States

Indiana Test Furor Adds to State’s K-12 Tension

By Andrew Ujifusa — February 24, 2015 6 min read
Supporters of Indiana schools chief Glenda Ritz, who has clashed with GOP policymakers, turned out at the statehouse in Indianapolis, amid a controversy this month over testing.
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Indiana officials have been scrambling to alter the state assessment that students are due to start taking this week, after the state education department announced late last month that the test for elementary and middle school students would take more than 12 hours to complete—more than double its previous length.

K-12 leaders in the state agreed on a hastily constructed plan to eliminate or make optional the social studies portion of the test and waive other requirements for the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress-Plus, or ISTEP+.

But the department’s announcement also triggered another flare-up between state Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz and Gov. Mike Pence, the latest in a long line of such disagreements, and one that could lead to a further reduction in Ms. Ritz’s power. The fight over the ISTEP+ landed in the middle of a debate over legislation to strip Ms. Ritz of her role as chairwoman of the state school board.

Common-Core Connection

The state’s troubles come on the heels of its decision last year to drop the Common Core State Standards and seek a test aligned to its new standards.

By contrast, Arizona and Florida are two states where officials have made a relatively smooth transition to new assessments after they decided, like Indiana, to drop a common-core consortium’s test, said Anne Hyslop, a senior policy analyst who follows assessment issues at Bellwether Education Partners, a Washington consulting firm.

“Part of that may be because there was more collaboration among state government officials who had a better working relationship,” Ms. Hyslop said.

At an Indiana state board meeting in August, board member Brad E. Oliver asked about the length of the new ISTEP+, which is based on the standards the state adopted last April to replace the common core. He said this was a “paramount concern” for schools because of worries about a loss of instructional time.

The department’s assessment director, Michelle Walker, said at the August board meeting the department wouldn’t know the answer about testing time until December because teachers were still reviewing items to be selected for the test.

Ms. Ritz, a Democrat, also said at last August’s meeting that her department would give answers to that and other frequently asked questions from parents and others about the test.

But in fact, the news about the longer ISTEP+ to be given to 450,000 students in grades 3-8 did not break until the end of last month. Teachers and others expressed shock about the 12-hour length of the test that was slated to be roughly as long as the state’s bar exam, and board member Gordon Hendry told the Indianapolis Star that the entire state “has been taken off guard by this bombshell.”

Emergency Action

In response, Gov. Pence, a Republican, issued an executive order Feb. 9 requiring the state’s office of management and budget to make recommendations regarding how to shorten the test. The governor’s order states in part that “tests of this extraordinary length can create significant anxiety for Hoosier students, families, and educators.”

Gov. Pence and Ms. Ritz briefly traded barbs in the local media, with Ms. Ritz arguing that the governor was using the testing issue to attack her. She added that the test was designed to accommodate the standards Indiana adopted to replace the common core.

Ms. Ritz also said the state board should have been prepared for a longer test based on the board discussions in August. She and the state board have also had several high-profile disputes.

On Feb. 13, during an emergency state board meeting called by Ms. Ritz, members adopted recommendations from testing consultants selected by Gov. Pence on how to shorten the ISTEP+ exam. In addition to eliminating the ISTEP+ in social studies for grades 5 and 7, the board agreed that the state should administer portions of the test to a smaller sample of students and limit the release of certain open-ended test items.

The consultants, however, told the board that even though overall proficiency levels wouldn’t be affected by restricting the sample of students taking portions of the test, the reliability of scores from individual students might be reduced. The testing window for ISTEP+ was slated to begin Feb. 25, according to the department.

Part of the Struggle

The Indiana state board agreed to limit the release of certain items and administer portions of the tests to fewer students. Legislators quickly moved to codify the state board’s support for eliminating the social studies portion of the ISTEP+ for certain students.

But the long-term power struggle between Ms. Ritz and the rest of the state GOP leadership also could affect the issue. A controversial piece of legislation under consideration by lawmakers would remove the state superintendent as the state school board’s chairperson—the governor also supports removing the state superintendent’s role as the state board’s leader. Ms. Ritz has said the bill is designed specifically to isolate her. (Her department did not respond to requests for comment.)

A separate measure, Indiana House Bill 1072, which originally dealt with higher education and not K-12 testing, was altered on Feb. 17 to allow the state board to seek legislative analysts’ help in determining the accuracy of ISTEP+ performance categories created by Ms. Ritz’s department. State board members would also be given new powers to review student-performance data from schools and districts. A spokeswoman for Gov. Pence wrote in an email that House Bill 1072 is “not part of the Governor’s agenda.”

In his first State of the State address, Gov. Abbott endorsed legislation that would assign letter grades to public schools based on their academic performance.

In a budget summary that expanded on his address, Gov. Abbott said the state should require “that each public school publish an A-F report card on its campus website.” The governor said he wants to “ensure that parents, students, and teachers have better access to valuable information about their school’s performance.”

In his speech, Mr. Abbott also called for giving public school parents more choice of where their children receive instruction and from whom they receive it. During his campaign, Mr. Abbott proposed adjusting Texas’ parent-trigger law, making it easier for parents to petition the education commissioner to close or reform a low-performing school. “To prevent students from being stuck in failing schools, the state should empower parents to petition to change campus management at underachieving schools,” his budget summary said.

In his speech, the governor declared support for creating an Achievement School District to manage the state’s lowest-performing elementary schools and provide special attention for their students. Michigan began a similar initiative in 2012.

The governor’s proposed budget also includes $182 million for prekindergarten programs and specialized training for teachers in prekindergarten through 3rd grade.

Another $164 million is proposed for digital instruction, targeting low-performing schools, and to help prepare high school students for state-mandated end-of-course exams.

Without offering clear-cut guidance, Gov. Abbott said it’s urgent that the state resolve decades-old lawsuits over school funding.

“I think we can all agree it’s time to put school finance litigation behind us,” he said. “It’s time to stop fighting about school finance and start fixing our schools.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 25, 2015 edition of Education Week as Testing Drama Latest Tension in Indiana K-12

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