Top Indiana school issues headed for Statehouse debates

October 24, 2015

A couple of contentious issues facing Indiana schools are poised for debate in the Statehouse in the coming week.

A discussion Monday in a legislative committee could point toward how the General Assembly addresses concerns about a declining number of new teachers. The State Board of Education meets Wednesday and could set the pass/fail marks for the ISTEP standardized test after months of delays in schools receiving results. The board put off a vote on ISTEP's passing scores two weeks ago.

Both the teacher shortage and ISTEP have emerged as charged political issues heading into next year, both during the upcoming legislative session and in election campaigns as Republican Gov. Mike Pence seeks a second term.

Below are things to know about what's next with the issues:

Teacher shortage

The number of first-time teaching licenses issued by the state Department of Education has declined by 33 percent over the past five years, to the point where 3,802 were approved during the 2014-15 school year. The state Commission for Higher Education says Indiana's colleges saw 37 percent fewer students completing teacher preparation programs between 2004 and 2014.

A survey of school districts by legislative staffers found about 5 percent of teaching jobs were unfilled when the school year started, although some experts question whether enough districts responded to the survey and others said some teacher vacancies weren't unusual. The most common vacancies were for special education, elementary, and math or science positions.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, said he didn't expect the legislative panel to have specific proposals to consider on Monday but would discuss possible broad recommendations.

Some blame the decline in new teachers on school overhaul decisions, such as additional standardized testing of students and linking teacher pay raises with student test performance. Both were adopted by the Republican-dominated Legislature in recent years.

Kruse said states that haven't taken similar steps also are seeing fewer new teachers, but that the teacher shortage question "is absolutely a big issue for us to address."

ISTEP scores

The state is months behind the typical schedule for giving schools and parents the results of the ISTEP exam taken last spring by more than 400,000 students in grades three through eight. Results of the spring 2014 exam were released in August of last year, while officials have pushed back this year's results until at least mid-December.

The state's outside testing company has struggled to finish grading the exams, but a new delay came this month because of questions over differences in difficulty between the test's online and paper versions.

That prompted a new spat between the Republican-dominated Board of Education and Democratic state schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz. Board members said they only learned about a report questioning the comparability of the exam versions the night before their Oct. 14 meeting, while Ritz aides say the board's experts were involved in the test-review process.

It is uncertain whether the Board of Education will vote Wednesday on setting the ISTEP pass/fail marks. A Ritz spokesman says Department of Education officials believe its proposal prepared for the Oct. 14 meeting remains valid, while a Board of Education spokesman said its outside experts were still reviewing differences between the online and paper versions of the test

ISTEP changes

The ISTEP exam has been much-maligned in recent years because of big jumps in the hours of testing time needed and widespread disruptions caused by students being kicked off their online exams. Ritz has warned about many more students failing this year's ISTEP exam because of the new state standards, which were created after Republican legislators and Pence withdrew Indiana from the national Common Core standards last year.

Some top legislators have pushed for using an "off-the-shelf" test in hopes of cutting the some $35 million that the ISTEP program is costing this year, but that move has faced questions about using a test not tailored to Indiana's academic standards.

Kruse said future ISTEP options will likely be discussed during Monday's meeting.


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