Why Our ISAT Scores Don't Go Up

This week, the House Education Committee just voted to abolish our state standards in schools linked to English, Math, and Science. Not amend these, not tweak, but abolish all of them! Their reason: Our ISAT scores that are based on these don’t seem to be moving much. I agree that our test scores are pretty lackluster, but something important to consider: Is it the standards or the tests? Many of these numbers work on the premise that the ISAT, our standard achievement exam, is an accurate measure of what is going on in schools. Is it though? My bet is that if you really understood how schools get their ‘definitive’ ISAT scores, you’d realize that we are shooting in the dark. Here’s how the system works:

At the secondary level, ISAT tests are only taken in 7th, 8th and 10th grade. There are four ISAT exams: 2 math, 2 English. ISAT English covers reading comprehension, vocabulary, etc, and math is a mix of Algebra and Geometry principles. This year, we are supposed to start using the ISAT Science exams too, but this is new. Teachers are NEVER supposed to see exam questions, but for the last few years, 2 90-question (without answers!) packets have been available for schools to use. Schools can also use Interim (practice) exams to prepare their students, which are basically just practice sessions of taking the exam. Outside of looking at the sample questions (without answers), educators are not ever supposed to see the contents of an ISAT exam, and recording these by schools is prohibited. A school’s ISAT score consists of how well its 8th or 10th graders did on 4 exams that the school has almost no material to prepare kids with and neither students, nor teachers, nor administrators have much buy in or tools to improve these scores.

Students have little buy in because the ISAT affects them in no meaningful way. It’s not for a grade, doesn’t need to be passed, and isn’t a graduation requirement. Unlike the SAT or ACT, the ISAT will not help students get into college. The 4 exams typically take between 4-6 hours. Once we add the science, it will take many students between 7-8 hours to finish all the exams. If students guess on their exams to finish quickly, there is no consequence just as there is no reward if students score well. So from the student perspective, the state wants you to spend about 6-8 hours taking exams that will not help your grades, not qualify you for any colleges, and is not needed to graduate. And we are depending on the students to care even though there’s absolutely nothing in it for them.

Also, teachers have little connection to the ISAT. There are only two subjects tested, and only in 8th and 10th grade. How does a 12th grade English teacher prepare her students for the 10th grade ISAT exam (that they already took)? How does a 10th grade Art teacher prepare his students for their English and Math tests? Because it only covers 2 subjects and has so little study material, it’s nearly impossible for teachers to weave ISAT materials into their course curriculums. If you are covering the standards in your classroom, you must assume the test is standard based without ever knowing or seeing what types of questions your kids will be asked. Also, if you don’t teach one of the grade levels or subjects, I guess you must assume you are helping your school’s ISAT score if you are teaching to the standards even though your courses and your students are mostly not the grade level or subjects we tested. And don’t forget: teachers NEVER get to see the exams!

Even administrators have difficulty making the ISAT important. While ISATs typically do count for evaluation, since it’s not subject specific, administrators must use the same school score for all teachers. How does the administrator evaluate the economics teacher over a test on Algebra and Geometry? Additionally, the school’s score will be determined only by how test takers in specific grade levels will do. Sophomores are usually 25% of a school population, which means that typically, 75% of the students are not counted for a school’s “definitive” ISAT score. How does the admin get her 11th grade teachers to help improve the school’s (10th grade) ISAT score? What administrators must do in evaluation is determine one aggregate ISAT score for the school combining the all of the tests and use it for all their teachers. That means that if one teacher is teaching to the standards, and another is not, they both receive the same school ISAT score on their evals!

This means that the “definitive” ISAT score given to the school by the state is actually how a small segment of the students-who will benefit in no way from the exam-score during specific grades. In theory, these students will be prepared for this exam by teachers, the majority of which don’t teach the subject or the grade levels the students will be tested in to take tests these teachers have never seen. And in theory, teachers are helped by school administrators who cannot measure their individual contribution to the exam due to its standardized nature and cannot attach exam performance definitively to any specific teachers. So how is anyone in the building supposed to affect ISAT performance in any meaningful way? It’s a Mickey Mouse system, which is why the only folks who really care about these tests are policy wonks and people with an agenda.

So now the reader has front line knowledge of how the ISATs actually work in schools. Are the standards the issue or the way we test on these standards? And is it fair to rank schools on their performance in such a flawed system?


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