Pence acts to shorten ISTEP, but may lack authority to do it

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence pledged Monday to shorten an ISTEP test projected to last as long as 12-1/2 hours this spring but it’s not clear that he or the State Board of Education he appoints has any authority to actually order changes.

Appearing frustrated and annoyed, Pence told reporters he is hiring an outside consultant to make recommendations for reducing the length of the test, which is set to be implemented in just weeks.

And the governor said he expects state Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz – a Democrat separately elected to oversee the Department of Education – to fully cooperate with the effort, although he acknowledged he can’t force her to do so.

“Doubling the length of the ISTEP+ test is unacceptable and I won’t stand for it,” Pence said. “Doubling the testing time for our kids is a hardship on them. It’s a hardship on families. It’s a hardship on our teachers. And this is a moment that calls for decisive action.”

Ritz is also disappointed in the length of the test, which will take roughly twice as long as last year, said DOE spokesman Daniel Altman. Students don’t take the ISTEP exam in one sitting. They generally take it in smaller chunks over several weeks.

But Altman said the longer length is in part the result of federal regulations and new, locally written standards that Republican leaders mandated. He said Pence insisted on what he called “uncommonly high” standards.

“If you have standards that are uncommonly high, you have an assessment that has to be aligned to them,” Altman said. “That means it takes more times for students to take that test.”

The governor’s move comes less than a week after members of the State Board of Education expressed frustration about the test, although a spokesman for the group said they have little control over the actual content of the exam. Still, at the board members’ request, Ritz contacted the testing vendor – CTB/McGraw-Hill –  and learned that the exam probably couldn’t be shortened, Altman said. She then called for a special meeting of the state board to discuss the issue.

Still, Pence blamed Ritz for the longer test and said he was “outraged” to learn about the changes. Pence said he discovered during the weekend that parents and teachers were angry as well. But that didn’t lead the governor to call Ritz for an explanation or ask her to make changes in the exam. Instead, Pence consulted with legislative leaders who backed his proposal to seek outside help.

In a statement, House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said Ritz boosted the length of the test without any input from the state board or other leaders.

“It has become apparent that the Department of Education needs assistance resolving this issue and outside counsel in reducing the ridiculous amount of time our students are scheduled to spend testing this year,” Bosma said. “The governor’s actions have my full support.”

A DOE spokesman said Ritz learned about the move just minutes before the governor announced it to the public.

Pence said options for shortening the test could involve cutting out a new section measuring student knowledge of social studies curriculum standards and new reading portions. But a DOE official said the General Assembly mandated the new social studies standards and that Ritz didn’t add any new reading section.

The problem, Altman said, is that the test is new and federal authorities wouldn’t allow the department to pilot any questions in advance. That means the new test must have extra questions so some can be thrown out after studies of the results.

Pence protested that as well, saying vehemently that Ritz is to blame for not acting sooner to test the questions. However, the governor couldn’t say what test length he’d find acceptable. He first complained that the test size had doubled and then insisted it should be reduced to the size it was last year. Then later he insisted that he wasn’t calling for the test to be cut in half.

“I’d like to see the ISTEP+ test reflect the average length of previous ISTEP+ tests,” he said. The governor said he wants to see a “significant” reduction.

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