Angst over ISTEP continues in Statehouse, school districts

April 19, 2015

The Indiana House and Senate are at odds over a proposal to scrap the much-maligned statewide standardized test that more than 400,000 students take each year.

The Senate voted overwhelmingly last week in favor of a bill that calls for replacing the ISTEP+ exam with what the proposal's leading advocate calls an "off-the-shelf" test in hopes of saving millions of dollars in testing costs. House members, meanwhile, favor keeping ISTEP+ in place while holding a special review of making such an overhaul.

Lawmakers will try to negotiate an agreement during the closing days of this year's General Assembly session. But they'll be wrestling with many questions, including whether a new test not tailored to Indiana's academic standards would provide an accurate assessment of students and whether it would meet federal requirements in order to maintain the state's waiver from the No Child Left Behind law.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Luke Kenley, who's been leading the push to replace ISTEP+, said he recognized those concerns but doesn't share them.

"I've never been too worried about that," said Kenley, R-Noblesville. "I think those items can be easily overcome."

Kenley's proposal would have the new exam system in place for the 2016-17 school year.

Dropping the ISTEP+ exam was in the sights of Kenley and some other senators even before February, when an outcry erupted over testing times for the exam, which was redesigned to align with new state standards created after Indiana withdrew from the national Common Core standards last year.

The revamped test was to have taken students about 12 hours — about double from last year — before state Department of Education officials and experts hired by Gov. Mike Pence developed a plan to shave at least three hours from the exam, mostly by eliminating some questions.

The costs of the exam also are a concern. The state has also seen growing costs for ISTEP, which is estimated at $65 million next schools year for testing and remediation programs. Proposed new state contracts include $38 million to vendor Pearson for creating the ISTEP exam, which was part of a $134 million package of school testing bids that state schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz called "astronomical."

House Education Committee Chairman Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, said the state needs to be careful when considering all the impacts of possibly changing the testing system.

"I think all of us are looking for ways to shorten it, make it cheaper, make it as flexible as we can for educators," Behning said.

One problem with using a national test is that vendors could be reluctant to work with Indiana because of a state law requiring the release of non-multiple choice or true/false questions for parents to review after the ISTEP+ exam is administered. Testing companies wouldn't want those questions released because they use them on exams for multiple states, Behning said.

The Senate's budget proposal includes nearly $36 million a year to cover ISTEP+, a third-grade reading test and end-of-course assessments for high school students, while dropping a proposed standardized test for ninth-graders.

"We are going to take what we've outlined in the budget bill and say this is a compromise proposal we are putting forward right now to change testing right now, so we can reduce the amount of testing we have and it won't be so onerous," Kenley said.

Whether a compromise can be reached before the Legislature's April 29 adjournment deadline will be a key factor in how great a change is made to the testing system.

"I do think there are some significant implications," Behning said. "So I don't want to take these too casually."


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