Pence says he and Ritz will cooperate to shorten ISTEP

Shifting away from Monday’s sharp criticism of state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, Gov. Mike Pence today said the two would work with legislative leaders to shorten the state ISTEP test Indiana students will take starting this month.

“I am especially grateful for the cooperation of the Department of Education and Superintendent Glenda Ritz,” Pence said in his second press conference of the week about ISTEP. “I’m confident we can significantly shorten this test and lessen the burden it was poised to place on Indiana’s kids, on families and on our teachers.”

But even if everyone agrees on a strategy to cut down test time from as much as 12-and-a-half hours, Indiana could still be in a bind unless the U.S. Department of Education also gets on board with the plan.

Will the federal government come to the rescue?

Pence said he spoke to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and described Duncan as “open” to offering flexibility to help Indiana.

But Duncan’s spokeswoman declined to comment late this afternoon, saying only that Indiana would have to propose an amendment to an agreement it signed with federal officials, and that request would be reviewed like any other.

Federal government support is a critical question because six of the seven possible solutions put forward by the California company that makes ISTEP to reduce testing time — shared by Pence with reporters — would require federal sign-off, both the company and Ritz said.

“There would need to be permission from the U.S. Department of Education for any of those changes,” Ritz said as she left a meeting with House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and Senate President David Long, R-Fort Wayne.

The ISTEP controversy began last week, when Indiana State Board of Education members and others raised questions about the long exam, which could take students up to twice as much time to complete as last year’s test.

The longer test was driven by several factors, most rooted in Indiana’s sudden switch away from adopting Common Core standards to instead create and adopt its own standards last April.

That began a rush to revamp ISTEP so it would cover the new material expected of the new standards, which were designed to assure students graduate ready for college, while also accomplishing other tasks, such as providing data that could be used to measure student improvement from the prior year and trying out questions that won’t count until a totally new state test is rolled out in 2016.

Ritz’s Indiana Department of Education had to balance those elements with state laws that require certain types of tests and federal requirements the state agreed to meet. But Pence blasted the much longer test, ordered the hiring of an outside consultant to shorten it and laid much of the blame on Ritz when he spoke Monday.

Ritz’s spokesman and top deputy fired back in a press conference Tuesday and questioned Pence’s motives, suggesting he was misinformed and playing politics. Pence, a Republican, has long been at odds with Ritz, who is the only Democrat holding statewide office. The two have considerable philosophical differences about how the state’s education policy should be managed.

The distrust between Ritz and state board members, most appointed by Pence, has resulted in long, contentious meetings and other problems.

But Pence was upbeat today. He said the state would hire a second testing expert to assist and hoped to have preliminary recommendations for the state board to consider when it meets Friday.

Among the ideas to cut down the testing time from CTB/McGraw-Hill, the company that makes ISTEP, were:

  • Cut down on essay-style written answers.
  • Drop questions that would not count in a student’s score but are being tried out for possible use on the 2016 exam.
  • Leave out questions designed to measures student test score growth during the prior year.
  • Report less data on English and math results.
  • Only test some of the new, more rigorous standards designed to assure college readiness, delaying others until next year’s test.
  • Go back to last year’s standards for one more year and use last year’s test.
  • Eliminate the science and social studies tests.

Pence said he would not entertain an additional suggestion from Ritz — delaying accountability sanctions for students, teachers and schools, such as A-to-F school grades, for a year.

“Let me be clear,” he said. “We grade our kids every day we can grade our schools every year. Accountability is important to the progress Indiana has made and will continue to make in education.”