House Speaker Brian Bosma: Dump ISTEP for a new exam

An idea to scrap Indiana’s state standardized test in favor of an “off-the-shelf” test could make a comeback during this year’s legislative session.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, resurrected a call for a cheaper, more widely used test that turns over results to educators faster.

“It’s time for a new brand,” Bosma said. “The Senate was on that wagon last year, we didn’t really have the flexibility to do that last year, but with the change to the (No Child Left Behind Law), we have time to explore those.”

Citing recurring problems, several lawmakers today said action on ISTEP was needed. Last year’s ISTEP scores, normally released in the summer, are still delayed after repeated problems with scoring by the company Indiana hired to create and administer the exam.

Last week the Indianapolis Star reported supervisors who work at the company blew the whistle that it failed to fix another technical glitch that could mark some right answers as wrong for some students.

Legislative leaders spoke today on a panel at a legislative conference hosted by a law firm Bingham Greenebaum Doll.

“I think we’ve discussed enough,” said Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek. “I think it’s time to make a fundamental change, and on a lot of this I think we’re in broad agreement.”

Last year’s overhauled ISTEP, tied for the first time to Indiana’s tougher new standards, caused student test scores to drop sharply. That could mean schools earn far fewer A-grades and more F’s. It also could hurt pay raises for teachers, many of which are based in part on ISTEP scores.

The call to dump ISTEP is surprising for several reasons.

First, it was the legislature that derailed Indiana’s plan to adopt shared standards with other states and use an off-the-shelf test, known as PARCC, to measure student learning. That move gave ISTEP new life in 2014.

But then last year, key Senate Republicans raised concerns that the overhauled ISTEP was too costly. Led by Sen. Luke Kenley, a Noblesville Republican and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, the Senate made a push for Indiana to dump ISTEP and replace it with a different “off-the-shelf” exam. Kenley frequently suggested that an exam created by the Northwest Evaluation Association, now used to prepare students for ISTEP, could serve the state’s needs instead of ISTEP.

But that idea did not catch on, especially in the Indiana House.

After months of back-and-forth between House and Senate Republicans over how to curtail testing costs, the two-year state budget included money to pay for two more years of ISTEP, this time switching to British-based testing company Pearson to create the exam.

But in 2016, it sounds like the House leadership could jump on board with the plan to ditch ISTEP in the future. However, it’s not yet clear what kind of test flexibility will be allowed under the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which transitions over from No Child Left Behind in August 2016. The ESSA’s language says once-per-year statewide tests must be “summative,” which are tests that capture student scores at one moment in time. Formative tests, like NWEA, measure student growth over time.

Bosma said last year he didn’t want to move too quickly to make testing changes, but he was open to ideas for other tests. He echoed those same sentiments today in light of the problems with the 2015 test, which include not one, but two, scoring problems and disparities between difficulty in online and paper versions.

The issues have led to delays in the public release of ISTEP scores, now expected in January, which also holds up teacher pay decisions and school A-F grades. New more challenging academic standards rolled out last year also mean passing rates are expected to drop about 16 percentage points in English and 24 percentage points in math.

Under current law, schools that receive F-grades can face serious consequences, including being taken over by the state if they can’t raise grades after four years. Teachers who repeatedly see low ratings can face dismissal and might not be eligible for pay raises.

Although Bosma said he didn’t think an ISTEP solution could be finalized this year, he thought legislators could “set the stage” for a change in 2017.

“There is a solution that still measures Indiana’s rigorous standards appropriately, whether it’s a supplement to an off-the-shelf test … but we’ve got to put a framework together,” he said.

Democrats on the panel pointed out that they already proposed a solution to relieve schools from the effects of ISTEP score drops last month on Organization Day, the symbolic start of the session. But the plan received no support from Republican leaders, who hold super-majority control in the legislature and can pass bills without any Democratic support.

“The ISTEP situation has to be resolved,” Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said. “We think that it would do well to either do a hold harmless type of approach in terms of the using those tests for the things that we use them for or to simply do a pause because we think that this year’s test wasn’t valid.”

Bosma and other Republican leaders haven’t supported such a pause, but he mentioned the state might consider using a two- or three-year average of past grades for 2015 instead. He said he isn’t sure such a measure would be allowed under Indiana’s waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Law, but his team is actively talking with federal education officials.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, has long supported the “hold harmless” approach, which would only require schools to publicize 2015 A-F grades if they are better or the same as 2014 grades. Samantha Hart, Ritz’s spokeswoman, has said such one-year pauses are “consistent with the spirit of the flexibility (the U.S. Department of Education) has offered.”

Hart said ISTEP score or other letter grade adjustments may or may not fall into that category.

“(Federal officials) have told us that anything outside of hold harmless will have to go through the peer review process,” Hart said in an email. “And we do not know if that would be approved or not, or how long that process could take.”

Gov. Mike Pence announced last month that he backed a proposal to “decouple” student scores from teacher evaluations and bonus pay. Bosma said a bill with such language protecting teachers from the sting of lower test scores would be fast-tracked when the session begins in January.

But so far, Pence has not said what approach he would support to adjust A-F grades.

“Governor Pence has committed to and continues to work with legislative leadership to ensure that test results will not negatively impact teacher bonuses,” Pence’s spokeswoman, Kara Brooks, said in a statement. “And that the A-F system fairly reflects the efforts of our students and teachers this year.”