News and Tribune

August 2, 2013

Indiana schools chief begins her education overhaul

Glenda Ritz outlines vision for meeting student, teacher needs


> SOUTHERN INDIANA — Educators should be allowed to concentrate on identifying the needs of individual students, not on teaching them to score well on deeply flawed standardized tests.

That’s the vision laid out by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz during a presentation Tuesday night at the Bartholomew County Public Library.

A crowd of about 80 was represented heavily by educators from the Bartholomew Consolidated and Flat Rock-Hawcreek school districts. School board members from both districts, State Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, and State Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, also attended.

Ritz’ presentation came two days before her predecessor, Tony Bennett, abruptly resigned from his Florida education commissioner post amid allegations he improved the grade of an Indianapolis charter school whose owner heavily contributed to Bennett’s campaign.

The former teacher, elected to office as a Democrat in November, encouraged educators to continue voicing support for a better assessment system through phone calls to legislators, social media and letters to the editor in newspapers.

She also spoke about her plans to improve literacy, to shift the burden of data collection from local school districts to the state, and to make sure every school gets the letter grade it deserves on the A-F Accountability scale, a system she doesn’t even like.

Her contention that the state should stop bossing around schools and instead trust them to teach students based on their individual needs resonated with her local audience.

Ritz said the state puts so much stock in students’ performance on standardized tests — such as ISTEP+ for third- through eighth-graders — that teachers are forced to “teach to the test” so student perform as well as possible.

The state uses the result of standardized tests for its A-F accountability scale. Failing schools under that system are required to implement certain changes to improve their ratings. Schools that fail multiple times in a row can be taken over by the state.

Individually, students need to pass the ISTEP+ test to advance to the next grade level.

Ritz said one problem with tying consequences to standardized tests is that the tests amount to a one-size-fits-all approach.

No attention is paid to the fact that some students don’t do well on tests and that students have unique needs that educators should address individually.

Growth models are far more effective, Ritz said, because they determine the abilities of each child by adjusting the difficulty of questions as students work on their computers. When a child answers a question correctly, the next question is more difficult. When a child answers a question incorrectly, the next question is easier.

The result is that educators identify the abilities of all students so they can help them improve in their weakest areas.

Ritz called ISTEP+ a waste of time and money. She said teachers know ahead of time which students will pass and which will fail.

Forcing them to take tests practically puts high-performing students to sleep and discourages those students who probably will not pass. The biggest danger of discouragement is that students drop out of school, Ritz said.

Instead, she said, the emphasis should be placed on identifying students’ strengths and helping them find the courses that play to their interests so someday they can land a rewarding job.