Politics of testing

From ISTEP to ILEARN: GOP test plan clears first legislative hurdle

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

A proposal to replace ISTEP won approval from Indiana’s House Education Committee today, putting what is likely another nail in the deeply unpopular exam’s coffin.

The committee, headed by Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, voted 10-2 to move forward with a testing system that would be called “ILEARN.” If the plan becomes law, those tests would be given for the first time in 2019.

But lawmakers also expressed deep frustration with the constant debate about how to assess Indiana’s students — and acknowledged that there are still a lot of unanswered questions about how “ILEARN” would work.

Read: Getting rid of Indiana’s ISTEP test: What might come next and at what cost?

One question is whether it makes sense for Indiana to continue developing the test even though guidance from the U.S. Department of Education has been unclear — a reference to the recent pause on federal education rules during the presidential transition.

Behning, also the author of House Bill 1003, said it does.

“The law itself is still in place,” Behning said at the bill’s initial hearing on Tuesday.

The proposed system comes primarily from the recommendations of a state commission charged with figuring out what Indiana’s new testing system could look like. The biggest changes would be structural: The bill would have the test given in one block of time at the end of year rather than in the winter and spring. For high school students, the state would go back to requiring end-of-course assessments in English, Algebra I and science, not a 10th-grade test like what the state introduced in 2016.

But for students, ILEARN might not look look much different. If Indiana creates a test of its own, as it did with ISTEP, that’s especially likely, since Indiana already owns its test questions. The bill doesn’t spell out if the test must be Indiana-specific or off-the-shelf, but the exam would have to align with Indiana’s academic standards.

Committee members said they were fed up with the ever-changing, never-ending conversations about state tests and the academic standards they’re based on. They pointed to the rollercoaster of education policy changes that Indiana has been on since 2013, when the state ditched tests associated with the Common Core standards.

Read: They rejected multi-state Common Core exams. Now what?

State-created tests like ISTEP, they said, are too costly, too unreliable and so frequently maligned by lawmakers and policymakers alike that parents, teachers and community members no longer have much faith in them.

Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, said he’d rather see the state go with an off-the-shelf test that is cheaper and allows Indiana to compare itself to other states. Other Democrats on the committee echoed his frustrations.

“I think a yes vote is passing up the opportunity to listen to our constituents who say, ‘We’ve had enough of the ISTEP and whatever else name we call it,’” said Rep. Sue Errington, D-Muncie, who voted against the bill Thursday. She was joined by DeLaney.

DeLaney, who passionately argued today that ISTEP is educationally bankrupt, called on legislators to stop and take a hard look at whether the testing changes would ultimately be valuable to schools, teachers and students.

“I think we need to ask ourselves, what are we doing?” DeLaney said. “Amending this failing test is getting us nowhere.”

You can find all of Chalkbeat’s testing coverage here.

under study

Tennessee lawmakers to take a closer look at school closures

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
The once-bustling sidewalks outside of shuttered Lincoln Elementary School are empty today. Shelby County Schools closed the school in 2015.

In five years, more than 20 public schools have closed in Memphis, often leaving behind empty buildings that once served as neighborhood hubs.

Now, Rep. Joe Towns wants to hit the pause button.

The Memphis Democrat asked a House education subcommittee on Tuesday to consider a bill that would halt school closures statewide for five years. The measure would require the state comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability to study the impact on students and communities before allowing local districts to shutter schools again.

The panel will review Towns’ proposal during a summer study session.

Towns said empty school buildings hurt property values, lower tax revenue, and hit local governments in the pocketbook. Currently, there’s no Memphis-specific research on the economic impact of shuttering schools.

“There are unintended consequences,” Towns said. “What this does to a community is not good. Who here would want to live next to a school that’s been closed?”

Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican who chairs the subcommittee, said he sympathizes. But pausing school closures might make it more difficult for Shelby County Schools to balance its budget, he said.

“Our superintendent is faced with buildings that hold a thousand kids, and they’re down to 250,” White said. “I don’t want to put one more burden on them.”

Last fall, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the district may need to close 18 schools in the next five years if student enrollment continues to decline. Hopson recently unveiled a framework for investing in struggling schools before being considering them for closure.

Any future school closures in Memphis won’t be just to cut costs, district leaders have said. And for the first time since the historic merger, Shelby County Schools is not grappling with a budget deficit.

education power players

Who’s who in Indiana education: Rep. Tim Brown

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos and Sarah Glen

Find more entries on education power players as they publish here.

Vitals: Republican representing District 41, covering parts of Montgomery, Boone, and Tippecanoe counties. So far, has served 23 years in the House of Representatives. Brown had a career as an emergency room doctor in Crawfordsville, retiring in 2015.

Why he’s a power player: Brown is chairman of the influential House Ways & Means Committee, one of the main budget-writing bodies in the Indiana General Assembly. In addition to helping craft the state budget, which includes money for schools, Brown’s committee also considers bills that could have a financial impact on the state. Any proposal involving money — including testing, school choice and preschool — has to pass muster with him. In recent years, Brown has supported funding increases for students with special needs and virtual charter schools.

Money follows the child: Brown has pushed for changes over the years to how Indiana funds schools, favoring plans aimed at equalizing the base funding allocated for students across districts. Historically, the state had padded the budgets of districts that were losing large numbers of students — helping them adjust but leading to disparities between schools across the state.

Brown finally achieved his goal of having the same basic aid for each district in 2015. Enrollment is now the driving factor in how much money schools get, as opposed to where they are located or what kinds of students attend.

On school choice: Brown served on the House Education Committee in 2011, the year the legislature passed a number of major education reform measures dealing with charter schools, teacher evaluation and vouchers. Since then, Brown has continued to support school choice options, working on bills about “education savings accounts” and other choice programs that would let students take individual classes outside their public schools.

Who supports him: Brown has received campaign contributions from Education Networks of America, a private education technology company; K12, one of the largest online school providers in the country; and Hoosiers for Quality Education, an advocacy group that supports school choice, charter schools and vouchers.

Given his support for choice-based reform, the Indiana Coalition for Public Education gave Brown an “F” in its 2016 legislative report card highlighting who it thinks has been supportive of public schools.

Legislative highlights via Chalkbeat:

Bills in past years: 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017

Also check out our list of bills to watch this year and where they were halfway through the session.