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Disparate Indiana pols agree ISTEP answers needed

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Indiana's top Statehouse leaders all agree they'd like some answers from CTB/McGraw-Hill on the ISTEP+ failures, and they could get some as soon as the end of the week.

A legislative panel studying why 78,000 test-takers were frozen out of the high-stakes exam test last month plans to meet Friday to hear from CTB/McGraw-Hill President Ellen Haley on what went wrong. Schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz, meanwhile, plans an outside review determining the validity of the test results. That could be completed within a month.

Both are aimed at finding out how the state's can't-fail test failed.

"Obviously, we want some answers from CTB/McGraw-Hill. That is our greatest concern right now," said Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne. "Going forward, are we in danger of having this happen again? Is it the vendor's fault? Why did it happen? And what can be done to avoid it in the future? How did it impact the kids at the different levels?"

He said the range of possible solutions includes "going back to pencil and paper to changing vendors and modernizing and getting a better system, if that's what it takes. ... But one thing we know is what happened can't be tolerated again."

Nobody's ready just yet to dump McGraw-Hill, which has a four-year, $95 million contract to provide the test. Nor is anyone ready to revert to paper and pencil. But the frustration has provided a bit of unity in a building where Republican lawmakers recently joined forces to hand Republican Gov. Mike Pence his first veto override last week.

"We have to hold our vendor accountable. It's important that every vendor of the state provide the services that have been contracted in a timely and effective way, and we want to understand what happened with regard to the ISTEP testing," Pence said.

The broad strokes of the troubles have been well-reported by this point. The state's critically important standardized test stalled amid server troubles from McGraw-Hill, which apparently could not handle the crush of online test-takers. But the "how" has yet to be fully explained, and determining how to make sure it doesn't happen again has not been reached.

Senate Education Chairman Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, said he's hoping Friday's hearing will give lawmakers and the public a chance to hear firsthand about the frustrations and angst caused by testing glitches and the company's explanation for why it happened.

"It'll be interesting to hear her presentation," he said of Haley.

The clock is running on answers. Teacher assessments and school grades must be completed in the coming months. Ritz has already advised local leaders to consider reducing the weight that test results carry in teacher assessments and said she will not use invalid test results to determine where schools fall on the state's "A-F" scale.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, has led many of the education changes in recent years that have given increased importance to the ISTEP results. But he, too, has supported Ritz in her handling of the problem.

"They're totally appropriate under the circumstances, and of course the weight that the tests are given in teacher evaluations is a local matter and allows locals flexibility to plug that in in a way they think is appropriate," he said.

Kruse said McGraw-Hill should probably pay the cost of the DOE study and also pay some fines to the state. A second hearing of the study committee is expected after the test results are submitted and the DOE report is completed. But solutions will wait until after state leaders have had their first bite at this apple.

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