The Indiana State Board of Education is calling on the legislature to find the money to fund a pricier future state testing program — whatever the cost.
Money alone shouldn’t be the driving factor in developing new tests, some board members said, and could potentially reduce the quality of the tests.
“I think we need to pose that to our legislature,” board member David Freitas said. “There’s a great price that we pay at some point when we get below a certain threshold, and frankly, I don’t want price to get in the way of our decision.”
The state board today passed a resolution from board member and Avon teacher Sarah O’Brien, which sets out specific guidelines under which the Indiana Department of Education must develop next year’s ISTEP tests. Two items from the resolution were tabled, but it otherwise passed as-is 6-3, with state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, principal Troy Albert and teacher Andrea Neal voting no.
The Indiana Department of Education estimated the cost of the test outlined by the resolution at $100 million over two years, although O’Brien disputed that figure. A proposal Ritz presented to the Senate Appropriations Committee earlier this month would cost about $75 million, down from a $134 million estimate back in December. Board member Dan Elsener said squabbling over cost is ridiculous — the tests are necessary, he said, and the money spent wouldn’t be wasted.
“If you have an $11 billion to $12 billion enterprise, which K-12 schools are, and you spend on an annual basis less than half of a percent to know where students are on essential skills we actually should be teaching … this isn’t a waste of your money,” Elsener said.
Ritz had concerns about some of the board’s ISTEP proposals, such as paying for optional practice tests for grades 3 to 10 in science and social studies. Ritz said that piece could cost $23 million, but there’s not proof they are widely used in schools. Science and social studies scores are not counted as part of the calculation for school A to F grades, only English and math scores are.
“When we spend $23 million on science and social studies that’s not really going to be measured, you would want people to use it,” Ritz said.
The board wants to keep similar optional practice tests for grades K to 2 in English and math, which Ritz also opposed but put a decision about that on hold. It also held off making a decision about whether students below 10th grade who have passed the Algebra end-of-course exam would still have to take the new ninth-grade ISTEP math test. A proposal to require that was tabled.
O’Brien said the practice tests in grades K to 2 are important for schools that might not be able to pay for their own practice tests.
“I like the idea of having resources available,” she said. “But I am not endorsing that schools should use it.”
Another contentious part of ISTEP negotiations focused on reading.
Board members believe a check on reading skills should be focused on Indiana’s third-grade reading test, IREAD. Ritz has long said she’d prefer using reading questions on ISTEP to produce a numerical reading level for all students tested. O’Brien said she was concerned the department’s cost estimates were inaccurate because she believed the tests would be designed to have extra reading questions in them.
Michele Walker, the state’s testing chief, said no extra questions would be added. But because Indiana’s new standards put more emphasis on reading than writing, there will be more reading questions on the test anyway. So that’s why the company that won the contract to create the new ISTEP — the British testing company Pearson — proposed more reading questions.
“There really is not any fluff in the Pearson proposal,” Walker said. “The challenge is that there are so many more reading standards than there are writing standards it looks like it’s more inflated, but actually there are no additional items in there.”
Neal argued that no specific ISTEP decisions should be made until we know what might happen in the legislature.
Senate Bill 566, which passed the Senate and is expected to soon be considered by the House, proposes Indiana use a national “off-the-shelf” test in place of ISTEP. However, that would not begin until 2016-17 under the bill, so ISTEP would remain in 2015-16 even if it passes.
Another reason Neal gave to hold off on any testing decisions were complaints about the bidding process that led to Pearson winning the right to make ISTEP going forward. The exam was previously made by California-based CTB/McGraw-Hill.
Attorney Tom Wheeler, representing the failed bidder Data Recognition Corporation, started the meeting by complaining that Pearson and the Indiana Department of Administration broke state law during the bidding, in multiple ways. Speaking during the public comment period, he asked the board to override the decision and award the contract to Data Recognition Corporation.
Wheeler said Pearson was unfairly rated higher under state bidding rules that give extra credit to companies that can demonstrate they would provide a positive economic impact to the state. But Wheeler charged that Pearson manipulated its number of full-time employees living in Indiana and wasn’t clear that it intended to redirect much of the work to create ISTEP to a subsidiary company.
The Department of Administration, Wheeler said, also communicated with Pearson after the deadline for final bids and allowed Pearson make changes to its bid. Data Recognition Corporation should have also been allowed to make changes to its final bid, he argued.
“We want a level playing field,” Wheeler said.
Ritz said she didn’t know about the company’s complaint but said the Department of Administration, not the education department, exclusively manages the bidding process.
Neal said she wanted an explanation of what happened in the bidding process before a final ISTEP contract was signed and urged the board to delay even setting guidelines for the new ISTEP test.
“I want to wait to hear answers,” Neal said. “I agree completely with the spirit of Sarah’s resolution, but I think we need to delay the discussion of this process.”
Although the resolution passed, Ritz said the discussion about the future of ISTEP is far from over.
“I consider the resolution to be really just part of the process,” Ritz said. “I wanted to make sure that every member of the board knew the implications of what it is they might be recommending as the assessment system.”