Senate defeats civics test bill, grapples with future of ISTEP

Indiana students might be off the hook from a proposal asking they pass a civics test to graduate from high school after a bill to require it was defeated in the state Senate.

Senate Bill 269, authored by Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, would have required all Indiana graduates to pass the same civics test that new U.S. citizens are required to pass. The bill was originally intended only for public schools, but was amended Monday to include students at private schools accepting vouchers as well.

But it couldn’t muster enough votes in the heavily Republican Senate to pass. It was defeated 33-17.

Lawmakers opposed to the bill said it would have increased testing time in a session where a major goal has been to reduce it.

But Kruse argued it was reasonable to ask students to have knowledge of the U.S. and its history that immigrants are asked to know upon becoming citizens. A one-hour test that students have five years to pass, he said, wouldn’t add a burden to schools and existing testing demands.

“I think this one hour will be appropriate for us to at least have our kids know something about civics,” Kruse said.

Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, and others who objected said a civics test that can block graduation was going too far.

“I would agree with you that we absolutely need people to know what the laws are … and I wouldn’t mind a test,” she said at the appropriations committee meeting last week. “But for that test to be one that would determine whether or not a student would graduate, for me that is, the stakes are too high.”

The Senate also took up the wider question of what exams should serve as the state test, with somewhat confusing results.

As costs for ISTEP have grown — the Indiana Department of Education estimates a new, more sophisticated exam matched to new standards with higher expectations could cost up to 45 percent more per year — some lawmakers have looked for an alternative plan.

One idea is to replace ISTEP with a basic, national test like the Iowa Test of Basic Skills or a test created by the Northwest Education Association that some schools use to prepare for ISTEP. Two bills that passed have contradictory approaches to that idea.

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, in favor of using a national test in its place. The bill would eliminate high school end-of-course exams, starting in 2015-16, and the state’s third-grade reading test, IREAD. It passed the Senate 46-3.

Meanwhile, Senate Bill 470, authored by Sen. Scott Schneider, R-Indianapolis, would hold off on that plan in favor of a studying the future possibility of using such a test in place of ISTEP over the summer. It passed 45-5. The House will have to sort out the two approaches.

The Senate must finish its work this week on bills that will be considered in the House starting next month. Bills that passed today included:

  • Cursive writing, Senate Bill 130. The bill, authored by Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg, would require that all public and private elementary schools teach cursive writing, which was dropped as a requirement by the Indiana Department of Education in 2011. The Senate passed the bill 39-11.
  • Deregulation, Senate Bill 500. The 300-page bill was designed to reduce regulations on schools. The bill’s author, Sen. Pete Miller, R-Avon, said he removed nearly all of the sections of the bill that had raised concerns. That included 27 sections addressing student health care, school safety and worker safety reporting, tax issues and more. The bill passed 31-18.
  • Scholarships and grants, Senate Bill 509The bill 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. It passed the Senate 49-0.
  • Teacher collective bargaining, Senate Bill 538The bill, authored by Sen. Carlin Yoder, R-Middlebury, contains new rules that allow non-union organizations to represent teachers in contract negotiations as long as they are not primarily commercial companies. The Senate passed the bill 30-19.