Nearly two-thirds of all Indiana students in grades 3-8 did not pass the new state standardized test, ILEARN, according to results released on Wednesday. The latest test scores represent a 13 percentage-point drop since last year — and the lowest statewide passing rate in recent history: 37.1%.

Under Indiana’s state grading system, which relies heavily on standardized test scores, most of the state’s elementary and middle schools are on track to receive a D or F.

On Wednesday, the State Board of Education unanimously voted to delay the release of school letter grades. The decision is meant to give lawmakers time to consider stopping grades from lowering, which could negatively impact teacher pay and prompt state intervention down the road. The governor, state superintendent, and leading lawmakers have called for such a move.

“There are a lot of things on the line, it’s a big domino effect,” State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said at a press conference last week. “If we don’t get this through, it will be devastating for many of our schools.”

Only 45 out of more than 17,000 Indiana schools saw their scores increase from the year before, most by a small margin. Half of all schools in the state saw their passing percentage drop by 13 percentage points or more. No school saw more than 82 percent of its students pass.

2019 ILEARN scores: Search for your school’s results

Statewide, 47.8 percent of students passed the math portion of the exam and 47.9 percent passed in English. And the new test showed little improvement of the gap between how students who are black or Hispanic perform compared with their white peers.

“Fewer than 50 percent of students achieving proficiency startles me and concerns me,” said state board member David Freitas on Wednesday.

Indiana education officials attribute the drop to the new test, which isn’t comparable to the ISTEP exam students took in years past. ILEARN is computer adaptive, meaning questions get harder or easier as students get answers right or wrong. It also focuses more than its predecessor on skills linked to college and career readiness.

As a result, there’s more weight put on algebraic functions and new questions gauging computer science skills and how students do research, said Indiana Department of Education Director of Assessment Charity Flores.

In previous years, problems with the test stemmed largely from technical or scoring issues. This time around, educator and parent concerns focused primarily on the difficulty of the new format, the varying amount of time it took students to complete the untimed test, and where the line was set that determines if a student passes or does not pass.

The results can be confusing because the drop doesn’t necessarily mean students aren’t learning as much as in years past. From a national perspective, Indiana’s students aren’t falling behind. Laura Hamilton, a senior behavioral scientist for the U.S. policy think tank RAND, said Indiana students are performing well, compared to the rest of the nation when looking at National Assessment of Education Progress results. Top policy leaders also pointed to the national report card, which measures grades 4, 8 and 12.

It’s not uncommon for scores to drop after a state implements a new test, Hamilton said. And Indiana isn’t the only state to change its federally mandated test multiple times within the past decade. Several states have adopted new standards and reworked their test in the past few years.

What could be confusing is explaining to parents what the scores say about their children and the schools they attend.

In Vigo County Schools in Terre Haute, teachers are only using the scores to look at how individual students are progressing — rather than if they technically did or did not pass — said Bill Riley, a district spokesman. He said it would be difficult to use the results for more than that this year because the new test isn’t like what came before it.

For his part, West Lafayette Schools Superintendent Rocky Killion said this year’s scores established a “baseline start” for ILEARN.

“We are reminding parents, teachers, and especially students that this new test does not provide a reliable indicator of how everyone is doing,” he said.

McCormick has called on legislators to pass a “hold harmless” exemption to protect schools and teachers — undercutting its use as an accountability tool this year. But she has stopped short of saying the test results don’t reflect a student’s knowledge.

“I think at the state level we’ve got to be realistic about our students,” McCormick said at a recent press conference.

The education department has heard from students who tested well until high school, McCormick said, then were surprised when they struggled to pass one or more of the exams required to graduate. The more rigorous ILEARN is meant to prepare students better.

A group of about 100 educators helped the state education department create the test and set the line that determines if a student meets grade-level expectations. And ILEARN scores generally fall in line with the results from national standardized testing.

The new test revealed familiar gaps statewide in achievement between students who are black, Hispanic, and multiracial and their white peers. The percent of black students who passed both the English and math test remains more than 25 percentage points lower than the percent of white students who passed the two exams, five percentage points lower than last year.

Of the 30 Indiana schools with the lowest passing percentage, 11 were Indianapolis Public Schools. Overall, the state’s largest district saw 13.8% of students pass both English and math – about 10 percentage points lower than last year – but just 6.7 percent of black students passed both subject tests.

“At a macro level when you look at the statewide results and when you look at results for Indianapolis students, we should be outraged,” said Brandon Brown, CEO of The Mind Trust, an influential local charter advocacy group, referencing the gap in how students in Indianapolis and those statewide performed.

Brown said he would not support pausing the intervention timeline for failing schools in addition to approving a “hold harmless” – both exemptions McCormick began pushing for last week.

“Just because the assessment changed this year doesn’t mean that students who are attending low-performing schools don’t need the support,” Brown said. “We shouldn’t abdicate our responsibility to support those schools.”

State board member Tony Walker also questioned why the intervention timeline shwould be paused, because those schools are still considered to be failing and may need resources. If a hold harmless is passed, some schools may carry over a failing grade from last year.

McCormick said schools would still provided resources, but wouldn’t be put on the timeline that allows for state intervention after four consecutive failing grades.

This year’s drop in scores wasn’t as steep as in 2015, the last time the state approved a “hold harmless” clause after introducing the new, more rigorous ISTEP. The percentage of students who passed both English and math statewide nose-dived by 22 percentage points. But results never rebounded. Passing percentages hovered around 58 percent for math, 65 percent for English and 51 percent for both for three years prior to ILEARN.

“We are still feeling the impact of the last performance declines and we were digging ourselves out of that.” McCormick said.

Earlier this month McCormick repeated with new urgency her call for reforming how schools are graded. Schools in Indiana currently receive two performance measures each year, a state grade and federal one. McCormick wants the state to use only the federal measure, which considers metrics besides testing, such as school attendance rates and language proficiency of English learners.

But her hands may be tied if lawmakers disagree. House education committee chair Rep. Bob Behning told Chalkbeat on Tuesday that he would support a one-year “hold harmless” exemption, but that revamping the A-F system may be “a bit premature.”

“I would continue to argue that parents understand letter grades,” he said.

Conversations about changing the state’s accountability system are already happening among lawmakers, prompted in part by Indiana’s new graduation pathways, which give students different options for earning a diploma. A state-appointed accountability committee is exploring placing less weight on test performance and more on student outcomes after graduation.

The group is expected to give lawmakers recommendations on Oct. 30. The state education department does not have a member sitting on that panel.