ISTEP+ is a longstanding source of frustration and contention in state education policy, but this week the state’s standardized test for students is an encouraging source of bipartisan agreement at the Indiana Statehouse.
It’s encouraging because the consensus to put Indiana’s punitive school accountability system on hold is an acknowledgement by Gov. Mike Pence and key lawmakers that ISTEP+ is an imperfect tool. It’s encouraging because quick approval of a measure holding schools harmless for the problem-plagued test removes uncertainty for schools and teachers. It’s encouraging because bipartisan accord is a positive way to start the session.
House Bill 1003 and Senate Bill 200, both of which passed out of committee Wednesday, address problems with the 2015 administration of ISTEP+. Test scores fell statewide. Under the state’s accountability system, schools are labeled with an A-to-F grade based – in part – on the scores.
Under scores released this week, the percentage of A schools would drop from more than 53 percent to fewer than 23 percent. The number of F schools would grow from 4 percent to 17.6 percent, making thousands of additional students eligible for private-school vouchers.
Problems with the statewide test were predicted long before any student picked up a pencil. Indiana pulled out of the Common Core state standards in 2014 and adopted its own college-and-career-ready standards. As a result, students faced test questions last spring on material that teachers had no opportunity to present. Problems were compounded by the administration of the test itself. Questions about how the tests were scored by the vendor, CTB/McGraw-Hill, also have been raised.
Glenda Ritz, superintendent of public instruction, called for the accountability delay more than a year ago, but the governor and key education leaders in the General Assembly objected.
"Governor Pence has made it clear that we test our kids every day, and we can test our schools every year," the governor’s office said in a statement last February, "Suspending school grades is not the answer."
But educators and school board officials pressed for the delay, and Pence was eventually persuaded.
Brian Smith, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association and former superintendent of Southwest Allen County Schools, said in an email that his organization supports the one-year accountability pause.
"ISBA supports accountability that makes sense," Smith wrote. "Less time and money should be spent on high stakes end-of-year assessments, and more time on periodic formative classroom assessments, which will allow teachers to adjust lessons in response to student learning. This will allow schools to actually use student data to improve and inform instruction."
ISBA’s position speaks to the much larger problem with ISTEP+: It is an ill-suited tool for measuring performance of students, teachers, schools and school corporations. The push to do so comes from so-called school reform groups like Stand for Children and the pro-voucher Institute for Quality Education, both of which testified Wednesday in opposition to the accountability delay.
Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, and House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said this week they expect to send both bills to the governor for his signature by the end of the month.
But lawmakers shouldn’t stop there. The test problems should raise questions about other reform measures pushed with the same urgency as the accountability measures tied to ISTEP+. The real encouragement for Indiana schools will come with an honest appraisal of all of Indiana’s current education policies.