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Muncie Schools superintendent: Strong link between ISTEP scores and poverty rates

MUNCIE, Ind. – A central Indiana superintendent is pointing out flaws in ISTEP results. Steven Baule, who leads Muncie Community Schools, says he found a strong link between poverty rates and ISTEP pass rates.

"If you have students on free or reduced lunch, your ISTEP scores are going to be lower than if you have fewer students on free lunch," Baule said.

Baule tells FOX59 he analyzed test results and the percentage of students who qualify for free lunch in 23 school districts. He found a negative correlation between the two.

"We have a system, basically, that goes out of its way to penalize urban districts and penalize school districts that have large percentages of poverty compared to suburban school districts without those issues," Baule said.

This year in Muncie, 37.7 percent of third through eighth graders passed both portions of the exam. The district's outcome is far under the state average of just over 65 percent. And, nearly 68 percent of Muncie students qualify for free lunch.

"To use that one size fits all measure is not a good measure," Baule said. "We need to look at schools much more holistically."

Superintendents in other school districts have also spoken out about the validity of ISTEP test results. Dr. Jeff Butts, superintendent of MSD of Wayne Township, released a statement saying in part:

"The lagging data that is most useful to us from the annual ISTEP+ exam continues to be the individual student's growth data from year to year.  Given our continued lack of confidence in the test and the vendor, we rely on multiple measures to help us modify instruction to best meet our scholars' needs and to accelerate their academic growth."

Baule said simply looking at whether students pass or fail a test is not the full picture. The ISTEP test results are also part of a school's A-F accountability grade.

"We are labeling something that clearly cannot be summed up in a simple letter grade," Baule said.

But, the trend noted by Baule does not play out at all schools. Students at the Paramount School of Excellence in Indianapolis managed to achieve an 81.4 percent pass rate in 2017. Nearly 83 percent of the students at the school qualify for free lunch.

"There are absolutely exceptions," Baule said. "Part of that is because of the parent support and parent interaction that those schools have that a traditional public school doesn’t necessarily have."

Indiana Department of Education officials cite results in some districts that counter Baule's findings.

"Our state is full of dedicated and hardworking educators working each day to provide this atmosphere, and evidence of this success can be seen time and again, such as through this year’s ISTEP scores," said Adam Baker, spokesperson for the IDOE. "Even within the recent release of scores, there are schools that have a high number of children on the free and reduced lunch program and yet are showing ISTEP passing percentages that beat the State average – some even as high as 96.8 percent. With this is mind, we will continue to support the great teachers and parents working diligently to prove our children can overcome any challenge."

The ISTEP is set to be replaced in the 2018-2019 school year.