Indiana school leaders blasting ISTEP ahead of score release

School leaders around Indiana have been increasing criticism of the state's standardized test as they brace for the release of scores that will show a double-digit drop in passing rates for students.

The Indiana Department of Education has sent preliminary A-F school ratings to local districts, but officials said Wednesday that the long-delayed release of student scores from last spring's ISTEP exams was being pushed back from this month until Jan. 6.

Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, said she still hopes to work with Republican legislative leaders to avoid penalizing schools for falling ISTEP scores that she blames on changes made to the test after the Legislature mandated changes to state education standards in 2015.

"I've been looking forward to that conversation for quite a few months now, so now the data is real, and I think we'll start to begin to have real good dialogue about problem solving to make sure our schools are held harmless for a totally new assessment that has been imposed upon them," Ritz said.

Gov. Mike Pence announced in late October he supported a one-year break in linking teacher pay raises to the ISTEP results of their students.

That came amid concerns about steep declines in student scores, with the Education Department saying about 65 percent of students will have passing marks on ISTEP's language arts section and about 59 percent passing the math section. More than 80 percent of students passed each part of the 2014 exam.

No specific proposals have yet emerged from Republican lawmakers or Pence on action the General Assembly might take during its upcoming session that starts Jan. 5.

Many local school leaders are calling Indiana's testing system botched and a fiasco, urging parents and the public against drawing any rash conclusions. They point to changes in education standards made after the state withdrew from the national Common Core standards last year and the adding of hours in testing time needed for the exam taken by more than 400,000 students in grades three through eight.

"The test results in no way measure the success or failure of our students, teachers, or schools," Anderson Community Schools Superintendent Terry Thompson said. "Instead, the scores represent the effects of a 12-hour long test that is clearly erroneous and unreliable."

Ernie Simpson, an administrator with the Clay Community Schools in western Indiana, told the State Board of Education on Wednesday that teachers didn't have enough time to prepare for the new standards and complained about numerous technical difficulties with the online exams.

"With the assessment as it stands now, I question whether we are putting our students in a position to be successful," Simpson said.

State education board Vice Chairwoman Sarah O'Brien, a Pence appointee to the board, said the state should be careful so that ISTEP results aren't discounted as a whole.

"Obviously there's discrepancies, and I think everyone agrees that ISTEP has not gone the way we'd like it to go this year," O'Brien said. "I think we need to look at it much more closely. We need to make sure we have accurate information, and at the end of the day, if our A-F grades don't accurately reflect what we are seeing in our buildings, then we don't want to release them at that point."

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