Lawmakers prepare to drop troubled ISTEP exam

INDIANAPOLIS -- Lawmakers, educators and teachers' unions all seem to agree: Indiana's standardized ISTEP student exam is a flawed way of measuring student performance.

Many teachers and educators have long had reservations about the test, which has been administered to Indiana students since the late 1980s. But Republican Gov. Mike Pence and GOP lawmakers only recently got on board with plans to ditch the test, which came after they dropped national Common Core standards, resulting in last-minute changes made to state education policy that led to widespread problems with the 2015 ISTEP exam.

As legislation to eliminate the ISTEP moves forward, what remains to be determined is how students will be tested in the future, how to ensure a replacement exam will be fair and what impact the new federal education law will have.

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DEATH OF THE ISTEP

Republican lawmakers have recently used terms like "disaster" and "mess" to describe the 2015 ISTEP exam, which was developed in a matter of months by CTB/McGraw-Hill, a testing vendor the state has since fired.

"We test too much in Indiana and we ought to let our teachers teach," Pence said.

Key GOP lawmakers in the House and Senate support a provision that would eliminate the test by July 2017, though final details need to be worked out.

A bill passed by the Senate would create a 22-member panel of academic experts, teachers and administrators tasked with finding ways to reduce the testing costs, increase "fairness to schools, teachers and students" and take into account the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

Democratic state school Superintendent Glenda Ritz, who is frequently at odds with Pence, and her teachers' union allies say they are pleased to see Republicans adopt an argument they have long been making, but remain cautious.

Ritz spokesman Daniel Altman said that for the task force to succeed, it needs to focus on "an education agenda rather than a political one."

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TESTING FATIGUE

The ISTEP exam has undergone major changes in recent years as federal and state education overhauls have resulted in higher-stakes tests that use student performance to determine school grades and teacher performance pay.

Intended to improve education quality, the constantly evolving standards for students and educators have contributed to a sense of testing fatigue that even advocates of the school accountability requirements acknowledge.

"You got freshmen in high school who have had three sets of standards since they started kindergarten," said Teresa Meredith, union president of the Indiana State Teachers Association.

Academic standards adopted in 2006 were dropped in 2010 for national Common Core math and English standards. But in 2014, GOP lawmakers, led by Pence, cut Common Core loose after conservative critics said the national benchmarks, which describe what students should know after completing each grade, amounted to a federal takeover of education.

Indiana-specific standards were then rushed into place for 2015 test, and students across the state performed poorly.

Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, of Anderson, said the GOP needs to stop tinkering and leave one education policy in place "for enough time to make sure it's working and the educators are satisfied that it's a tool that is effective."

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FEDERAL STANDARDS

The Every Student Succeeds Act was signed into law by President Barack Obama in December and is meant to give all states more flexibility in testing than the previous program, No Child Left Behind.

Pence said the new act provides an opportunity to "reconsider the ISTEP test and take a step back" to look for "ways we can do testing better."

The state's new task force must report its findings, with the new federal act in mind, to lawmakers by December.

House Education Committee Chairman Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican, says he would like to see less rigidity in the next standardized exam.

"Let's provide some more flexibility to move kids forward based on their skill level," he said, adding, "we're so tied to saying every kid is (a certain) level."
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