Gov. Pence signs ISTEP’s death warrant, kicks off two-year rush to replace exam

With the stroke of his pen today, Gov. Mike Pence put an end to the Indiana’s decades-old standardized ISTEP exam and officially started the clock on a plan to replace it.

The ISTEP will be administered just one more time — in 2017 — giving the state a little more than 700 days to figure out something new.

“We’re going to make a new test that works better for our kids, better for our teachers, better for our families,” Pence said. “I think there’s just been a growing sense that we can do better than ISTEP. This is a test that has been around in Indiana for more than a generation.”

Signing the bill at Eagle Elementary School in Zionsville, Pence told the children gathered for the bill ceremony that they shouldn’t get too excited about ISTEP’s departure.

The “good news” was that ISTEP would be no more, he said, but the “bad news,” is that there will still be a test. That comment was met with groans from the kids.

Now, Pence and other lawmakers have until May to decide which policymakers and educators should help lead efforts to create a new test.

Read “Junking Indiana’s ISTEP test: What might come next and at what cost?

The bill Pence signed into law, House Enrolled Act 1395, passed by the Indiana General Assembly earlier this month, calls for a 23-member panel composed of teachers, principals, community members, legislators, parents and other stakeholders to figure out what ISTEP alternatives can be reasonably accomplished before a new test must be given in 2018.

“I think this panel that we’ve assembled … will give us the tools and expertise to make a test that will work for the next generation of Hoosiers,” Pence said. “I feel the panel is very well balanced … There’s a real emphasis on people with practical experience in education — teachers, superintendents and administrators are part and parcel of the panel.”

He declined to say who is in line to be named to the panel but said he and his staff are taking time to put appointments together before the May 1 deadline.

One concern raised by educators and and test experts this year is whether Indiana has enough time to develop a new test. The state has a contract with British-based test company Pearson for this year’s and next year’s test, and the Indiana Department of Education is already working on the specifics of the 2017 test.

An overhaul at this point in the timeline could put the state in much the same situation it found itself in two years ago when Indiana abandoned the Common Core standards and a test that was tied to those standards. The state was forced to hastily write new standards and come up with a new test. The exam became so problematic that it was part of what ignited this year’s debate about getting rid of ISTEP altogether.

“When I read about the legislature forming a task force, it could happen all over again,” said Ed Roeber, a testing expert who is advising Indiana. “It takes time to write the (test questions), to prepare them for field testing, to review them for bias. You have to shortcut a lot of stuff if you have to do it in under a year.”

Pence said he thinks the state has enough time to develop a new test, and he’s working now to determine who he might appoint to the panel

The panel must report back to the legislature by December of this year. The goal would be for the General Assembly to propose legislation on the state’s new testing system in 2017.

“My understanding is that we do (have enough time),” Pence said. “I really would want to rely on the panel’s recommendations and the expertise of the State Board of Education to make these transitions. We certainly want an orderly transition whether it’s a new test or it’s simply a different test.”

Pence said the U.S. Department of Education’s new Every Student Succeeds Act, which officially replaces the No Child Left Behind law this summer, could give states more flexibility when it comes to testing.

“As someone who believes that education is a state and local function … I was enthusiastic to see leaders in Washington D.C. give us that new flexibility,” Pence said. “That’s why in January of this year when I spoke to the General Assembly I said with all that new flexibility I thought it was time for us to take a step back from ISTEP.”

But until the federal government releases more details about what would be possible under the new test later this year, states don’t really know exactly what would be allowed and what wouldn’t. What hasn’t changed is that Indiana is still required to test students each year from grades 3-8 in English and math, and for certain grades, science and social studies.

Federal law also still requires statewide tests that capture student scores at one moment in time, known as a “summative exam,” much like ISTEP does now.

Although Pence said he strongly supports local input when it comes to creating a new test, he didn’t outright reject the idea of using an “off-the-shelf” test in some way.

“I don’t want to take anything off the table from this panel,” Pence said. “Developing our standards, our testing, is best done at the state and local level. I think this panel is going to represent very broad group of perspectives on testing and education.”

Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, originally introduced the legislation signed today as proposal to rescore of the problem-plagued 2015 test. The exam was beset with scoring delays and technical glitches that Behning thought called for a full review of the scores to make sure the state can accurately determine student progress going forward. The rescore didn’t make it back in the final version of the bill.

“I hope it goes better this year,” Roeber said. “I hope that there’s consideration given to the time and money it takes to implement a new testing program.”