Indiana must soon decide between two options for measuring how well immigrant students are doing in school.

Specifically, the state is considering proposals to assess the English and math skills of students who have been in the country for less than one year and might not initially have a strong command of the English language.

Among options discussed Monday during a meeting of state Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s accountability advisory committee is a plan that would, beginning as early as 2018, let immigrant students sit out the first year of the state’s ISTEP test — or whatever the state decides should replace it. Another proposal would make those students take the test but not hold schools or students responsible for low scores.

READ: Find our entire series on English-Language Learning here.
READ: Find our entire series on English-Language Learning here.

The debate among committee members centered on whether taking a high-stakes test so early on might affect students emotionally, especially if they may not have had strong educational backgrounds in their native countries. They might arrive in the United States without strong skills in any language and might not even recognize English letters.

“(The question) is what is the impact on students if they take ISTEP their first year right off the bat and what that could be as far as anxiety or stress,” said Maggie Paino, director of accountability for the Indiana Department of Education, who presented to the committee.

The advisory committee doesn’t have the authority to implement changes to the state’s testing system but its recommendations will help inform changes the state must make to its A-F school grading system to comply with new federal laws. Ritz created the committee earlier this year.

The discussion around testing students while they’re still learning English comes as the number of immigrants in the state — especially in Marion County — has skyrocketed.

How these students are tested — and how schools are judged on their performance — is a crucial question for Indianapolis school districts like Indianapolis Public Schools, Washington Township and Perry Township where immigrant student scores could potentially have a larger impact on a school’s annual grade.

The two proposals the committee considered differed in several key ways:

Under one proposal, newly arrived immigrants would get a one-year pass to sit out the state test and would instead take Indiana’s English proficiency exam, which all English-learners take each year. That proposal calls for students to take the English and math ISTEP tests in their second year with their second-year scores counting toward their school’s A-F grade.

A second proposal would give the English and math ISTEP tests to immigrant students during their first year but not factor their scores into school calculations. Under that plan, schools would be judged in a student’s second year only on whether that student improved on the ISTEP from the previous year.

Both proposals call for immigrant students’ scores to be considered the same as most other students in their third year, with both improvement and performance level on the ISTEP contributing toward a school’s grade.

Brenda Erbse, assistant accountability director, said the first proposal is most similar to how Indiana’s system currently works, except now students have to take the math ISTEP in their first year. That’s problematic, however, because the math test calls on students to read story problems and respond to written instructions.

Most members of the accountability panel said they would support the second option for now, but no final decision was made. The panel asked for more information about kids who arrive without strong English skills to get a better handle on their needs.

One committee member, Robert Lugo, a principal from Noblesville, said although he realizes taking state tests early on can be stressful, he supports the second option because it includes student improvement — which could potentially help school grades. That option doesn’t just focus on whether a student passed or failed, which could also be better for students’ self-esteem.

“I’d rather experience the stress at first, because it’s already stressful, than to be told you’re … not successful,” Lugo said. “What can we do positively to help a student feel successful? I think that second year we’d just be beating them up if we looked at (ISTEP scores).”

Veronique Beuoy, the director of community, culture and climate for the education department, was among the minority of committee members who said they were leaning toward the first option.

Beuoy said she was worried that the experience of taking such a stressful test shortly after arriving in the United States would have long-term negative effects on students. She questioned whether the benefit of helping schools get some extra points for test score improvement is worth setting students up to dislike school.

“Really think about what it would feel like if it were you sitting in that seat,” Beuoy said. “These are people, children. They have to go through school for many more years, and some of the early experiences you have in school impact who you are and how you feel as a student.”

The committee will continue to meet in the coming months to guide the direction of the plan Indiana must submit for how it rates schools to the U.S. Department of Education in March. The next meeting will be Sept. 30.