Indiana's dilemma: Should state test scores count next year?

Indiana could propose letting teachers and schools off the hook from sanctions for poor test scores next year as part of its effort to meet demands from the U.S Department of Education.

But state Superintendent Glenda Ritz and the Indiana State Board of Education today faced a series of tough questions they’ve only just started to try to answer about what that could mean for the state’s school accountability system.

Perhaps the most basic question is whether a one-year reprieve from test score-driven accountability, which can lead to sanctions ranging from state takeover of a school to blocked pay raises for teachers, is even legal.

“I think it’s a bad idea, period,” board member Tony Walker said. “I think we could be creating a problem on the accountability side.”

Ritz said delaying accountability for a year in 2015 was just one idea and that she was only getting a conversation started about how to change the testing system.

But there is a fast-approaching deadline: Indiana must report to the U.S. Department of Education in just 25 days how it will put in place new standards and testing next school year or lose control over millions of dollars for schools.

The state signed an agreement, called a “waiver,” with federal officials in 2012 pledging to raise its standards and institute tougher tests by 2015. The deal released Indiana from looming sanctions of the federal No Child Left Behind Law. Most states have received waivers from rules now widely deemed to be too tough that would have required all children to be testing on grade level by this year.

In early May, the U.S. Department of Education put Indiana on notice, demanding that it show how it would meet its waiver promises by June 30.

Losing the waiver could hurt hundreds of schools by blocking a portion of federal aid they receive. That money, more than $230 million annually, pays for staff and programs across the state that aim to help poor children succeed.

The core problem is that the Indiana expects it will have to give a much tougher state test in the spring of 2015.

Requests to federal officials for an extra year to allow teachers to adapt to new state standards approved in April before being tested under the higher expectations — with more advanced and complicated test questions — have been denied, Ritz said.

“We are going to be getting a much more rigorous assessment,” she said. “It’s likely to show a drop in student performance.”

Lower test scores, driven by new expectations rather than poor performance of students, could have wide effects on teachers and schools that some have argued would be unfair.

Teachers’ pay raises, and even their job security, are decided in part based on whether their students see their scores go up or down. Likewise, schools that are rated a D or F for low test scores face ever-increasing scrutiny and then sanctions if they don’t get their scores to rise.

One way to account for that, Ritz said, is to give a one-year pass. The state board could, she said, take a year break from some accountability measures in 2015. For example, student test scores could be dropped for just that year from teacher evaluation calculations. Or schools with low grades could skip 2015 and pick up with the next year’s A to F grade to determine if they need intervention. All the scores, grades and evaluation results would be published, they just wouldn’t count for accountability, Ritz suggested.

But that idea presents problems.

First, it’s not certain such a plan would meet U.S. Department of Education approval, although Ritz said she’s already begun to discuss the idea with federal officials.

Second, the state sanctions for teachers and schools occur because they are written into state law, which can’t be easily changed.

Ritz, however, said her department found a precedent: in 2008-09, Indiana switched from giving state tests in the fall to the spring and accountability sanctions were halted for a year. State education department officials are researching what steps the state board took to make that happen, she said.

Indiana would not be in this situation except for two actions, one taken by Gov. Mike Pence and the other by the state legislature.

Under former Gov. Mitch Daniels and Ritz’s predecessor, Tony Bennett, the state adopted Common Core standards and joined the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC.

Common Core is a set of academic standards adopted by 45 states with the goal of assuring students graduate high school ready for college and careers. PARCC is a consortium of states that are working together to create new tests they can all use to measure if students have mastered Common Core standards.

Indiana had been on track to have Common Core standards in place and begin using PARCC tests instead of ISTEP in 2015. But in 2013, that all changed.

Soon after taking office that year, Pence said he had reservations about Common Core and that summer he ordered Indiana’s withdrawal from PARCC. At the same time, conservative lawmakers balked at the state’s participation in Common Core, which they deemed as ceding too much control to policymakers outside the state.

In March, the Indiana legislature passed a bill voiding Indiana’s adoption of Common Core and ordering new standards be put in place for 2014-15.

As a result, teachers and students will have less than a year from the time the new standards are put in place before they are tested on them. And Indiana does not yet have a test that can measure either the new state standards as required by state law or “college and career readiness,” which federal officials expect.

Ritz said she is working to set another state board meeting for the week of June 22 to present a plan for the board to approve and Indiana to submit to the U.S. Department of Education before its June 30 deadline.