Teachers and schools will be spared from penalties for poor student performance on the 2015 ISTEP after Gov. Mike Pence signed two bills into law Thursday, checking off a major priority for him and fellow Republicans who sought to address students' low scores as well as troubles with administering the exam.
The measures received bipartisan support. They are the GOP's answer to 2015 ISTEP scores that were about 20 percent lower than those from 2014, when lawmakers withdrew from federal Common Core standards and stringent, new performance benchmarks were adopted.
For months, Superintendent of Public Schools Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, warned that scores were expected to drop, but it wasn't until last fall that Republicans reversed course and sided with Ritz, promising to address the issue when the Legislature convened in January.
One of the new laws spares teachers from having merit pay withheld due to student scores. The other prevents schools from being assigned a lower A-F grade.
"We transitioned to higher standards," Pence said. "And today we take decisive action to ensure that as we move through this transition, that it will not in any way impact our teachers' compensation and bonuses. And that when our A-F grades are assigned this spring, that those will be fairly applied."
But the measures, which some lawmakers and others have referred to as "hold harmless" bills, also offer an election-year solution to a problem that Pence and the GOP majorities had a strong hand in creating.
Critics of the new standards say they were hastily implemented without proper testing and troubleshooting after the Common Core withdrawal, which some conservatives viewed as a federal takeover of education.
House Education Committee Chairman Bob Behning, a Republican, has said the handling of the 2015 exam was a "disaster." And the state severed ties with testing company CTB/McGraw-Hill after the release of student scores was delayed for months and disparities were found between the paper and online versions of the test.
Behning and other Republicans, however, have sought to deflect some blame by suggesting that Ritz should have done a better job of policing the testing company. Ritz disputes that characterization.
House Speaker Brian Bosma didn't specifically blame Ritz on Thursday, but he said the "culpability is zero" for lawmakers because the administration of the test was the problem — not their actions.
State Rep. Terry Goodin, an Austin Democrat who's also a school superintendent, pushed back on that argument, stating that "the real people being held harmless are the Legislature and the governor" for "their complicity in helping create a system that has caused unending turmoil."
Ritz, meanwhile, said she appreciated GOP lawmakers coming around to her point of view, but added that the "issue should have been dealt with a year ago."
"Had we done so, there is no doubt that much of the consternation and difficulty our schools experienced in the last year could have been avoided," she said. "Our students and schools need leadership that focuses on them, not ideology."