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The Journal Gazette

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Thursday, January 21, 2016 10:41 pm

Pence signs bill protecting schools from dismal ISTEP+ scores

Niki Kelly | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS - Indiana teachers and schools will be protected from last year's dismal ISTEP+ scores, under emergency legislation signed into law by Gov. Mike Pence Thursday.  

Two companion bills made it through the Indiana Senate and House in about two weeks, with final votes Thursday. All northeast Indiana lawmakers supported the measures.

Pence praised Republicans and Democrats for coming together when the need arose - a theme pushed by everyone involved.

"We have all worked together for one purpose...a better outcome for our schools and our teachers," said Senate President Pro Tem David Long.

House Bill 1003 prohibits the use of the 2015 ISTEP scores to negatively impacts a teacher's evaluation, pay or bonuses. 

Senate Bill 200 holds schools and corporations "harmless" in terms of their A-F accountability grade for the 2014-2015 school year.

Those grades primarily rely on ISTEP scores. Under the bill, a school's grade could go up but not down. If the calculation was for a lower grade the school would receive it's previous year grade.

ISTEP scores dropped drastically due to the state moving to new college and career-ready academic standards, as well as a more rigorous test. 

In 2014-2015, 53.5 percent of students statewide passed both math and English/language arts in grades 3-8. In comparison, 74.7 percent of students passed both subjects the year before.

Pence, Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz and lawmakers agreed a one-year pause is necessary during this transition. 

The Indiana Democratic Party pointed out that Ritz pushed for at least 18 months for accountability flexibility but Republicans ignored the call until seeing the dramatic drop in testing scores.

"Mike Pence and Statehouse Republicans have finally joined Glenda Ritz in tackling one of today’s biggest problems facing Indiana’s schools," said Democratic State Chairman John Zody. "As a result of Superintendent Ritz's leadership, both chambers of the legislature have passed "hold harmless" for our schools, teachers, and students."

He added that Pence only acted in the face of a public relations crisis. 

"Hoosier parents and educators know who their real advocate is at the Statehouse: Glenda Ritz."

Pence at the bill signing on Thursday gave Ritz credit for bringing up the issue as a possibility last summer and thanked her for her passion and leadership.

"I have appreciated recent momentum behind this vital issue, but it is worth noting that this issue should have been dealt with a year ago," Ritz said in a statement. "Had we done so, there is no doubt that much of the consternation and difficulty our schools experienced in the last year could have been avoided.  Our students and schools need leadership that focuses on them, not ideology."

The State Board of Education is set to publicly announce the A to F grades Tuesday.

The initial grades leaked last month - showing that statewide the number of A schools would have been 466 - or 22.8 percent - for the 2014-15 school year. That is compared to 53.6 percent the year before. The number of F schools would have been 359 - or 17.6 percent. That is compared to 4 percent the year before. 

But with this new "hold harmless" approach, the drop should be mitigated.