Key legislator's bill now calls for dumping ISTEP in 2017

After coming on strong, the Indiana legislature could be closing in on a plan to put off any big decisions about a major overhaul to ISTEP until 2017 and hand off a decision about whether the 2015 test needs to be rescored to the Indiana State Board of Education.

Those were key changes to House Bill 1395, authored by House Education Committee Chairman Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, which the committee passed today 10-1. The bill moves next to the full House for a vote that could come as early as next week.

The bill originally called for a full rescore for the 2015 ISTEP in the wake of a series of problems last year with the administration and scoring of the exam. An expert report issued late last year declared the scores valid and comparable for future ISTEP tests, but Behning said he wanted reassurance because the state’s new accountability systems for students, teachers and schools rest heavily on ISTEP scores.

The problem is cost. The price of a rescore was estimated at up to $10 million, a large amount for the legislature to find in a year when it is not planning a new biennial budget. Last week, Behning scaled back, saying a partial rescore could also be an option.

So instead, Behning proposed an amendment today that would kick the decision about whether a rescore is needed to the state board. If the board requests a rescore, it would be up to the Indiana Department of Education to hire an outside company to conduct it.

That way, Behning said, the decision would not be made by legislators but by those with more knowledge of the state’s educational needs.

“It’s not a mandate unless state board of education determines those things are necessary,” he said.

Then Behning added another twist: The amendment to the bill also adds a deadline for the state’s ISTEP program, based on an end-of-year exam, to expire and be replaced with a new testing system.

Exactly what sort of testing system replaces ISTEP would still need to be determined.

Since last year, there has been growing support among lawmakers to replace ISTEP, perhaps with a cheaper “off-the-shelf” test that is also used by other states, or with an exam more focused on measuring student test score gains over time.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz has proposed reshaping the state testing system so students would take a series of shorter tests that could be combined into a final yearly score.

To prepare for ISTEP, Indiana students often take tests that measure student growth over time, an approach many teachers prefer as a way of gathering data they can use to adjust their teaching. One such exam many Indiana schools use is created by the Oregon-based Northwest Evaluation Association. Some legislators have touted the NWEA test as a potential replacement for ISTEP.

That sort of change — away from a single year-end exam — would not have been allowed under the federal No Child Left Behind law, but that law was recently replaced by the U.S. Congress with the Every Student Succeeds Act.

ESSA allows more flexibility for states to make decisions about how their testing systems work, although Indiana would still have to test students in grades 3-8 and grade 10 at least once per year in English, Math and science. That test would also still be required to take a “snapshot” of student performance each year.

Plans for a committee to further study those sorts of testing changes are already part of House Bill 1395. But after today’s amendment, the bill would also set a hard deadline of July 1, 2017, to replace ISTEP.

As much as some would like to move faster, there are practical barriers to changing the test sooner. For one thing, the state has a contract with the testing company Pearson to create ISTEP this year and next year. Plus, redesigning ISTEP could change the cost of the test. Legislative leaders are reluctant to alter the state budget to account for those sorts of changes before next year’s budget-setting process.