GOSHEN — Local business, nonprofit and educational leaders gathered at MapleTronics Computers in Goshen Friday afternoon for a bit of damage control in response to the generally poor 2019 ILEARN test scores released by the Indiana Department of Education Wednesday.

Mandated during the 2017 legislative session and developed with input from more than 1,200 educators, ILEARN, or Indiana’s Learning Evaluation Readiness Network, was created to serve as a replacement for ISTEP+, the state’s former standardized assessment.

According to the IDOE, ILEARN was designed to assess the same Indiana Academic Standards as ISTEP+, but with a redefined focus on rigorous college-and-career readiness.

Spring 2019 served as the first official testing period for the new state exams, which this year assessed proficiency in English/language arts and mathematics in grades 3-8, science in grades 4 and 6, and social studies in grade 5.

Figures released Wednesday by the IDOE show that 47.9% of Indiana students in grades 3-8 passed the English section of the exam, while 47.8% had passing math scores. A total of 37.1% were listed as having received passing scores on both the English and math sections of the test.

THE BIGGER PICTURE

It was those lower-than-expected scores that prompted the group of local leaders to gather for a joint press conference. Among those represented were the superintendents of all seven of Elkhart County’s public school systems, business leader and owner of MapleTronics, Wes Herschberger, and Brian Wiebe, president and CEO of local education nonprofit Horizon Education Alliance.

“The first round of ILEARN results are out, and they’re not good,” Wiebe said in beginning the press conference Friday. “Statewide, only 37% of students passed both the math and English/language arts sections of the test. Only 45 of 17,000 schools in the state of Indiana had any kind of increase in scores from last year’s ISTEP. The very best and most advantaged schools in the state couldn’t pass more than 82% of their students. Here in Elkhart County, the story is the same. But we also know that these results do not tell the whole story.”

According to Wiebe, the full story, the “bigger picture,” is that Elkhart County is made up of a community that stands behind its schools, educators and students.

“We are working together in ways that standardized tests cannot measure to transform the way our children learn and grow, to build strong foundations for learning, and to create clear pathways for students and adults to succeed,” Wiebe told the gathered crowd. “The purpose today is to hear from these educators about the obstacles that they face, and some of the solutions that they propose.”

According to Scot Croner, superintendent of Wa-Nee Community Schools, given the fact that the state has changed its standardized testing system three times since 2014, it is simply unrealistic to expect educators to be able to hit such a fast-moving target.

“We must stop moving the goalposts on teachers and students. These constant changes create confusion, misalignment and gaps in student learning,” Croner told the crowd. “Our education system is on an unsustainable track in our state that is too heavily predicated upon ever-changing standardized assessments and punitive accountability measures. The high stakes inherent in these assessments, and tying these assessments to teacher evaluation, force educators to teach to the test at the expense of things like employability skills, and soft skills, which research tells us will be key to our students’ futures. Politicians need to allow our educators more flexibility and freedom to develop curriculum that is guided by the best interest of students and aligned to the needs of our future economy.”

Croner said it is the educational reform policies instituted over the past 10 years have led the state’s educational system to where it is today: an accountability system which indicates all schools are failing, and metrics that nobody — not parents, not educators, not employers, and not postsecondary institutions — find relevant.

“We can and must do better,” he said. “The educators and community leaders of Elkhart County have accomplished so many great things in this same 10-year period. These achievements have occurred because we have been driven by a focus on what’s best for kids and our economy. What is absent from these decisions are political agendas. With the guidance of leaders just like the individuals in this room today, we can develop a system that accurately measures and drives the effectiveness of schools.”

A sampling of some of the many accomplishments referenced by Croner included:

• Becoming the first county in the state to design and implement a kindergarten readiness inventory for every child.

• The successful collaboration of all seven county school districts on a bid for $3.6 million from the Lilly Endowment to create an initiative called Comprehensive Counseling Collaborative of Elkhart County, where for at least the next four years all 90-plus school counselors in the county will meet regularly to learn proven approaches to social-emotional learning and career readiness.

• Working to bring adult education into the 21st century through tools such as the HEA Adult Pathways program, which partners with local schools to help those in the community who haven’t completed their high school education or need additional training.

COMMUNITY COLLABORATION

Herschberger said that one of the many goals local business leaders, such as himself, have been working on over the last few years is to try and come to the table around education and really do a better job at collaborating with the county’s educational leadership.

“We stepped back just a little bit and we looked at what are the outcomes we all really want from education, and I think we all can agree that we really want all of our kids to be prepared to go into a career of their choice,” Herschberger said. “Business leaders and my peers have been talking quite a bit about the notion that hey, really we need to step up as business leaders and to do our part, to open our businesses up, etc. We need to be able to allow students to have exposure into our businesses. We as business leaders also need to continue to work with our educators to think about those outcomes. And we also would invite the political contingencies to also sit down with us as we think about those particular outcomes.”

MORE THAN TESTING?

For his part, Timothy Tahara, superintendent of Concord Community Schools, noted that much more than simple test scores must be considered when truly trying to gauge the learning that is happening within a particular school system, particularly when it comes to issues such as urban vs. rural, differences in socioeconomic status of students, etc.

“We’ve got a diverse student population that we value at Concord,” Tahara said of the issue. “We have seen great growth data from our strategic plan and the way that we’re trying to look at student assessment each school year. In many cases, our students don’t walk into the door on a level playing field because they’ve had an impact of poverty in their home, because they’re still learning our English language, etc. But our staff does a great job of taking them where they’re at in their individual levels of achievement and moving them forward.”

Diane Woodworth, superintendent of Goshen Community Schools, offered a similar sentiment.

“Research shows that success is often tied to what they jokingly call the ‘zip code effect’, because it has to do with where you live in terms of the economics of the area, so poverty, etc.,” Woodworth explained, noting that about 65% of GCS students on average qualify for the state’s free and reduced lunch program. “Generally speaking, research shows that children from poverty come to school with a much smaller vocabulary, and normally they haven’t had prior formal educational experience, whereas children from middle class or upper middle class homes probably have been in preschool, or daycare, or have that kind of experience. So students who don’t have those experiences tend to come to school behind the playing field. That’s one huge factor for urban schools in particular.”

Another factor that must be considered when looking at assessment data, Woodworth said, is the number of English language learners that a particular school system has. GCS, for example, has an English language learning population that fluctuates between 25% and 35%, depending on the year, she explained.

“I think about our students who, if they’re in our country for one year, they have a one-year reprieve, and then have to take the test. I’m sure that is very stressful,” Woodworth said of the language barrier issue. “And we know, also, that it takes five to six years of practicing that second language to become even close to proficient. So depending on when the English language learners arrive in our country, that affects us K-12, because we have some that come in here for high school. It takes a while to get them all up to speed, and there is no way that the test reflects that. So those are all things that need to be considered when looking at these test results.”

John Kline can be reached at john.kline@goshennews.com or 574-533-2151, ext. 315. Follow John on Twitter @jkline_TGN.

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