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Education budget draws scrutiny over costs for student testing

December 11, 2014

The costs of assessing Indiana students' performance came under the microscope Thursday as members of the State Budget Committee sought more information about the Department of Education's spending request.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz is seeking $20 million more for testing as part of her spending proposal, which calls for an overall 3 percent increase and free textbooks for all Indiana students.

Ritz said the estimated $65 million she's requesting for testing and remediation reflects the fact that the state's ISTEP+ test is being overhauled to be more rigorous as part of the withdrawal from national Common Core education standards. The retooled ISTEP+ test will be owned by the state and aligned with Indiana's new standards, she said.

But Republican Sen. Luke Kenley, chairman of the committee, questioned whether national standardized tests could do the same job at a lower cost.

"I keep thinking and wondering whether we're making it too hard and too expensive on ourselves," he said, adding that lawmakers should have more say over which tests are used instead of just being asked to pay for them.

In March, Indiana became the first state to pull out of the national Common Core standards, driven by conservative and tea party concerns that the curriculum ceded too much power to the federal government. The State Board of Education adopted new academic standards in April that will guide what students should learn in each grade.

Then in June, state education officials learned that the state's ISTEP+ test would have to be revised for Indiana to retain its No Child Left Behind waiver, which received a one-year extension from the U.S. Department of Education. The new test will be administered in the spring.

Ritz said the new ISTEP+ test is on its way to completion.

Her proposal to increase spending to provide free textbooks to all students also drew questions Thursday.

Indiana schools currently receive a $76-per-pupil reimbursement for textbooks only for students who receive free or reduced-price lunches. The department says that doesn't cover the true cost of the textbooks.

Expanding free textbooks to all students and reimbursing schools for their actual cost "is needed not only for families but for schools," said Ritz, who noted schools must have the money for books upfront and then be reimbursed.

Indiana is currently one of eight states that charge for textbooks, according to the state Department of Education.

Kenley said he worried that that providing free textbooks would remove incentives for school districts to hold down costs.

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