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State attorney general shoots down Ritz's leniency plan

September 16, 2015

Indiana's Attorney General dealt a major blow to a proposal by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz that would spare schools from being penalized for low scores on this year's ISTEP exams.

A legal opinion issued last week by the office of Republican Attorney General Greg Zoeller says the Department of Education doesn't have the authority to disregard test results, as Ritz had proposed doing for a one-year period.

In this situation, it is "evident the legislature intended the ISTEP+ (or any successor statewide assessment) to be administered annually for performance, accountability and evaluation purposes," Chief Deputy Matt Light wrote. "There is no authority, direct or implied, that would allow the State Board to pick and choose among favorable scores."

In June, Ritz proposed to Board of Education members that individual schools receive an updated A-F grade only if it was improved from the grade given in 2014. She cited an anticipated score decline resulting from changes to the ISTEP exam taken in the spring and said schools need more transition time.

Many schools could drop two letter grades with even a slight decline in student scores, Ritz said at the time, and the number of schools receiving an F could jump from the current 87 to nearly 150. That would leave many communities around the state with schools wrongly labeled as failing, according to Ritz, a Democrat.

The AG's legal opinion was requested by members of the Board of Education, which is dominated by appointees of Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican who supports the state's A-F performance grades. Board members and Ritz have at times bickered bitterly over their differences.

Ritz spokesman Daniel Altman said Ritz's office didn't get a copy of the opinion until this week. Although it states the board can't take action on the proposal, he said Ritz will advocate for lawmakers to approve changes that will allow the one-year pause in scores.

"We think it's important for schools to have local flexibility," said Altman "Obviously, from a statewide level if you have significant change in the grades that can have major impacts."

For example, a large drop in scores could affect property values or impact economic development, he said. Whether there's appetite in the Republican-led Legislature to make such a change remains unclear.

Marc Lotter, a spokesman for the Republican-dominated board, says the test scores first need to be evaluated before any decisions are made. Those scores have yet to be received by the state due to delays by the contractor hired to grade the exams. Preliminary results are expected by December. The contractor has since been fired.

The ISTEP exam became the center of outcry from parents and educators in February over longer testing times after it 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 the time of the previous test — before state Department of Education officials developed a plan to shave at least three hours from the exam.

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