Indiana Moves to Shake Up Testing System

Change to spring exams would mark biggest shift to program in 10 years.

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Indiana is on pace to change how and when it tests students, following the state board of education’s approval last week of a new assessment system that is supposed to be a little cheaper for the state, and a little shorter for students.

Now, it’s the legislature’s turn to grapple with the issue when lawmakers return in January for the 2007 session.

The new assessment system, approved unanimously by the board in a voice vote on Nov. 1, would switch when schools administer the state’s standardized test, called ISTEP-PLUS, from the fall to the spring.

The state would break up the new spring test, used to meet requirements under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, into two smaller tests in grades 3-8. The multiple-choice part would be given at the end of the school year to measure student’s mastery of state standards, and a writing test, with essays and open-ended questions, would be given a few weeks earlier.

The state’s current high school exit exam, first given in the 10th grade, would be replaced by more comprehensive, end-of-course exams in Algebra 1 and 10th grade English. The current test, which students must pass to graduate, is based on 9th grade standards.

With the high-stakes exams moving to the spring, the state then would provide diagnostic tests in the fall that teachers could use throughout the year in grades K-12 to evaluate and measure students’ progress.

The shift would mark the most significant change to Indiana’s testing system since the current version was created in 1996, when the state implemented its graduation exam.

“This sounds exactly like what I was advocating all along,” said state Rep. Robert W. Behning, the chairman of the House education committee, who has pushed to retool the state’s standardized test. “We wanted it to be shorter, cheaper, more diagnostic, with the summative test in the spring.”

Though the state board of education can make policy decisions about the content, scoring, and administration of the test, the legislature’s approval will ultimately be needed because lawmakers control the state’s purse strings and must appropriate money for state assessments.

Next year, the legislature will craft a new two-year state budget and set aside money for testing. The state’s current testing system costs about $39 million a year, which includes remediation for struggling students.

Though the new testing system could cost less, depending on how much of the new test can be administered online, it’s unclear what the new plan’s price tag will be. State education officials expect the initial cost to be more because of one-time start-up expenses, such as piloting the new exams.

Legislative approval of the new plan isn’t a sure thing, either. Republicans currently control the House and Senate in Indiana, but the margin is so narrow in the House that Democrats could take control after this week’s elections. If that happens, a split Statehouse could cause gridlock on many issues—including on testing—especially in a budget year.

The timing of Indiana’s test has long been debated in the state, with many arguing about whether it’s better to test students in the fall and give teachers time to remediate those who struggle, or to test in the spring, which could be a better tool to gauge what students have learned during the school year.

A Campaign Issue

Some lawmakers have tried to change the test to the spring for years, with no success. But Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels made switching the test to spring a campaign issue when he ran for governor in 2004.

Since taking office, Mr. Daniels has appointed 10 new members to the 11-member board, which includes Superintendent of Public Instruction Suellen K. Reed, who is separately elected and serves as the board’s chairwoman. Most of them support a spring test.

Ms. Reed, who has opposed switching the test to the spring but voted for the plan last week, said she can accept the new plan because it also provides testing in the fall.

“It’s kind of a trade-off. There are parts of it I like more than others,” said Ms. Reed, who is in the middle of her fourth, four-year term in office. “What we really wanted to do is provide testing throughout the year to find out if kids are on the right track.”

During the legislative session earlier this year, lawmakers approved legislation instructing the state board of education to look at Indiana’s assessment system, including when the test is given.

The result was the plan approved last week, about seven months after the board began reviewing the testing system.

Even if the legislature approves the plan by appropriating enough money to implement it, Ms. Reed said it would likely take about three years to fully execute it. Since the test would change, the state would have to enter into a new contract with a testing company, pilot the exams, and develop grading systems and cut scores.

Nevertheless, the board of education is in a hurry. As part of its resolution, the board instructed the department of education to get a request for bids ready to present to interested testing companies by the board’s December meeting, which is less than a month away.

Timing again became a point of contention as Ms. Reed questioned whether her staff could put together a complex bid-requirement package in just a few weeks.

But board member David Shane echoed the thoughts of the other members by declaring the matter “urgent,” since lawmakers convene in January and must have something to work with.

But Ms. Reed, in pledging to do her best, also said: “I don’t want to mess up. If we take it serious, then we have to make sure we do it right.”

Vol. 26, Issue 11, Pages 18-19

Published in Print: November 8, 2006, as Indiana Moves to Shake Up Testing System
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