Indiana lawmakers officially have it out for ISTEP.
Decades after kids started taking the statewide standardized exam, calls to eliminate it have gained traction among legislators and policymakers.
After a disastrous year that saw the ISTEP plagued by technical glitches, scoring delays, and questions about accuracy, the Indiana House voted overwhelmingly last week to support a bill that would force the state to dump the test by the summer of 2017. Democrats, Republicans, reformers and traditionalists all seem united around the idea that the test needs at least a dramatic overhaul.
But what would replace the traditional exam — and whether it would be any different — remains unclear. The state can’t unilaterally decide to abolish standardized tests altogether, so a replacement must be found.
The next steps will be fraught with partisan politics, tough decisions about the high cost of state tests and confusion around new federal testing rules.
“I think what we need is a panel of experts to say either, the unlikely scenario, ‘ISTEP is great, let’s keep it,’” said Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma. “Or that another test has a better likelihood of accurately measuring success for students and giving the state adequate measures on student achievement.”
When pressed for details about what a post-ISTEP exam might look like, lawmakers and even the state’s top education official offer relatively vague explanations. They point mostly to new “flexibility” allowed by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the federal government’s new education law set to take effect in 2017.
When ESSA officially replaces the No Child Left Behind Act next year, states that were required to give certain kinds of tests every year — and were measured by how students performed — will have new powers to test kids in different ways.
But while it’s not yet clear what this new “flexibility” will allow, educators and state officials say they’re determined to find a better option.
“I just know people are very unhappy with the pass/fail approach that we have now,” said state Superintendent Glenda Ritz. “And I think that’s pretty universal.”
Options on the table for a new test include changing the frequency of the exam — possibly replacing the single high-stakes, end-of-year assessment with several smaller tests throughout the year. Other options include joining a national testing consortium, using tests created for other states, or paying a premium to create an Indiana exam that somehow delivers valid information about student skills without the technical and scoring problems experienced by ISTEP.
Many states joined testing consortia several years ago when they realized they would have to change their exams to respond to the new Common Core standards. Indiana was initially part of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) consortium but Gov. Mike Pence ordered the state to pull out in 2013 over concerns that the Common Core was an overreach by the federal government.The state ditched the Common Core itself in 2014 in favor of Indiana-specific standards.
The battles over Common Core were, in many ways, a precursor to the current political fight brewing over ISTEP. For the last several years, Indiana lawmakers have had a tendency to make big education changes in fairly short amounts of time. That has sometimes led to new complications. In this case, the state abandoned a controversial national test in favor of what became a problem-plagued local one. Now, lawmakers are fixing for another fight over how to deal with the fallout from their last decision.
“What we’re dealing with right now is a little bit of a self-inflicted wound,” said Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry. “We’re now having to react to some of the problems, the unintended consequences that have come about based on those decisions.”
The testing decisions made in the coming year will have serious implications for children across the state, but the debate is likely to occur against a backdrop of partisan bickering and finger-pointing over who’s at fault for the turmoil of last year’s exam — Ritz, the testing company, or lawmakers who put the whole system in place to begin with.
Educators and policymakers interested in seeing a new kind of test fall into several different camps.
In one corner are those who want to eliminate standardized tests and accountability systems in favor of a system with fewer stakes. That group, which mostly consists of educators and Democratic lawmakers, is unlikely to triumph in the coming testing battles because, even under the new ESSA, the federal government will still require annual tests attached to larger school accountability systems.
Plus, Pence and his allies in the GOP-controlled General Assembly have long records of supporting tough test-based accountability for schools, students and teachers. They’re not likely to go along with a lower-stakes test.
Another faction in the upcoming fight are those who see some merit in the current exam but want changes to the way it’s administered.
Some in this faction are critical of the testing conglomerates that have created recent exams, including CTB, which made last year’s test, and Pearson, which has a contract for the 2016 and 2017 exams.
Others are critical of Ritz and her leadership of the Department of Education. Ritz, a Democrat, has frequently clashed with GOP leaders and now faces a Republican challenger for re-election in November. Some Republicans have tried to tie her to the unpopular test.
“The biggest problem I personally saw with ISTEP was implementation,” said Republican House Education Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Behning.
A third group is calling for a more measured response to recent testing problems. That group acknowledges that there’s room for improvement in the way the test is administered but cautions that the current ISTEP is still valid and important.
“It concerns me that we’re considering throwing out the baby with the bathwater,” said Hendry, who is in the third camp. “I don’t think just overreacting and just throwing (ISTEP) away and starting over is … the most prudent decision to make.”
No matter what lawmakers decide this year, Indiana still has hard-and-fast requirements for its testing system.
According to state law, “ISTEP” refers to a program of tests including any state, national or international test that children in grades 3-8, plus high school sophomores, must complete. For that to change, parts of current law would need to be repealed. Behning’s House Bill 1395, which passed the house last week, is an effort to do just that. It includes provisions that aim to kill ISTEP.
