Pence expresses ‘confidence’ in ISTEP report despite alterations

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Indiana Gov. Mike Pence said Wednesday he has "confidence in the integrity" of his State Board of Education despite an Associated Press review of documents that showed a top education official made significant alterations to a report that detailed a so-called independent investigation into the troubled and unpopular standardized ISTEP+ exam for students.

"I haven't seen the memorandum. I didn't see the recommended changes," the Republican governor said, before adding that he has "every confidence in the integrity of our team, the integrity of the members and the staff of the State Board of Education."

A Microsoft Word file obtained through a public records request shows that the report included edits and suggested changes made by State Board of Education Executive Director John Snethen, who was hired to his $107,000-a-year post by the Pence-controlled board. The changes, which two outside consultants who were paid to conduct the investigation agreed to, altered language that had reflected poorly on Republicans' decision to adopt the exam after lawmakers dropped national Common Core academic standards.

While Pence sought to downplay the findings, Democrats seized on them.

"Students, parents and teachers deserve the unvarnished truth, not more politics, scandals and cover-up," said former Democratic House Speaker John Gregg, who is running against Pence in the November election. "This latest news is disturbing, disappointing and reminds us that Mike Pence always seems to place his ideology and political agenda ahead of the best interest of the state."

Rep. Ed Delaney, D-Indianapolis, said the revamped 2015 exam was hastily rolled out and troubled from the beginning. That's because Republicans who dropped the national benchmarks for math and English were "driven by ideology because someone claimed Common Core was President (Barack) Obama's idea and it had to be dumped at all costs," he said.

But Pence said the findings of the investigation, which have not been released to the public, will play an important role as the state rethinks how student learning is assessed.

"Look, we're working through a framework in this session of the General Assembly to really reconsider the ISTEP test and to take a step back and think about ways we can do testing better," Pence said.

Educators initially balked at the ISTEP+ test, which features Indiana-specific academic standards, saying it would take 12 hours to complete; the GOP-controlled Legislature shortened the exam. After that, some students who took it online reported computer glitches, which were found to have an impact on their performance.

The documents obtained by AP show Snethen helped shape the content of the report. For example, Snethen objected to strong language in an early version that stated: "It is safe to say that the 2015 ISTEP+ program is a work in progress, put in place quickly and without the usual procedures (e.g., field testing) used with most new assessment programs."

"Why is it safe to say this?" Snethen asked in notes typed into the draft, adding: "This is an example of a statement that could raise concern." The phrase was not included in the final version of the report.

Report co-author Derek Briggs, who's a University of Colorado professor, confirmed Tuesday that state officials were concerned about "messaging." Snethen viewed the first version of the report as one that had a "glass half-empty perspective," and wanted it to show that the glass was "half full," Briggs said.

But Board of Education spokesman Marc Lotter said the edits didn't impact the ultimate conclusion, which was that the test was a mostly reliable measure of student performance.

"Given the numerous errors and problems that have been faced with the ISTEP, we knew there would be a lot of interest in this report," Lotter said. "We needed to make sure there was something there that would be easily understood."

He also disputed the suggestion that edits were made to make Pence look better, pointing to several deleted lines that were also critical of Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, a Democrat who has frequently clashed with Pence over education policy.

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