It looks like ISTEP scores will dip considerably when they are released, probably later this year, and one result could be a sharp drop in the number of A-grades schools earn, paired with a big spike in the number of schools that earn D- or F-grades.

That’s what estimates from the Indiana Department of Education show now that the Indiana State Board of Education has set the passing cut-off scores for the ISTEP exams, which are the backbone of the school grading system.

The passing scores are expected to result in big drops for number of students passing ISTEP — down 16 percentage points in English and 24 percentage points in math. Using the passing rates on the 2014 ISTEP test, and the corresponding letter grades for schools, as a guide, drops that big could have a dramatic effect on school grades in 2015, education department spokesman Daniel Altman said.

On average, a 20 percentage point drop in ISTEP scores could move the state from almost 54 percent of schools earning A’s last year to as few as 7 percent earning an A for 2015. Consequently, D’s and F’s could rise from about 8 percent and 5 percent last year to just over 27 percent for both in 2015. School grades aren’t expected to be released until early 2016.

Today, the state board quickly approved the cut-off scores for the 2015 exam, which students took last March and May. The approval vote had been expected at a meeting earlier this month but was postponed at the last minute.

At the board’s Oct. 16 meeting, questions were raised about whether there was a difference between the difficulty of the paper version of  ISTEP, which fewer students took, and the online version that most students took. Board members were concerned that the paper version was easier and that the scores needed to be adjusted to equate to the online test. So the board called for an expert evaluation.

The expert report said there was a difference that will require an adjustment. But the work to make that adjustment can go on as the state prepares the scores for release. The board will discuss the adjustment at its Nov. 4 meeting.

Superintendent Glenda Ritz said the big drops in the number of students passing ISTEP were expected. She said she is planning to work with Gov. Mike Pence and legislators to soften the blow that otherwise could fall on teachers and schools, which must raise ISTEP scores or face sanctions such as pay freezes or state takeover.

Pence on Tuesday reversed his past opposition to softening accountability for a “transition year” as the state adjusts to a new, tougher ISTEP. He now says he favors an adjustment to the state’s accountability system so teachers aren’t unfairly penalized if their students’ test scores fall by big margins that are in line with a statewide decline.

“For quite some time I have been talking about Indiana will probably experience a drop in performance as a result of a more rigorous assessment,” Ritz said. “So I’m actually looking forward to the conversations with members of the General Assembly about what kind of flexibility Indiana might want to partake in to actually give relief for assigning of the grades this year.”

Pence said he hoped to help craft new state laws to ease testing sanctions on teachers, but it’s not clear exactly how that would work or whether schools would also get relief if their A-to-F grades drop.

Two key legislative leaders, House education committee chairman Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, and Senate education committee chairman Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, said earlier this week that they didn’t support a “pause” in the state’s accountability system. The state board has been similarly opposed to such a move.

Ritz has long championed pausing accountability. She has argued the state could skip accountability for a year by not assigning grades or enforcing sanctions, or it could hold schools “harmless” by only releasing school grades for 2015 if they are the same or better than in 2014.

If any part of the state’s accountability system changed, it would have to be approved by the U.S. Department of Education, Altman said, because Indiana has agreed to maintain accountability as part of an agreement that provides a waiver for the state from penalties from the federal No Child Left Behind law. Federal education officials have signaled a willingness to allow such flexibility in recent months.

But board member Gordon Hendry said Indiana students are still showing progress based on newly released scores on the National Assessment for Educational Progress at the same time ISTEP scores are expected to come in much lower. Indiana did as well or better than 2013 on NAEP when it came to math and reading scores. It also outranked most other states, most notably in fourth grade math where Indiana ranked fourth.

“Despite some of the bumps and starts and stops of what’s happened in Indiana education over the last few years, we are seeing significant progress,” Hendry said.”We’re seeing continued success and even improvement in our classrooms.”