Candidates for governor push different visions of Indiana’s state test

In a short debate that ran less than an hour, three candidates for Indiana governor sparred over the balance of control between the state and local school boards and what can be done to attract more great teachers into the profession.

The event, held before an audience of mostly students at Lawrence North High School, was billed as an education debate, but the candidates at times veered off into discussions of the economy and other issues. Students asked most of the questions.

The deepest divides between Republican Eric Holcomb, Democrat John Gregg and Libertarian Rex Bell were on issues of testing, building the teaching profession and whether A to F grades are the best way to judge school quality.

“Teaching to the test is what teachers have been forced to do,” Gregg said. “We have to get back to letting teachers teach.”

Gregg, former Indiana House speaker, said he agreed with a proposal from state Superintendent Glenda Ritz to break the state’s ISTEP exam into a series of shorter tests that would be given to students throughout the school year. The goal, he said, would be to reduce the pressure of a single test and make scoring more manageable so teachers and students could get results sooner.

“It has to have a quicker time turnaround,” he told reporters afterward. “It has to benefit the teacher and feedback to the child and parents to give them a bellwether marker as to where they are in this process.”

The ISTEP is currently being phased out by the state but a panel of lawmakers and educators has yet to determine what should replace it.

As the panel continues to consider its options, Holcomb, who is lieutenant governor, said he also wants students to get their test scores faster, but said he’d rather Indiana stick with a single exam.

“I’m not in favor of two or three spread out tests,” he said. “I think we do need to have a single test that is a test that will measure fairly and accurately and quickly a student’s performance. That’s not occurring now.”

Bell, a small business owner, said school districts should choose their own tests for accountability. Many different measures for how  students are learning, he said, was less of a concern than having the process managed by the state.

“Local schools should develop their own way of testing,” he said. “We have always been in favor of returning more local control to the parents and the teachers and the school boards.”

Holcomb said testing still needs to boil down to a single A-F grade that can tell parents how schools are doing. Gregg, by contrast, suggested a school’s report card might have several measures.

“If you have 2, or 3, or 4, or 5 factors, you can ultimately end up with a (grade point average),” Holcomb told reporters after the event. “To go away from having a grade is a disservice to taxpayers parents and schools themselves.”

But Gregg argued testing as a basis for an accountability system with tough consequences was a major factor driving teachers out of the profession and making it difficult for some schools to fill teaching jobs.

“We created this teacher shortage in the last few years by the way we demeaned those in the ed profession,” he said, “and by the way we’ve done everything through a flawed testing system.“

Holcomb countered that teacher shortages are a national problem and part of a broader trend that is not being driven by testing or accountability. ISTEP was not a good test, he said, but Indiana can replace it with an exam that better measures student learning.

“I haven’t met a single person in my whole time on the campaign trail or even before that who is in favor of continuing the ISTEP,” he said.

Stil, accountability, through a new test, is needed to ensure Indiana taxpayers get what they paid for, Holcomb said.

“We need to make sure that money is getting into the classroom to the teacher and to the student,” he said.

Holcomb and Gregg both said they favored expanding preschool tuition support. Gregg wants universal, state-funded preschool for four-year-olds for any family that chooses it. Holcomb wants a gradual expansion of the five-county pilot program to serve more poor children, but not a universal program.

Bell said he was afraid a universal preschool would eventually lead to a requirement that all four-year-olds must attend.

“When kindergarten started it was voluntary,” he said. “It’s a matter of, when you say they haven’t made it mandatory, it means not yet.”

The next candidate debate is scheduled for Oct. 3 at Ball State University.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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