Near unanimous support has bills to shield teachers, schools from ISTEP sanctions flying

How badly does Indiana want to give its teachers and schools a break for for falling state test scores last year?

This bad: Just two of 145 state legislators voted no on two bills to give schools a reprieve from sanctions that usually accompany the kind of drop in scores the Indiana Department of Education reported last week.

A hasty overhaul of academic standards in 2014 led to a quick overhaul of the state ISTEP tests in English and math for students in grades 3-8 in 2015. It didn’t go well. The statewide rate of students passing both tests dropped by 22 percentage points to 53.5 percent, and all but four of 1,500 public schools saw their scores go down.

That prompted Gov. Mike Pence and fellow Republican leaders in the House and Senate to rush two bills to ease the pain schools would usually expect. Schools with  persistently failing grades can face state takeover and teachers of students who don’t show test score gains from the prior year can be blocked from pay raises.

But not this year, thanks to House Bill 1003 and Senate Bill 200, two bills with the same goal of providing that relief that sailed through their latest tests in the two chambers today. Lawmakers hope to have final bills ready for Pence to sign into law by mid-month.

“It’s a win-win for educators,” said House Education Committee Chairman Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis.

Behning’s bill says that 2015 ISTEP scores could not be used in a teacher’s evaluation for that year unless it would improve a teacher’s rating. The bill also makes sure teachers cannot be blocked from bonuses or salary increases because of the scores or forthcoming A-F school letter grades. It passed the House today 95-1, with Rep. John Bartlett, D-Indianapolis, voting no.

Although Rep. Terry Goodin, D-Austin, voted in favor of the bill, he cautioned lawmakers to really consider the action they were taking and whether it was in the best interest of kids.

“We’ve talked about hold harmless for our schools, we’ve talked about hold harmless for our teachers, but really by passing this bill we are really having a hold harmless of legislators and our governor,” Goodin said. “But I think our focus has been misdirected, I really do. The focus has been wrong … the focus needs to be a hold harmless of our students.”

Gov. Mike Pence was staunchly opposed to an accountability “pause” for teachers or schools but reversed course in an announcement last fall, where he encouraged legislators to spare teachers from lower ISTEP scores.

Then in another statement last week, Pence came out in support of a similar pause for school A-F grades. State Superintendent Glenda Ritz has long supported such a pause, and the passage of these bills marks a rare political victory for her administration.

In Senate Bill 200, which passed the full Senate today 48-1, schools could not receive a letter grade for 2015 that is lower than what they received in 2014. Sen. Scott Schneider, R-Indianapolis, voted no.

The A-F grade pause would only count for 2015. This year, schools will be on a new accountability system that more actively factors in student improvement on tests from year to year.

Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, said the bill lines up with what educators have said they wanted all along — time to acclimate to tougher standards ands tests.

“I know we spend a lot of our time dealing with tests an cooer s and grades, but I think in addition to what this bill does in terms of righting some wrongs is that we now are in a position where I think we have listened to those persons on the front lines,” Rogers said. “We’ve listened to our teachers, we’ve listened to our superintendents and to our parents.”

Legislative leaders said this week they hope to have both bills to Pence to be signed into law by the end of the month.