also provide world class training and support for Indiana’s school leaders, so that they can provide optimally-structured school environments in which teachers receive real-time feedback and tools designed to help them become more effective instructors. And we should also do a better job helping Hoosier students make the connection between what they’re learning in school with their preparation for a fulfilling career following graduation. Partnering with companies to provide apprenticeships for students as early as the 8th grade is one method that has proven highly effective in high-performing countries like Switzerland.

There are no easy solutions when it comes to improving education outcomes in Indiana. But one thing is clear: ignoring the recent ISTEP+ results won’t help. Instead, let’s work together on a comprehensive approach to improving teacher instruction and student learning in Indiana’s schools.

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