Lawmaker suggests tackling ISTEP issue on Organization Day

Sen. Mark Stoops, D-Bloomington, on Wednesday called for the Indiana legislature to take the dramatic step of passing a bill next week to protect schools and teachers from possible consequences of an expected steep drop in ISTEP scores.

Stoops said the issue is urgent enough to address it Tuesday on Organization Day, which is traditionally a mostly ceremonial session. After organization day, the General Assembly won't reconvene until the first week of 2016.

Last school year’s ISTEP was connected to tougher standards than it had been in previous years. Preliminary data show far more Indiana children are likely to fail the 2015 exam. That could send school A-F grades plummeting and knock down teacher ratings that are partly calculated based on how much students’ scores rise. Final ISTEP scores are expected in December.

Schools can face serious consequences if they are rated an F, including state takeovers for those that can’t raise their scores. Teachers can have pay raises blocked or even be fired if they are rated ineffective.

Stoops said lawmakers can help the state avoid all that potential pain and drama when it meets Tuesday.

“We have shown that the legislature can pass a bill in a matter of hours,” Stoops said. “I think it’s critical we pass this as soon as possible.”

Bills are rarely passed on Organization Day, but it could happen if lawmakers suspend a few rules. Rumors have been circulating—and strongly denied by legislative leaders—that the legislature could pass a bill on Organization Day to expand civil rights laws to add protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. But this is the first suggestion that an education bill could be offered.

Stoops’ bill contains much of what Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz has lobbied for over the course of the past few months. It would hold schools and teachers “harmless,” releasing them from any consequences if ISTEP scores drop for their students. For 2015, schools’ letter grades would only change from what they were in 2014 if they are higher, for example.

The same logic would apply for teacher evaluations and pay bonuses—evaluations could only get better or stay the same but not drop because of lower ISTEP scores. Teacher performance bonuses also couldn’t be lowered because of poor ISTEP results, just raised or held the same.

Stoops argued for action in a letter to Senate President David Long, R-Fort Wayne, by pointing out that state law requires teacher bonus funds to be distributed to schools and districts by Dec. 5.

The cutoff scores to pass ISTEP that were approved by the state board last month are expected to result in big drops for percent of students passing ISTEP — down an estimated 16 percentage points in English and 24 percentage points in math.

Using the passing rates from the 2014 ISTEP test as a guide, and the corresponding letter grades for schools, drops that big could have a dramatic effect on school grades in 2015, education department spokesman Daniel Altman told Chalkbeat last month.

On average, a 20 percentage point drop in the ISTEP passing rate could move the state from almost 54 percent of schools earning A's last year to as few as 7 percent earning an A for 2015. Along with declines at the top, D’s and F’s could rise from about 8 percent and 5 percent last year to just over 27 percent for both in 2015. School grades aren’t expected to be released until early 2016.

“As a legislature and a state board of education, you can’t be attempting to undermine schools,” Stoops said. “And if we allow these test scores that we know to be flawed to be used to assess and grade teachers and students and schools, I think that’s irresponsible on our part.”

Last month, Gov. Mike Pence also announced he wanted to relieve the penalties on teachers for lower expected ISTEP scores, but he has not detailed whether specific legislation is in the works or what his plan might entail.

Long said he supported Pence’s efforts in a statement last month, reversing his own prior position, which was opposed to relieving schools and teachers accountability sanctions. A written statement from Long on Wednesday said he didn’t think legislation needed to be passed so soon to adjust the system.

“I am very mindful of the timeframe for making changes,” Long said. “If the legislature, the Department of Education and the State Board of Education work together, I believe we can find the flexibility necessary to adjust our systems in a timely fashion without passing legislation on Organization Day.”

This “pause” in accountability has been shot down several times by the Indiana State Board of Education, although final say rests with the General Assembly.

Stoops said that it’s lawmakers' responsibility to fix the situation because it was one of their own making.

“We really expect an increase of failing and D-schools in the state,” Stoops said. “That’s a dramatic change and could have a really negative impact on state and local communities. If we as a state legislature truly want to show we really support schools, teachers and students, then we need to make sure that we correct this problem that is largely created by the state legislature.”

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