After a contentious week of criticizing each other, Indiana State Superintendent Glenda Ritz and Gov. Mike Pence appear to mostly be on the same page for how to shorten this spring’s ISTEP test by at least three hours.

Ritz appeared to surprise the Indiana State Board of Education by agreeing with three of five recommendations from two test experts Pence hired this week in an urgent effort to find ways to cut ISTEP after it was revealed last week that it could take up to 12-and-a-half hours to complete, or twice as long as last year for some students.

So the plan now is to shrink the test by cutting back essay-style questions, eliminating a handful of questions that help determine student progress, suspending the fifth- and seventh-grade social studies exams for a year and re-using some questions that normally are released to public and can’t appear on future tests.

“We are ready to go ahead and reduce the time by three hours and five minutes for all students on (English) and math combined,” Ritz said.

But there is still a hurdle to cross: Ritz said two of the five changes — dropping the social studies exam and not releasing all the essay and short answer questions — would require action by the General Assembly.

The recommendations came from test experts Pence hired this week at about $1,000 per day to consult on shortening ISTEP — Ed Roeber, of Michigan, and Bill Auty, of Oregon. Ritz told the state board at a special meeting today that Indiana Department of Education officials worked with them as they crafted their recommendations.

The embrace of major changes to ISTEP came after a week of intense and heated debates about the test, which is given to third- through eighth-graders each spring in math and English. Fifth- and seventh-graders are also tested in social studies.

Pence issued a statement this afternoon hailing the progress.

“While the Department of Education still has work to do to implement these recommendations,” he said. “Hoosiers may be assured that our Administration will continue to work with all parties to shorten the test while maintaining the validity of the assessment and continuing accountability for our schools.”

On Monday, Pence signed an executive order to hire Roeber and pledged to shorten the test, saying he was shocked by how long it would be. Ritz said at the time that there was not much the Indiana Department of Education — the sole agency in charge of crafting and administering the test — could do because much of what ballooned the exam was required either by state or federal law.

But Roeber and Auty made five suggestions for possible cuts:

  1. Release fewer questions from the test. Every year state law requires all essay and short answer questions to be released so educators and parents can see them. Consequently, those questions can never again be used on future tests. If the legislature allows fewer questions to be released, some could be re-used next year.
  2. Try out extra questions a few at a time on smaller groups of kids. Instead of having all students try out questions for future tests, Roeber and Auty suggested the state give portions of the questions to smaller groups of students. For example, half of all test-takers could try out one group of extra questions, and the other half would see a different set.
  3. Consider trying out some of the unused extra questions in a smaller “pilot” test. Roeber and Auty suggested giving a pilot test to a sample of kids in the fall. But Ritz said she didn’t think this would be needed if the state follows the first two recommendations.
  4. Don’t test kids on social studies this year. Fifth- and seventh-graders wouldn’t be tested on social studies, cutting about one hour of test time. Social studies is required by state law, so this also would require the legislature’s blessing. But social studies is not required by federal law and doesn’t factor into school A-F grades.
  5. Eliminate questions used to measure student growth. Each ISTEP currently has a few questions aimed at determining roughly what grade level the student is working at to help with determining how much they improved from the prior year. But Ritz said other techniques could be used to determine “growth,” which factors into school A-to-F grades and teacher evaluation ratings.

The biggest time savings that would result from the recommendations is for English, currently planned for about eight hours of test time. That’s thanks in large part to essay and short answer questions, which take longer. Math, originally planned as four hours long, will also be shortened.

State board members were split about whether or not to suspend social studies testing. Those in favor, including Brad Oliver and Andrea Neal, said testing time is so excessive that anything that can be done, should be done. Those against, including Cari Whicker and Gordon Hendry, were worried that even one year without it could send the message that social studies instruction isn’t important.

“I know it’s a suggestion to reduce testing time for fifth- and seventh-graders,” Hendry said. “But at the same time, given the importance of civics and given the importance of economics and social studies in general, I would be reluctant to remove the social studies part of the test for this year.”

With a scant two weeks before testing is to begin, some board members wondered whether the test could be reduced without compromising its quality. Roeber, and the state’s testing chief, Michele Walker, assured the board that the changes would meet all federal and state guidelines.

“I think it will be challenging,” Roeber said. “Our understanding is that a large portion of corporations will begin testing February 25, which means a lot of changes. And any time there is a last-minute change, there’s the possibility of errors.”

Ritz said she did not think the U.S. Department of Education would have to sign off on any of the recommended changes.

If an emergency bill was rushed through the General Assembly, it could be passed in fewer than 10 days and include a clause to make it effective as soon as the governor signs it.

“There are two pieces we talked about that could take legislative action,” Ritz said. “We’ve been assured that if the General Assembly needs to take action, they will do so quickly so we can stay on our time frame to administer the test.”

All 289 Indiana school districts would also need help to adapt to the changes. Ritz called on state board members to help the the department spread the word once the plan is complete.

As to the exact length of this year’s test, Roeber said specifics are still being sorted out.

“There will be substantial reductions,” he said. “Whether it’s enough in some people’s minds, I don’t know. It won’t be 12, and my goal was to get to a single digit … which single digit it is — we’ll have to work out the details.”

Nationally, Roeber said, state standardized tests are generally getting longer as states adopt new standards that ratchet up expectations for students. But Walker told state board members that Indiana will return to more manageable test times in the future — 9-hour tests are not the new norm, she said.

“We won’t be looking at eight- to nine-hour tests in the future,” Walker said. “I think for the future, our tests will be a little longer than they used to be because our standards are more rigorous, and we want to give students a little more time to answer those questions.”

Despite considerable compromise, the meeting had contentious moments.

For example, Hendry made a motion almost as soon as the meeting started to remove Ritz’s major agenda item — a resolution asking to halt A-to-F grading and other accountability measures this year — from the day’s proceedings. Over her objection, the rest of the board quickly approved.

“I think it may be fully appropriate to consider pausing accountability, but it is premature to consider that,” Neal said. “What we need to do today is shorten the ISTEP. Only if I know what ISTEP looks like — and if it’s a valid, reliable test — only then will I know what to do about accountability.”