Indiana officials are recommending that the state pay American Institutes for Research $43 million over three years to design ILEARN, set to replace ISTEP as the state exam in 2019.
AIR, a 66-year-old not-for-profit based in Washington, D.C., worked on tests for Smarter Balanced, one of the exam groups affiliated with Common Core. In its business proposal, AIR says it will use its bank of test questions from Smarter Balanced to build Indiana’s English and math tests.
“This approach — using Smarter Balanced as an item bank, rather than a fixed assessment — offers Indiana a hybrid between an off-the-shelf product and a custom test,” the proposal stated.
ILEARN would replace ISTEP as the yearly exam for students in grades 3-8 and high school. They’re tested in English, math, science and social studies, depending on grade level. Going forward, high school tests will likely go back to end-of-course exams in various subjects rather than a single 10th grade test.
Currently, ISTEP is administered by Pearson, which was chosen in 2015 after the state had several problem-plagued years with the testing company CTB (although Pearson has had its share of issues as well). Pearson will administer ISTEP one last time this spring before that state exam is shelved.
But to those familiar with Indiana’s testing travails, this move might feel like déjà vu, with the state again proposing a test linked to Common Core.
Common Core standards have a fraught history in Indiana, and it’s unclear how educators and parents will react to the state circling back to those academic standards. Indiana took great pains to distance itself from Common Core after then-Gov. Mike Pence and then-state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, in a rare moment of agreement, abandoned the standards and pulled out of the other test consortium, Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).
Since then, state education officials have frequently touted Indiana’s efforts at creating “Indiana-specific” standards and state tests, despite an outpouring of concern and exhaustion from educators and parents. The state has also had to balance the desire to create yet another new test with its limited budget. AIR’s proposed $43 million contract outpaces the state’s $32 million contract with Pearson — but both are less expensive than creating a brand-new test from scratch.
AIR also specializes in computer-adaptive tests, which change in difficulty based on whether students answer questions right or wrong. Both Ritz and state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick have supported using such exams, which they say can more accurately assess what students know.
Given the state’s history, it’s a little surprising Indiana decided to cozy up to a Common-Core-linked exam again, but current officials have connections to the organization. Before coming to the Indiana Department of Education as testing director, Charity Flores was deputy director of content for Smarter Balanced.
“We protected the integrity and transparency of the process by notifying the Office of the Inspector General of Dr. Flores’ involvement with Smarter Balanced,” said press secretary Adam Baker. “Additionally, Dr. Flores served alongside several IDOE staff as one member of an 18-member assessment evaluation committee where IDOE’s vote represented one of 12 votes.”
The team from the Indiana Department of Administration, charged with making the recommendation, also considered proposals from Data Recognition Corporation, Northwest Evaluation Association, Pearson and Questar. Of those companies, Northwest Evaluation Association, whose test products are beloved by a number of Indiana educators, scored the lowest in the state’s evaluation of management and cost. Of the remaining four, Pearson scored third.
AIR reports that 17 states use its exams for their main assessments, including Connecticut, Florida, Utah and Ohio. Also, 43 rely on them for alternate assessments, which are typically for students with severe cognitive disabilities. It has also worked on NAEP, a highly-regarded exam known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” a national alternative exam (NCSC) and an exam used as a benchmark for student learning internationally (PISA). The organization reported that it has not had any contracts terminated outside of those that would naturally end.
The contract stipulates that the state can renew with AIR for up to two more years, at five years total. In addition to ILEARN, AIR would also administer IREAD, the state’s third-grade reading exam.
Under the proposal, Measurement Incorporated, of North Carolina, will be used as a subcontractor to score paper tests with the involvement of Indiana educators.
AIR’s proposal didn’t mention Tennessee’s recent experience with Measurement Inc.: Almost two years after signing an $108 million contract with the state to develop its TNReady test, Measurement Inc.’s online platform could not support the number of students testing. The state announced it would switch to paper tests instead, but even then, finding and distributing the 5 million tests overwhelmed them.
Unless the proposal is challenged by other bidders, Flores said the education department is ready to get started,
“We are excited for what the future holds for education here in Indiana,” Flores said. “We will continue to move forward with the procurement process.”