Glenda Ritz's team fires back at Pence, says no changes planned for ISTEP — yet

A spokesman for state Superintendent Glenda Ritz today rejected Gov. Mike Pence’s call to shorten the state ISTEP exam, calling his claims that she mishandled the test “personal and false attacks.”

Spokesman Daniel Altman said Pence had gotten bad information from the Indiana State Board of Education and its staff suggesting Ritz had failed to keep the board informed.

“It’s either politically malicious or a serious sign of staff incompetence,” Altman said. “My hope is that he was simply misinformed.”

But a state board member said the evidence suggests Pence was right.

“That’s just not true,” board member Brad Oliver said of Altman’s claims that the board understood months ago the test would be longer.

Pence on Monday blasted Ritz for leading the development of an ISTEP test that could take students twice as long to complete as last year and issued an order that it be shortened.

But Danielle Shockey, Ritz’s deputy superintendent, said the order would likely have no effect and that the test could not be significantly cut down unless the legislature changes requirements in state law or the U.S. Department of Education offered special freedom from its rules that it has so far denied.

“There is nothing in that order that would cause us to pause,” she said.

The state board will hold a special meeting Friday, but Shockey said there is no plan right now to change course on ISTEP.

“We are planning to move forward with ISTEP as planned, given that is the expectation of the state and the federal government,” she said.

The state board, however, might have other ideas. Oliver said ISTEP must be changed now.

“At this point, let’s just get it fixed,” he said. “I’m tired of this carrying on. It is unacceptable and unreasonable to do this.”

Pence today said he had hired a testing expert, Michigan State University professor Edward Roeber, for $22,000 and had contacted CTB/McGraw-Hill, the California company that makes ISTEP, to explore ways to cut the test down.

“I look forward to your cooperation as we work expeditiously to find a solution that serves Hoosier students, families and educators,” Pence wrote in a letter to Ritz today informing her of Roeber’s hiring.

An irritated Pence told reporters in a quickly arranged press conference on Monday he was shocked to learn ISTEP could take some students more than 12 hours to complete, about twice as much time as was allotted for the series of tests last year.

Pence said the state board was kept in the dark about the fact that the test would be so long, and he demanded action to reduce the testing time.

But Shockey and Altman said Ritz only learned of the time needed for testing from CTB/McGraw-Hill on Jan. 23. She notified schools on Jan. 26 and told the state board at its Feb. 4 meeting.

Shockey said although the exact time needed for ISTEP came out last month, the state board knew last August that it would be much longer. The board heard a presentation from CTB/McGraw-Hill on Aug. 6, and handouts showed a big jump in the number of test questions. The board was cautioned that more questions would make the test take longer, Shockey said.

Oliver responded that the minutes of that meeting prove Shockey wrong. He said the board was told the opposite by Michelle Walker, the state education department’s testing chief, in that August meeting: that it was too early to tell how long ISTEP would be.

The minutes from the meeting, available on the state board’s website, state: “Dr. Oliver asked how much longer the test would be this year. Dr. Michelle Walker said that this is something that they are still looking at in conjunction with CTB, and since the items are still being reviewed, there is no way to know just yet.”

Oliver said that proved what the state board has been saying — that there was no indication before last week that the test would could take twice as long.

“I did ask this question in August, they said they didn’t know,” he said. “That’s fine. This was an agenda item every month. They could have told us any time.”

ISTEP is longer this year for several reasons.

For one thing, the state changed course over the past two years on academic standards, dropping out of Common Core and creating its own standards that the state board approved last April.

That meant Indiana needed a new test test to match its more rigorous expectations for what children should know. In a way, this year’s ISTEP is three tests in one. Part of the test is similar to past exams. Another part includes new questions measuring if students learned the tougher material of the new standards. Finally, there are a series of questions on the 2015 test that won’t count but that are being tried out so they can be used in 2016.

The test also is also longer because it is designed to meet requirements in both state and federal law, Shockey said.

For example, the state requires ISTEP to measure both the level of student skill — such as whether the student passes or fails — and how much they improved during the school year. To measure growth the test must have extra questions that are slightly above and below the student’s grade level to help gauge their gains.

Shockey said Ritz asked federal education officials last year if they could have more time to develop the test, but the answer ultimately was no. Although Indiana made a late change in direction on standards, it would have to test its new standards in 2015 as it had promised, she said Ritz was told.

During those talks, Shockey said, Ritz’s department went ahead and developed a plan to transition in stages to a new ISTEP in 2016, but in April and May both the state board and the federal education department nixed that idea, requiring a quick change of direction.

At this point, Shockey said, the only way to cut the testing time is for the legislature to act. She suggested lawmakers could suspend the third-grade reading test or state fifth- and seventh-grade social studies tests — both of which are state-required but not federally mandated.

The state education department has told schools they can cut down the practice time they had scheduled in advance of ISTEP to save some classroom time. Altman said Ritz would work with Pence, the consultant and the state board to explore other options.

But Shockey said schools should expect to administer ISTEP as planned until they hear differently, and that parents, teachers and students should’t worry.

“We should tell our kids to go in there and do their best, period,” she said.