In an about-face, Pence joins Ritz in calling for relief from testing sanctions

Just months ago, Gov. Mike Pence’s fierce opposition to efforts by state Superintendent Glenda Ritz to get Indiana to at least consider a “pause” to sanctions for schools, teachers and students for low test scores made the topic political kryptonite.

The Indiana State Board of Education refused to even discuss it when Ritz raised the idea in February.

But today Pence reversed course in a letter to Ritz today suggesting teachers shouldn’t be punished for an expected big dip in ISTEP scores the state board is set to discuss Wednesday.

Another key Republican — Senate President David Long, R-Fort Wayne, quickly issued a statement supporting Pence, changing his position, too.

After months of saying that challenging new state standards and ISTEP tests shouldn’t derail state accountability, Gov. Mike Pence wrote to Ritz:

“Our schools and teachers are doing the same great work today as they did in years past; we are experiencing the normal consequences of higher standards and a new exam. Given the transition Indiana has undergone this year with our academic standards and assessment, our response should reflect fairness to our students, our teachers and our schools.”

Pence said he is asking Republican and Democrat lawmakers in the Indiana General Assembly to create legislation that would ensure “test results will not negatively impact teacher evaluations or performance bonuses this year.”

That move is very much in line with a move Ritz for more than a year has lobbied hard for: a temporary pause in accountability. She raised that idea to the state board more than once, only to be shot down each time.

Samantha Hart, Ritz’s spokeswoman, said Ritz welcomes the governor’s decision, but it’s too little, too late given the worry it’s already caused teachers and schools.

“Superintendent Ritz supports strong accountability as long as it is fair, open and transparent,” Hart said in a statement. “The superintendent looks forward to working with Indiana’s leadership to take advantage of federal flexibility for both teacher evaluations and the assignment of A-F accountability grades for the 2014-15 school year.”

As recently as this past spring, after issuing an executive order to shorten ISTEP tests that had grown to more than 12 hours for some students, Pence said accountability was of paramount importance, regardless of changes to tests or standards.

“We grade our kids every day,” Pence said at a press conference in early February. “We can test and grade our schools every year.”

In June of 2014, Pence followed a newspaper column from Ritz advocating for an accountability pause with a letter directly to Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, saying a move like this would never happen on his watch.

“Indiana will not go backwards when it comes to measuring performance in our schools on my watch,” he said in the letter to Duncan. “We do not support a pause in accountability as it relates to delivering A to F grades to schools, determining intervention strategies in under-performing schools, or teacher evaluations that reflect classroom performance.”

In Long’s statement today he applauded Pence, but he contradicted his own position from February.

“As we make this transition with our new standards and test, it is important to be as fair as possible to our students, teachers and schools,” Long said in a statement. “It appears that accomplishing this goal may require legislative action, and Senate Republicans are prepared to act as needed. I’m confident we can find a way to modify portions of our accountability system for one year without suspending it.”

Just eight months ago, after Pence dramatically called for rush legislation to shorten ISTEP, Long was on the other side of the fence.

He sent a letter to the state board saying accountability should in no way be changed for one year of test scores. The state’s accountability system primarily affects teacher evaluation ratings and school A-to-F grades. The ratings can block teachers from raises and poor grades can lead schools into state takeover.

“At no time did I suggest that pause in accountability was appropriate; in fact, I expressed grave concern at the impact this delay would have on our children,” Long wrote in a letter from Feb. 11. “I, along with Speaker (Brian) Bosma, support Governor Pence taking bold action to ensure accountability remains in place.”

Pence’s letter to Ritz today isn’t clear about what could happen to A-to-F grades or if they’d be included in the proposed legislation.

“It is important to ensure that our A-F system fairly reflects the efforts of our students and teachers during this transition year,” Pence said. “I welcome recommendations from the board as we craft solutions that preserve accountability and transparency for Indiana’s academic system.”