The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many disruptions for public education in Indiana, and while that may seem like a good reason to forego the ILEARN test, Republican leaders believe that’s a major reason why testing should take place.

But along with that, they say they support legislation to hold schools harmless from consequences for poor results.

Meanwhile, plans for spring testing are proceeding, according to Holly Lawson, deputy director of communications with the Indiana Department of Education. “ILEARN will continue this spring along with the other scheduled assessment programs,” she stated in an email.

The test must be administered in person, and IDOE has provided schools with guidance for administering ILEARN to remote learners, Lawson said. Students cannot take the test from their homes.

The test measures students’ proficiency of Indiana’s Academic Standards in English/ language arts and math for Grades 3 to 8; science in Grades 4 and 6; and social studies in Grade 5. It also tests high school biology and U.S. Government [the latter is optional].

ILEARN meets federal testing requirements necessary to receive federal funding, although nationally, there is some hope the Biden administration would approve waivers from that testing.

Even if the federal government offered that option, “I don’t think Indiana has an appetite to seek a waiver this spring,” said Terry Spradlin, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association. “The sentiment is, and I support that, we should go ahead and administer ILEARN” to have baseline data related to COVID learning loss.

But ISBA supports accountability waivers, so that test scores would not be used for A-F school grade computations, Spradlin said.

Impact of pandemic

Gov. Eric Holcomb believes assessments are a tool for gauging the impact the pandemic has had on students’ learning, and “understanding where we are today in order to focus on closing student learning gaps,” said Rachel Hoffmeyer, the governor’s press secretary.

Additionally, he recognizes “the unprecedented strain the pandemic has had on our schools and supports accountability hold harmless to prevent unfair consequences. The primary goal is to gather information to best support schools, educators, and students,” she said.

State Sen. Jeff Raatz, R-Richmond, believes that the governor, House and Senate are “pretty much on the same page” as far as administering the spring test. He chairs the senate education committee.

There are various bills calling for hold harmless provisions, on both the Democrat and Republican side. “I believe that will happen. We’re looking at some different ways to do it,” Raatz said.

Spring 2019 was the first time for the new ILEARN, and school scores plummeted from the prior ISTEP test — prompting legislators to pass hold harmless legislation for those results.

ILEARN was not administered in spring 2020 because of COVID, which essentially closed down schools last spring and prompted them to turn to remote/elearning.

“That’s part of my personal reasoning why we should implement the test this spring,” Raatz said. “We need to set a baseline for where students are at ... Do we know there is learning loss? The answer is yes.”

Educators already use formative tests, which provide immediate feedback, to determine where kids are in a subject matter. That information is used to improve instruction and student learning while it’s happening; it varies from district to district.

ILEARN, a summative test, is uniform statewide, and “we get a picture of how students are doing across the state,” Raatz said.

Not everyone agrees

Not everyone agrees administering ILEARN is a good idea, even for baseline data.

State Rep. Tonya Pfaff, D-Terre Haute, believes “we should just take a pause from testing for a year.” A high school math teacher, she has witnessed first-hand the learning loss caused by the pandemic and its disruptions. Schools can spend weeks administering the standardized testing. Pfaff believes the time would be better spent allowing educators to teach kids so they can start filling that learning gap “instead of wasting all that time.”

“I think if you want to know where your student is academically, ask the teacher. I don’t think we need a test to prove what we all pretty much already know,” she said.

According to Vigo County School Corp. officials, prior to ILEARN 2019, statewide testing was helpful in measuring student, school, and district progress for school accountability and individual student learning performance.

However, when ILEARN was rolled out in 2019, scores dropped significantly across the state. Many questioned the validity of the test since the state results were so low and not comparable to other local district or classroom assessments, said Bill Riley, VCSC director of communications.

Some questioned the need for a state test if the results were not useful in better understanding student capabilities or in adjusting classroom instruction.

The district uses other assessments to measure student progress and also to assess learning loss, with data used to provide intervention throughout the year, Riley said.

“We believe in the power of assessment,” Riley said. But whether ILEARN is the end-all, be-all assessment, “We, as well as others, have questions on whether ILEARN is that end-all, be-all.”

VCSC is moving ahead with planning for ILEARN and “we’ll do our best to meet the states requirements during COVID-19,” he said. One concern relates to families who have chosen remote learning versus in-person.

“The challenge will be asking those who chose the remote option to come into a building to do the assessment. We’ll offer every way they can possibly do that,” he said. “I think there is a question on whether families will take us up on that.” They may choose to opt out of ILEARN.

Closing the learning gap

According to Lawson, IDOE has provided schools with different options for remote learners, including bringing students onsite for 1:1 or small group testing; administering tests at a secure alternative location; and scheduling tests for remote learners at different times than onsite learners.

Legislation also has been introduced to help address the pandemic-related learning gap.

House Bill 1008 proposes $150 million for the 2021 state fiscal year to be used for student learning recovery grants. To be eligible, an “entity” would have to develop and submit a student learning acceleration plan.

“How it will be implemented is still being determined. It’s in the House,” Raatz said. “We’ll make an effort to help school districts close the learning gap.”

The ILEARN testing window for grades 3-8 is April 19 to May 14.

The Indiana State Teachers Association would support seeking a federal waiver of the testing requirements for the 2020-21 school year, if that option is available. At the very least, “Schools, students and teachers should be held harmless for the test results over the next two years,” it states in its legislative priorities.

ISTA would like to eliminate or reduce Indiana’s focus on standardized testing.

“Few issues have galvanized Indiana’s educators and parents more than the topic of standardized testing. Indiana spends upwards of $40 million each year on testing instruments [state tests and remediation testing]. Now, with the pandemic and its complicating factors, including necessitating multiple program interruptions, Indiana must reset its priorities on the process of teaching and learning,” ISTA states.

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