Pence signs on to Ritz's approach to 'pause' A-F grades, ISTEP sanctions

Gov. Mike Pence and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz finally agree on the best way to handle a “pause” of penalties schools would otherwise pay for poor test scores for 2014-15, and they appear poised to follow Ritz’s preferred approach.

Sen. Dennis Kruse, a Republican from Auburn who chairs the Senate Education Committee, today filed Senate Bill 200, which proposes schools may not receive a lower grade for 2015 than what they received in 2014.

That’s the very solution Ritz has promoted since mid-2014.

“The current version of Senate Bill 200 is common sense legislation that allows schools time to adjust to our new standards and prevents unnecessary economic harm to our schools and communities,” Ritz said in a statement. “This bill has my strong support.”

Pence, who opposed giving schools a one-year pass from low A-F grades and their accompanying sanctions before changing course in late October, signaled he also supports Kruse’s bill.

“(Gov. Pence) has studied the issue, listened to educators in the field and collaborated with lawmakers to arrive at what he believes is the fairest treatment of schools in the transition year,” Pence’s spokeswoman Kara Brooks said in a statement.

If the bill passes intact, it would be a rare political win for Ritz. Her seal of approval on education policy ideas, at times, has seemed to brand them as non-starters with Pence, his Indiana State Board of Education appointees and other Republican leaders.

The bill also quickly garnered support from House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and Senate President David Long, R-Fort Wayne.

In June of 2014, Ritz called for a pause in the A-F system in a letter to then-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Pence followed a newspaper column in which he said such a move would never happen on his watch.

“Indiana will not go backwards when it comes to measuring performance in our schools on my watch,” he wrote. “We do not support a pause in accountability as it relates to delivering A to F grades to schools, determining intervention strategies in under-performing schools, or teacher evaluations that reflect classroom performance.”

State Democrats also support the method laid out in Kruse’s bill. In fact, Sen. Mark Stoops, D-Bloomington, drafted a similar bill that he asked the Indiana General Assembly to pass on Organization Day in November, the ceremonial start to the legislative session.

It didn’t happen then — such a move would have had few precedents — but it appears there is near unanimous support for the idea today.

The need for an A-F grade fix stems from several problems with the 2015 ISTEP test, including scoring problems and differences that were discovered between difficulty in online and paper versions that required scoring adjustments so all students had comparable results.

ISTEP scores are expected to be released to the public on Wednesday, which is far behind the usual schedule. They were released in early August in 2014.

State test scores are key factors in determining teacher pay decisions as well as school A-F grades. Because the state introduced new, more challenging standards in 2014, ISTEP passing rates are expected to drop 16 percentage points in English and 24 percentage points in math. That also means fewer schools are expected to get A’s, and more likely will receive D’s and F’s.

Schools that earn F-grades can have serious consequences ahead of them. For example, the state can take schools over, handing them off to be run by charter school networks or other outside groups, if they repeatedly get F’s for four consecutive years. Teachers who receive poor evaluations can be fired or declared ineligible for pay raises.

Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, is also expected to introduce tomorrow a bill that would not allow ISTEP scores or A-F grades to factor into teacher evaluations, their pay raises or pay bonuses, for 2015.

A few other ideas for how to handle a big dip in ISTEP passing rates and A-F grades were proposed late last year, but the “hold harmless” approach seems to have the most support from the U.S. Department of Education. State education department officials have told Chalkbeat that they are confident the method in Kruse’s bill would be “consistent with the spirit of the flexibility (the U.S. Department of Education) has offered.”

The Senate Education Committee, chaired by Kruse, is expected to hear and vote on the bill at its first meeting Wednesday. A statement from Long and Bosma said both bills are expected to pass and reach the governor’s desk by mid-to-late January.