The state board is responsible for signing off on plans for ISTEP and reviewing the test to make sure it is statistically valid and reliable, according to state law, and Ritz and her education department are responsible for actually creating, administering and monitoring the test.
Indiana must test students each year from grades 3-8 in English and math, and for certain grades, science and social studies. That lines up with federal requirements, which still require statewide tests that capture student scores at one moment in time, known as a “summative exam,” much like ISTEP does now.
No matter what test the state ends up with, taxpayers will have to foot the bill — and if the state goes with a new state-owned test, that could mean a higher price tag.
The cheapest tests are those that already exist. The PARCC test, for example, which is also administered by Pearson, costs the states that use it about $24 per student, according to the consortium’s website. If Indiana were still in the consortium, taxpayers would have spent about $12 million last year for the 500,000 students who were tested. Instead, the state paid roughly twice that — $24 million — to CTB for its problem-plagued exam.
This year’s Pearson-made ISTEP will be somewhat cheaper — about $16 million per year — but could still cost more than PARCC, especially if districts opt for a paper version of the test.
That’s one reason why the possibility of signing on for a national test is still on the table. State laws approved in 2014 as part of a national backlash against the Common Core prohibit the adoption of standards or tests created solely by the federal government or by a group of states.
That would seem to eliminate the option of using the PARCC test or the test from its counterpart Common Core testing consortium, the Smarter Balanced Assessment.
However, after another change to Indiana law last year, the state is now allowed to use any other assessment, in whole or in part, if it aligns with Indiana standards — which could still leave the door open for a national “off-the-shelf” test.
Going forward, cost will be a factor when the state considers its test options, said Behning, R-Indianapolis, but it might not be the most important factor.
“I don’t think cheapest is necessarily best,” Behning said. “I want to do what’s best for kids, and I want to make sure we really drill down into critical thinking.”
He floated the idea that the state could save some money by not releasing the exam to the public every year. That would keep the questions secret so they could be re-used.
Indiana could also save money by changing course on the question of owning its own test questions, regardless of who wins future testing contracts.
That would allow testmakers to legally re-use questions from the ISTEP on whatever exam replaces it. Owning its questions is one advantage Indiana has over states that are part of national testing consortia. If Indiana has stuck with PARCC, it would not own any of its questions right now.
The U.S. Department of Education will eventually pick up to seven states for an experiment to pioneer the development of new state exams.
Ritz has already said she might be interested in such a program. Behning is often at odds with Ritz on education policy matters, but the two share an interest in seeing Indiana at the forefront of new testing models.
Both Behning and Ritz have pointed to unusual new testing programs in New Hampshire and other states as possible options for Indiana. New Hampshire’s innovative system includes a pilot where students take a national test in certain grades and in the others, a locally designed assessment that shows whether students have mastered specific skills, known as “competency-based” learning. Individual districts determine what skills kids need to master on the local tests.
“There’s a lot of opportunities to look at a lot of different models,” Behning said.
But just because some states have changed their exams doesn’t mean it’s easy for others to follow suit.
It took “tons of work and resources in getting New Hampshire where they are,” Danielle Gonzales, assistant policy director for The Aspen Institute’s education program, told Chalkbeat earlier this year. “Frankly, it’s a significant challenge for other states to take that on.”
Ritz says she’s up for the challenge and has described a major overhaul of the state’s testing program that wouldn’t rely as heavily on one final, year-end test. She envisions a series of shorter tests that would track student progress throughout the year, followed by a final test that would take a “snapshot” of their skills.
“I’d like it to be student-centered and adaptable,” Ritz said. “I’d like to know where children do perform as well as how they grow over the course of the year.”
Behning worries a strategy like Ritz’s could result in even more testing, something educators have told him they definitely don’t want.
“I’m not saying that that’s out of the question, but I think you have to be very clear because these educators were telling me there’s too much testing going on,” Behning said.
Ritz doesn’t see it that way. To her, a series of tests that give faster feedback and measure actual skills would be more useful for teachers.
“I don’t view that as more testing,” Ritz said. “I view that as simplifying the system, making it all make sense.”
Guidance from the U.S. Department of Education for how to put elements from the new ESSA law in place is expected later this year, so lawmakers are still incredibly limited in what they can legislate for now.
If Behning’s bill actually makes it through the legislature and an expert panel is formed to study the test and the state’s accountability system, lawmakers have no obligation to act on any of its recommendations. But Bosma noted that the bill has very clear language setting 2017 as the last year for ISTEP. That sets it apart from earlier efforts, such as one last year that merely established a committee to study new options.
“The kicker on (House Bill 1395) is the repeal of ISTEP,” Bosma said. “The legislature has to come back and deal with the issue.”