HCCSC students fare well on ISTEPs

Chart by Cindy Klepper.

Tracey Shafer, superintendent of the Huntington County Community Schools, has every right to be proud.

"We outperformed the state across the board," he says after reviewing results from his corporation's students on the latest ISTEP+ assessment.

And that's about the only comparison that's valid with this test. The ISTEP administered in the spring of 2009 had a new format and was given at a different time of the year than in the past, so Indiana Department of Education officials say it can't really be compared to scores on past tests.

"This test needs to have an asterisk," Shafer says, but he goes on to note, "Scores statewide are down compared to last year."

That's due in part to a change in timing (previous tests were given in the fall, while this and future tests will all be administered in the spring); the lack of alignment of test questions to state teaching standards, which will be remedied for future tests; and the unanticipated level of difficulty in this test.

"A difficult test is not a bad thing," Shafer says, "but we didn't know ahead of time what this test was like."

The ISTEP plays a major role in the state's determination if individual schools are meeting accountability standards, so doing well is important.

"This is sort of the Holy Grail of accountability," the superintendent says. "This is the one you have to prepare for."

But just as important, Shafer says, is the information teachers can glean from each individual student's performance on the test - information that, when analyzed along with other data, is used to tailor instructional methods and materials to each student's needs.

In general, Shafer says, HCCSC scores tell him that the corporation has room for improvement when it comes to serving students from low socioeconomic backgrounds and students who have special needs.

"We want to get better at meeting their needs," he says. "Where do we go next in terms of our instruction?"

Beyond those generalizations, though, teachers will use the ISTEP scores as one of several factors in determining each individual student's specific strengths and weaknesses. The teacher will use that information to develop an individual plan of instruction for each student.

"You really have to tear the data apart," he says. "We'll look at individual student reports. Did an individual student underperform in one particular skill area?'

One student, for example, may be able to read fluently but not comprehend what he's reading; the teacher will design an intervention for that student, Shafer says.
And that places great responsibility on the teachers, he says.

"It's become a very time intensive, specialized profession," Shafer says. "You have to have a tremendous command of teaching methods to deliver the appropriate content."

Unless a teacher has graduated from college in the last few years, he adds, he or she hasn't been trained in those teaching methods. The local corporation is working with its staff to get teachers up to speed in those methods, a process Shafer says has been stymied by the state's recent refusal to allow release time for students in order to offer professional development sessions for teachers.

Shafer believes in this teaching method.

He points to one school in the corporation, where 64 percent of the students were reading on grade level at the beginning of the school year. With the help of individual interventions, he says, 85 percent of those students were reading on grade level by the end of the school year. Of that school's kindergartners, he notes, 98 percent finished the year reading on grade level.

"It works," he says.

"We want to be world class," Shafer says. "What we're doing is not unique to us, but the level of commitment we put into it puts us among a few in the state."

Shafer notes that with the exception of third grade - where a test administration error resulted in one group of students being given scores of zero on their tests - the younger students exceeded the state passing rate by a greater percentage than the older students.

"The scores get better the younger the kids are," he says. "Maybe, instructionally, we're doing a better job.

"It's not where we want to end up. It's a step on our journey to improvement."