Hoosiers ought to pay attention to Jennifer McCormick. McCormick, the state superintendent of public instruction, says Hoosier politicians in recent years have done way too much tinkering with standardized testing. In the end, she said, it might be up to the voters to send that message.

“We are who we vote for,” she told The Associated Press.

McCormick, a former school superintendent and teacher, has often found herself at odds with Gov. Eric Holcomb and other Indiana politicians. She was elected as a Republican in 2016, but she quickly tired of the political maneuvering, announcing early on that she would not seek a second term.

That decision seemed to be liberating, leaving McCormick free to speak her mind. And what she says now is that Indiana’s leaders really ought to put more stock in what the professional educators have to say.

For the record, Holcomb and other Indiana leaders have acknowledged that it wouldn’t be fair to judge Indiana’s schools and teachers based on this year’s test results. McCormick, though, would like to see them go a step further, to acknowledge that a single test will never be the magic bullet they’re hoping for.

Her comments came in the wake of news that fewer than half of Indiana students passed the state’s latest high-stakes test.

Statewide results from last spring’s ILEARN showed that 47.9% of students in grades 3-8 met or exceeded proficiency standards in language arts and 47.8% met or exceeded them in math. Both numbers fell more than 10 percentage points below last year’s ISTEP results when 64.6% of students passed language arts and 58.9% passed math.

McCormick says the two exams aren’t comparable. They cover different material, she said, and the new test uses tougher standards for determining whether students are making sufficient progress.

McCormick noted that if her department were to use the new results to evaluate schools, more than half would receive a D or F, up from about 15% a year ago. But she disputes any suggestion that Indiana’s students are losing ground.

“We are seeing some promising trends of our student performance going up,” she said. “This assessment is just much more rigorous.”

That’s not to say the numbers were encouraging. Slightly more than 37% of students met or exceeded standards in both English and math.

The underlying statistics confirm what we’ve known for years. Students in suburban school districts tend to outperform those from the inner city. Students who go home to a hot meal and a good night’s sleep tend to score better than those who go home to a household where the parents work two jobs to keep food on the table.

Judging teachers and schools based strictly on their performance on a single test ignores all those differences. It’s not a mystery why the highest rated schools tend to be in the affluent suburbs while those with the lowest ratings can often be found in the inner city.

What Indiana’s leaders really ought to be trying to learn from these standardized tests is not who scores high and who scores low. What they really need to find out is whether students are learning anything.

Are the students who struggle scoring better or falling further behind? Are those who score higher seeing their results improve or stay the same?

We can’t make that judgment, of course, based on a single score on a brand new test. We need multiple years to find any sort of trend.

And if we truly want to make those sorts of comparisons, we need to stop fooling around with the test.
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