Saturday, June 11, 2011

ISTEP Security Breach

HARBESON: Let me pose a question
SELLERSBURG — When standardized testing is used to evaluate schools, one of the major priorities is preventing the specific questions from becoming public before the test is administered.

In the past, when such a “security breach” occurred, the “breachers” hoped to increase scores. But this year, a test item went public for a very different reason.

This particular question was part of the eighth grade writing portion of the ISTEP+, Indiana’s version of government standardized testing. It was made public because those involved in spreading the question around were upset and thought the question promoted the current administration’s education voucher agenda.

In other words, these teachers were worried that people were using the government education system to indoctrinate the children toward a specific viewpoint.

On the other side, we have the administration’s response, which may be even more interesting. Heather Neal, chief of staff for Indiana’s Department of Education, issued a memo to the schools explaining this ISTEP+ security breach and defending those in charge of government education against this accusation of political manipulation.

In this three-page memo, which you can read for yourself here, Neal includes a table listing 16 steps the test item went through. After its birth at a private test vendor, the test item was then passed around to various groups who punched, poked and prodded the poor thing for two years. She says there is no possible way the question could have been placed in the test to promote a 2011 legislative agenda item.

In other words, the current cost-cutting, efficiency-focused administration used their costly government bureaucracy as a defense against the accusation.

By now you’re probably wondering what that test question said. Well here it is:

“Your school has just announced a program that will allow a group of eighth-graders from your class to attend high school anywhere in the United States. You will have all of your expenses paid for by a special scholarship program.

“Write a persuasive essay to your school’s selection committee explaining why you should be chosen and where you would like to go to high school. In your persuasive essay, tell about the personal qualities you have that would make you a good choice. Explain why you want to go to high school in the town or city you have chosen.”

It is, of course, a matter of personal opinion and interpretation as to whether you think this question could be promoting government vouchers. The question does not explain whether private high schools are included in the program nor does it clarify where the funds for the “special scholarship program” are coming from.

And why should it? Government schools never talk to students about their funding model. This is never part of the curriculum because it would naturally lead to all sorts of uncomfortable questions from the kids as they tried to reconcile this with the lessons teaching that bullying and threatening violence against others to get what you want is wrong.

It’s interesting to see how the content of a single test question mattered so much to both groups. Why were these teachers so upset that this question may be supporting vouchers and why was the current administration so determined to say they had nothing to do with the question, even specifically pointing out that the state superintendent of public instruction had nothing to do with the development of the question?

Could it be that both groups clearly understand that standardized testing is a powerful tool used to control the curriculum and as a result, the very thinking of the students who are forced to comply?

— Sellersburg resident Debbie Harbeson thinks a mind is a terrible thing to standardize.

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