As deadline looms, panel struggles to line up ISTEP replacement

October 12, 2016

With just seven weeks to go until a Dec. 1 deadline to decide on a new testing program for Indiana schools, some members of a key testing advisory panel are now admitting that it’s increasingly likely the state might have to keep its unpopular ISTEP a bit longer.

Another option is to bring back parts of the controversial PARCC exam, a national test that was rejected by state lawmakers in 2013 because it’s tied to the politically unpopular Common Core State Standards.

Both options would violate current state law and create a political headache for lawmakers who vowed to swiftly replace the much-maligned ISTEP test with something better. But at a meeting Tuesday of the state’s ISTEP replacement panel, lawmakers and panel members acknowledged that starting a new test in the spring of 2018 might not be possible.

The “repeal ISTEP” bill that was signed by Gov. Mike Pence in May lays out an ambitious timeline with the ISTEP advisory panel making recommendations by Dec. 1 so that the legislature can formally enact the new test next spring.

But after months of indecision, members of the panel now say the ISTEP may be sticking around a little longer than expected.

“I don’t see any alternative,” Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, chairman of the Senate Education Committee said at the panel meeting Tuesday. “That’ll probably be a bill that’s in the Legislature this next session.”

He joins Rep. Bob Behning, who heads the House Education Committee and initially championed the “repeal ISTEP” bill, who said earlier this summer that ISTEP might continue longer than expected.

ISTEP was set to be given for the last time this spring, with a new testing system expected in 2018. Experts testifying to the panel today said any way forward—whether it’s a brand new test or something off-the-shelf like PARCC—would take about two years to put in place. That’s mostly because the new tests would need to be properly aligned to Indiana’s tougher academic standards

“It would be very difficult for us to immediately think that in (2018) we’re going to have a new test,” Behning said Tuesday. “We’ll probably have to have some short extension to keep something in place as we develop what we think the next step is in assessments.”

At this point, Behning said he thinks Republicans in his caucus are “relatively open” to whatever recommendations come next, although pushing an Indiana-specific test might be smoother than, say, resurrecting PARCC.

But the political situation has changed slightly since Indiana pulled out of the consortium of states that pooled their resources to create the PARCC exam, said Michael Cohen, president of the not-for-profit Achieve that helps states work on academic standards and tests. Indiana originally pivoted so sharply from PARCC because of concerns that the Common Core represented a federal intrusion into state schools.

Today, however, “there’s no federal funds involved,” Cohen said. “It’s gone.”

It’s hard to say whether PARCC would be politically palatable in Indiana given the strong backlash it received in 2013. On one hand, Cohen said it was a reliable, well-made test that was cheaper than Indiana’s current ISTEP contract with British-based Pearson. On the other hand, the politics might just be too “daunting,” said Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education Teresa Lubbers, even if the test itself makes the most sense.

The panel spent Tuesday's session hearing a rehash of options the state could pursue, as well as briefing on what federal approval would be needed before ending abruptly without much discussion. The next meeting is Nov. 15.

State Superintendent of Public Instructruction Glenda Ritz, meanwhile, is one of the few panel members proposing a complete plan that isn’t just an ISTEP-clone—at least not in the long term.

Ritz and the Indiana Department of Education released details of a proposal for a “computer-adaptive” test that gives students easier or harder questions depending on whether they answer right or wrong.

The proposal calls for three tests per year in reading and math—one in the fall, winter and spring so that teachers would have more opportunities to get feedback on student progress.

In one approach, the state could make the fall and winter tests purely about teacher feedback, and the spring test would remain the one that counts for school A-F accountability grades. In a second approach, each test would have a few questions that count toward A-F grades.

High school students would go back to taking end-of-course exams redesigned to align with Indiana’s tougher new standards. Those tests would be in ninth-grade algebra, ninth-grade English and biology.

Ritz’s plan also calls for the elimination of several existing exams, including the third-grade reading test, a test to see if high-schoolers need remediation and state social studies tests in fifth and seventh grades. All open-ended essay or short-answer questions would be cut except in writing.

But Ritz’s proposals couldn’t all happen by spring of 2018 either. She calls for a slower timeline in which ISTEP, or something very similar to it, is given in 2018 followed by the new computer-adaptive test in the 2018-19 school year.

The department said this approach would reduce Indiana testing time by about eight hours and reduce costs by at least $12 million just by removing existing tests. A complete cost estimate is not yet available, so it’s hard to tell if the overall testing budget would decrease or by how much. Lawmakers set aside about $77 million for testing and remediation in the last two-year budget.

Yet panel members, such as Behning and Chairwoman Nicole Fama, an Indianapolis Public Schools principal, still have doubts. They worry schools lack the technology support to give tests exclusively on computers and that teachers might see the interim tests in the fall and winter as further distractions from class time.

No states currently have a system like what Ritz is proposing, and one expert said it would be “breaking new ground.” Because of new federal law passed last year, this option is now viable, said Daniel Altman, a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education.

“Now that No Child Left Behind has gone away, states have a lot more flexibility in what is assessed and when and how,” Altman said. “We think taking advantage of that flexibility is something Indiana absolutely needs to do.”

Chalkbeat is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.


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