Latest on ISTEP and ‘A-F’ School Grades

The ISTEP Alternatives Panel has made its final recommendations on how to replace ISTEP, which was legislatively determined to sunset in the fall of 2017 after scoring, technical and mismanagement issues plagued the exam the past two years.

These recommendations include: students in grades 3-8 to take one English and math exam at the end of the school year, and 10th grade students to take English, Algebra 1 and biology at the end of the school year. The tests will be taken once and not split into two testing times in the winter and spring.

One of the most important recommendations was to recognize that national testing experts advised that it takes a minimum of two years to fully implement a new testing system throughout the state. So it is very likely that we will see legislation during the upcoming 2017 legislative session to undo the sunset provision.

The recommendations received wide support from 21 of the 23 members of the panel, made up by a majority of educators. The two “no” votes were by Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz and Ayanna Wilson Coles, a Pike Township educator appointed by Ritz. These recommendations now go to the Legislature, which can choose to use them during the 2017 legislative session. The Indiana Chamber strongly advocated last year
to have a business representative appointed to the panel, and we would like to thank our board member, Marilyn Moran-Townsend of Fort Wayne, for all of her work and dedication to the panel and helping lead the collaborative effort that resulted in the recommendations.

This week, the State Board of Education released school A-F grades which, as anticipated, were lower than in previous years. And while expected, it is important to note that it is very difficult to compare this year’s scores to the scores in 2015 for two important reasons. First, last year, the Legislature (with the Indiana Chamber’s support) decided to protect schools from the lower ISTEP scores due to the test mismanagement and scoring
issues. This “hold harmless” provision stated that 2015 grades were changed only if they improved from 2014; otherwise schools were able to hold onto the higher grade. So the 2016 scores released this week are the actual first show of true impact of the more rigorous assessment based on the newer and more-challenging college and career ready standards. Second, this year the State Board of Education determined school grades
based on a new formula that equally weighs growth and proficiency.

While there has already been significant discussion on whether to “hold-harmless” for this year’s ISTEP exam, the U.S. Department of Education has already stated that such a provision would not be allowed. The Indiana Chamber will continue to push legislators on the importance of assessments AND accountability – for teachers, schools and students in the 2017 legislative session and beyond.

Attorney General Rules on A-F Grades for 2015

In July, we discussed Superintendent Glenda Ritz and the Department of Education’s (DOE) position on suspending A-F grades for 2014-2015, or potentially utilizing a “hold harmless” proposal that would assign the better A-F grade between the 2013-2014 year and the 2014-2015 year due to the potential for lower scores as a result of the newly enacted educational standards. State Board of Education members, however, had significant concerns over Ritz’s proposal and made a recommendation that Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller’s office review the potential options and give a legal opinion as to which option, if any, would be best for Indiana.

In early September, Zoeller’s office released an informal opinion that advised that the “hold harmless” option would not be supported by current statute and rules. In order for that provision to be legally sound, the General Assembly would have to change the law themselves.

As you may recall, this is not Ritz’s first time trying to pause accountability for students and schools. The Indianapolis Star recently quoted her stating, “Tests never teach you anything.” The Indiana Chamber wholeheartedly disagrees with her statement and finds that testing and accountability are critical for students and schools. Testing is imperative to understanding what a student knows and issues with which they may still struggle. Having strong, accurate and transparent accountability measures means that we can accurately predict Hoosier student progress, assist teachers in where students are struggling, as well as compare and contrast how schools are performing to their peers around the state.

A-F School Grades and Accountability Debate Continues

The newly-redesigned Indiana State Board of Education (SBOE) met recently for the second time this year with what seemed to be very little fireworks and drama. However, there was a very serious and important discussion regarding A-F grades and accountability that is important to watch.

As a reminder, an overhauled ISTEP exam was designed last year to align with recently adopted college and career readiness standards in Indiana. Complaints from parents and teachers were significant regarding the length of testing time for the ISTEP exam earlier this year. The redesigned test was expected to take upwards of 12 hours – more than double the time of previous years. Fortunately, the Legislature – with assistance by the Chamber – was successful in passing legislation allowing the test to be significantly shortened by three hours.

Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz stated during the July 1 SBOE meeting that other states, specifically New York and Kentucky, have seen dramatic drops in passing rates of students for the first year a change is made in standards and high-stakes exams. Therefore, Ritz provided a list of options for the State Board to discuss on how to handle this situation and suggested a proposal she called “hold harmless” that would assign the better A-F grades between the 2013-2014 year and the 2014-2015 year.

Her reasoning was that even a small deviation in test scores due to the increased rigor of the test could cause schools to drop two letter grades with the potential of the number of schools that would receive an F to more than double. Ritz fears that would cause many schools in Indiana to be unfairly labeled as failing, as well as public image issues and misunderstanding. This is not the first time Ritz has called for a pause of accountability; she has done so many times previously for various reasons to delay sanctions and consequences of lower test scores for schools (also part of her campaign platform) – only to have the SBOE and Indiana General Assembly quickly dismiss the idea.

This go-round, SBOE members had significant concerns over Ritz’s proposal. Sarah O’Brien, who was elected earlier that morning as the group’s new vice chair, stated that this discussion was extremely premature – as grades had not yet even been assigned. Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) officials stated that they expect ISTEP scores this year to be released in November, with A-F grades to follow in December. SBOE member Gordon Hendry added his concerns regarding transparency, as parents of schools with lower grades would not know that their school’s grades had actually dropped.

There was also significant discussion as to whether the 12 options (including the one that Ritz supported) would even be legal. However, some of the options, including the one supported by IDOE, would not need changes in state law or approval from the U.S. Department of Education. State Board members made a recommendation and voted to have Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller’s office review the 12 options and provide a legal opinion as to which option, if any, would be best for Indiana. Further discussions and a vote of support would be the next step for the SBOE and then a waiver to the U.S. Department of Education would be filed.

The Indiana Chamber fully supports transparency and accountability when it comes to grades for Hoosier students and schools. Creating a strong and dynamic workforce is a key goal of our strategic plan, Indiana Vision 2025. Having accountability measures means that we can accurately predict Hoosier students’ progress in school, rate teacher effectiveness and compare and contrast how schools are performing compared to their peers around the state. It is imperative that ALL children have access to strong schools and an educational foundation in order to become productive members of our future workforce.