Indiana Testing Woes Fuel Electoral Battles
High-stakes testing has roiled Indiana's political scene for years, pitting business leaders, parents, educators, and politicians against one another and playing out in Shakespearean-like power grabs, scandals, and high-profile resignations.
In the wake of botched test scores last school year, Hoosiers revolted, and soon the state legislature placed a moratorium on the entire statewide testing operation.
Now, the anxieties, confusion, and anger over the future of ISTEP, as the exam is known, have spilled over into this year's election cycle.
Candidates for governor and state superintendent are debating whether to reel back the weight test scores have on student grades, teacher evaluations, and district score cards, or junk the exam and replace it with a new one—which would be Indiana's third standardized test in as many years.
And in an election year in which education is a lower-tier topic on the national stage, testing is at the top of the mind for many in the Hoosier State.
Witness the scene last week at Lawrence North High School in one of Indianapolis' leafy suburbs, where John Gregg, the Democratic nominee for governor and his Republican opponent, Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb, faced off in a debate in front of high school students bused in from across the state.
Given a chance to ask the candidates anything they wanted, there was widespread consensus among the hundreds of chatty high school students gathered in the school's auditorium: "Do you have a plan to replace the ISTEP?"
That same day, just 18 miles south, the state's local superintendents and school board members gathered for lunch in the state convention center's ballroom and fired questions on the subject at the two candidates for state schools chief, incumbent Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, and Republican challenger Jennifer McCormick.
"I'm not a firm believer that the test should determine everything," McCormick, the current district superintendent of Yorktown schools, said during a sit-down interview with Education Week. "But there's a purpose to testing and how it should be used in the classroom to improve students' and teachers' skills."
Ritz seemed to take a harder line in a separate candidates' forum with local superintendents last week.
"Testing has interfered in the classroom at the expense of teaching and learning," she said.
Indiana isn't the only state facing political heartburn over the issue of assessments. Across the nation last spring, more than 600 bills were proposed in statehouses to shape the amount and type of standardized testing conducted in school houses, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Lawmakers in Colorado and New York did an about-face after thousands of parents opted their children out of exams in spring 2015 and then again this year. And in Arizona, legislators are considering just letting districts figure out what exam they want to take, a potential violation of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.
While in prior years, it was easy for state politicians to point their fingers at the federal government and hide behind the mantle of local control, they will soon have to answer for any potential fallout from new accountability systems, a sensitive and potentially volatile arena. The reason: ESSA gives state legislatures more power to decide how to grade students, teachers, and schools.
And in few places have assessments been as politicized as in Indiana.
The deeply conservative state bolted out the gate in the early 2000s, making test scores part of teachers' evaluations, and, like many states, basing its entire accountability model on exam results. Students "trapped" at failing schools were given vouchers to transfer to private schools or one of the growing number of charter schools in the state.
But the ambitious accountability system ran into trouble.
In 2013, Indiana's legislature tossed its recently adopted Common Core State Standards and pulled out of a federally funded consortium for developing aligned tests. Education leaders in just a handful of months picked new standards and hired CTB McGraw-Hill to write and administer a new test, a process observers called messy and chaotic.
System Under Seige
That summer, Florida education Commissioner Tony Bennett resigned after it was reported that while the superintendent of Indiana from 2008 through 2012, he increased the scores of a flailing charter school that was being led by a major GOP donor.
Earlier this year, The Indianapolis Star discovered that because of a technical glitch, CTB McGraw-Hill may have botched the state's test scores. (McGraw-Hill said the error was quickly corrected and didn't have a dramatic impact on test results.)
Then Gov. Mike Pence—now the GOP nominee for vice president—placed a moratorium on the exam's impact and signed legislation in March that would do away with the exam next summer. He appointed a task force made up of legislators, business leaders, and educators to pick either a new exam or make changes to the existing one.
Gregg, the Democratic nominee for governor, thinks the legislature should give power back to local superintendents and teachers to pick how to evaluate the quality of their schools.
"A war has been declared on public education," said Gregg during the presentation last week to the state's school board members and superintendents. Gregg touted that he was against the creation of ISTEP early on in his political career. "Why in the world has the governor's administration decided they should be the local school board is beyond me."
His Republican opponent, Holcomb, thinks the state should charge ahead and keep the current A-F accountability system in place and continue to evaluate teachers based on test scores, though he said he's willing to make tweaks.
"I believe that we should have a shorter test with quicker results so it's meaningful for students, parents and to the schools," Holcomb said at the presentation. "Teachers need to understand how to continue to raise the bar and strive to be better."
Libertarian candidate Rex Bell said the state government should get out of testing entirely. "What we have always been in support of is returning local control to the parents, teachers, and the school board," he said.
Both superintendent candidates want to get rid of the A-F system and adopt a dashboard approach that incorporates several indicators.
"One letter grade shouldn't tell you everything about a school," McCormick told local superintendents and board members at last week's presentation.
Ritz, who has been criticized for both her communication with superintendents and her department's handling of the exam, told those local officials she will soon present a plan of her own to the committee working on the testing issue.
"Educators can tell how well a child will perform on a test before the state goes and spends millions of dollars on it," Ritz said.
Local superintendents involved with the appointed assessment committee have said not much progress has been made during the three times they've convened and the handful of educators at the table aren't being heard. They fear the state will revert to the old exam if the committee doesn't come up with something before next year's legislative session.
During a recent session in Indianapolis on the state's assessments and accountability program, a group of superintendents complained about the stalled progress on picking a new exam and how it was affecting their ability to figure out where students are academically and make decisions such as whether to promote them to the next grade.
As the session wrapped up, superintendents, visibly flustered, went through their options.
In the back of the room, one superintendent asked, "What if we just chose not to take the exam?"
Vol. 36, Issue 07, Pages 1, 24Published in Print: October 5, 2016, as Indiana's Testing Woes Fuel Electoral Battles