Senators back a bill that could end Indiana's testing woes — by dumping ISTEP

If Republicans in the Indiana Senate get their way, Hoosiers will never have to fight about ISTEP again.

That’s because Senate Bill 566, which passed the Senate Education Committee today 7-3, would end the state’s tradition of hiring an outside company to create a test just for Indiana, instead requiring the state to use an “off-the-shelf” exam used by several states, such as Iowa Test of Basics Skills or the ACT.

Senate Bill 566, authored by Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, and Sen. Ryan Mishler, R-Bremen, would stop the process of creating a new ISTEP for 2016, instead letting the state use a national test that year. It also would eliminate high school end-of-course exams, starting in 2015-16, and the state’s third-grade reading test, IREAD.

The committee vote, which sends the bill to the Senate Appropriations Committee, came as Gov. Mike Pence and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz clashed this week over how much time students would spend taking ISTEP this year.

“I think this big blowup about the length of the ISTEP test helps show why we need to have 566,” Kenley said.

The committee also passed a second bill about testing, Senate Bill 470, which proposes that schools receiving vouchers be allowed to opt-out of ISTEP to instead use any national test. That bill, authored by Sen. Scott Schneider, R-Indianapolis, also passed 7-3.

Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, voted no on both bills. She said she was confused about why Indiana would change to a national test after so much fuss was made over writing a “Hoosier-specific” test. The inconsistency, not the test itself, is what bothered her, she said.

“We lose our focus here in terms of where we need to go and some paths we need to follow in order to make certain our young people achieve and our teachers are satisfied,” she said.

Schneider said his bill frees up private schools that accept publicly-funded tuition vouchers for poor children from having to adjust curriculum or programming because of demands from ISTEP.

“I really think it’s an effort to save school choice,” Schneider said. “Because what we’re getting when you dictate a homogenized test, you remove any differentiation from a private school and a charter or public school, and the whole point of choice is to give people choices.”

But Sen. Mark Stoops, D-Bloomington, and other Democratic lawmakers, voted against the bill, saying it should apply to all the state’s schools.

“I just don’t understand why this can’t apply to all public schools in the state of Indiana,” Stoops said. “I don’t understand why we’re focused on voucher schools.”

Kenley said he was unhappy with the Indiana Department of Education’s presentation to the State Budget Committee in December, which showed writing new state tests to match the state’s new more rigorous academic standards could cost about twice as much as what it has cost to give state tests in the past — estimates range between $65 million and $72 million. Given the high cost of a test tailored for Indiana, he said, the state needed a new option to consider.

Kenley said using a national test would not only be cheaper, but it would let Indiana compare its students to those across the nation, which could be helpful to students who want to apply to private or elite colleges.

Although no specific test has been chosen yet, Kenley said, there are a number of options, including one from the Northwest Evaluation Association, which many Indiana schools already give.

At last week’s Senate Education Committee hearing on the bill, John Barnes, spokesman for Glenda Ritz and the Indiana Department of Education, said Ritz supported Senate Bill 566.

“I think 566 becomes the vehicle whereby we kind of solve this problem and reach an agreeable compromise on this,” Kenley said. “The reason why this test is so long is because standards would change and everything becomes more complicated, and this is what it takes to satisfy what we have here.”

Senate Bill 470 for private schools receiving vouchers did not have Ritz’s support, Barnes said. He said Ritz worries that loosening requirements on schools receiving tax dollars is risky and having those schools taking different tests than everyone else would be confusing.

“There can be no equivalent assessment that can be used for school accountability,” Barnes said. “When you are evaluating two entities, you have to use the same exact measurement.”

Both bills will next be heard by the Senate Appropriations Committee, which will consider the cost of the bills to the state budget.

The committee voted on five other bills, all of which also will be sent to the Appropriations Committee.

  • Deregulation, Senate Bill 500. The committee passed 7-4 a 300-page bill aimed at reducing regulations on schools. The bill’s author, Sen. Pete Miller, R-Avon, said he removed nearly all of the sections of the bill that were connected to issues that were raised when the bill was discussed two weeks ago. That included 27 sections addressing student health care, school safety and worker safety reporting, tax issues and more.
  • Civics test, Senate Bill 269The bill passed committee 7-3, and would require students take a civics test starting in 2016-17 to graduate from high school. Students must score at least 60 percent to pass, and they may take the test any time between grades 8 and 12.
  • School counseling grant, Senate Bill 271. This bill, which passed committee 10-0, would establish a grant to help school counselors obtain certificates to better help them prepare students for college and jobs after high school. The grant would be funded by money set aside by the General Assembly.
  • Alternative education, Senate Bill 310. This bill, authored by Sen. Jim Merritt, R-Indianapolis, passed 10-0 and would require that schools separate discipline data by race, gender, free and reduced-price lunch percentage, disability percentage and grade level, which would help the state have a better understanding of what students are being suspended or expelled. It would also redirect state aid from a school to an alternative education fund for students who are expelled.
  • Scholarships and grants, Senate Bill 509The bill, which passed 10-0, would allow the Commission on Higher Education to ask the state to transfer money among scholarship and grant funds to meet the needs of students.