The demise of NCLB could make it easier for Indiana to kill ISTEP

The federal No Child Left Behind law is dead, replaced by a less-restrictive law last month, and the change might give Indiana enough wiggle-room to wrest free from its unpopular statewide ISTEP test.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, which will fully take effect for the 2017-18 school year, allows states more flexibility when developing tests. In fact, up to seven states will be picked for an experiment to pioneer the development of next-generation state exams. State Superintendent Glenda Ritz wants Indiana to ask to be part of the experiment.

“That is a strong possibility to be able to do that,” Ritz said. “I think the federal government is lessening the control over assessment systems.”

Ritz said today she wants to form a panel, much like the panel formed in 2013 to develop a new A-F school grading system, to address needed changes in ISTEP. She said she hopes lawmakers will sign on to the idea to develop a plan for the future before the state’s two-year contract with testing company Pearson to create ISTEP is finished in 2017.

“We have a two-year contract to do ISTEP here, but I want to make sure that we have time to actually get our system correct, making sure we are seeing growth of students over time,” Ritz said. “What informs instruction is knowing where students are and knowing where they are over the course of the year.”

Ritz’s vision for a new state test, she told reporters last week, would be a series of shorter tests that would track students’ progress, followed by a final test that would take a “snapshot” of their skills at the end of year, much like ISTEP does now.

This strategy would reduce the amount of time kids spend taking tests, she argued, and could better provide teachers and parents with quicker turnaround of test scores that could help directly guide changes to the way kids are taught.

Such a plan would be allowed by ESSA, so long as scores from the smaller tests could be combined to form one final year-end score. States are still required under the new law to give yearly tests that show how students are performing in English and math. But going forward, they will have more freedom to choose how they do it.

The once-per-year statewide tests must capture student scores at one moment in time, designed to essentially sum up where they stand. To prepare for ISTEP, Indiana students often take tests that measure student growth over time, an approach many teachers prefer. One such exam many Indiana schools use is created by the Oregon-based Northwest Evaluation Association.

Last year, the Indiana General Assembly’s budget bill included funds for schools to choose their own growth-oriented exams, like NWEA, rather than requiring all schools to use the same test as was done in the past. Ritz said that change would have to be addressed if the state were to use such tests as part of a larger state test series.

But a transition to a different testing timeline might not be so easy, education policy experts said.

Danielle Gonzales, assistant policy director for The Aspen Institute’s education program, said work done by other states, such as New Hampshire, to create a unique test isn’t always a smooth process.

For example, if Indiana were to give a few small tests throughout the year, rather than one big one, the state would have to make sure teachers across the state were teaching roughly the same things at the same time. That’s big challenge. In a state like Indiana, where local control of schools is even more prized, such a move might get resistance from educators and others, she said.

It took “tons of work and resources in getting New Hampshire where they are,” Gonzales said. “Frankly, it’s a significant challenge for other states to take that on.”

Changes are still a ways off
Guidance from the U.S. Department of Education for how to put elements from the new ESSA law in place is expected later this year, which means state policymakers can’t do much to prepare for now. That could be a barrier to ditching ISTEP, as a growing number of legislators have said they’d like to do.

“The big question that everyone has that I’ve heard is what will the regulations look like?” said Marc Lotter, spokesman for the Indiana State Board of Education.

Waivers that federal officials have awarded to states to release them from sanctions they could have faced for not measuring up under NCLB would be void in August of 2016. So far, the U.S. Department of Education has advised states to stick with the testing systems they have now until 2017. In the meantime, federal and state officials will try to figure out how to adapt testing and accountability systems to any changes required by the ESSA law.

Lotter said he doesn’t expect Indiana will have to change much, given the years of work already put into the state’s new standards, testing and A-F school grading model. ESSA still requires states to test students every year and measure how schools perform, just like NCLB. And Indiana’s upgraded standards got the OK from the U.S. Department of Education in 2014.

“The good thing is that, from what I understand, our standards are not going to need to change,” Lotter said.

Another big change that could affect Indiana is that ESSA voids a mandate from the Obama administration that required states receiving federal poverty aid to evaluate all teachers every year. Indiana made that requirement state law in 2011, but the change has been controversial.

Some educators bristled that student test score growth was required to be part of the evaluation score. But proponents of higher expectations for teacher performance have been disappointed that nearly all Indiana educators have been rated effective under the new system, just as they were before 2011.

Ritz said she doesn’t think Indiana should give up teacher evaluations, but she said there might be suggestions for ways to change the system based on feedback from her 49-person panel on teacher hiring that met this past summer.

“I am a strong proponent of annual evaluations of our teachers,” Ritz said. “What we do want to see is local control over how (teacher evaluation) works so we can have some fair evaluation systems going on in the state of Indiana.”