- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 6, 2016

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Indiana lawmakers worked swiftly Wednesday to solve a problem they had a strong hand in creating: the hastily rolled-out 2015 ISTEP exam, a more difficult test than its predecessor that an education committee chairman said has proven to be a “disaster.”

GOP-controlled education committees in the House and Senate both approved fast-tracked bills offering educators a reprieve from last year’s test - an unusual action on just the second day of the session. The measures, which are supported by leaders in both chambers as well as Republican Gov. Mike Pence, would retroactively spare teachers and schools from being penalized for low student scores, which are used to help determine merit pay and schools’ A-F grades.

The parliamentary maneuvering came the same day the Indiana Department of Education released the long-awaited results of last year’s exam that showed nearly half the students failed. That’s a sharp drop from the roughly 75 percent who passed the test in 2014.

The two bills, which will now be considered by the full House and Senate, represent an about-face for Republicans, including Pence. The GOP for months has resisted easing school accountability standards despite warnings from Democratic state schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz.

Ritz said Wednesday that the rapid rollout of the test was a major factor in the problems lawmakers are currently dealing with. The stringent new standards were put in place in 2014 when GOP lawmakers scrapped the state’s participation in national Common Core standards, which had drawn fierce backlash from conservative critics across the country who said they amounted to a federal takeover of education.

“We had a very short timelines,” Ritz said. “That’s why I’ve been talking about (this) for so long. I was very aware the standards would be more rigorous.”

Officials had predicted a double-digit drop in passing rates. But now that those low scores have become official, House Education Chairman Bob Behning said he wants to take a second look at the “disaster” by hiring a third-party to re-grade the exams. That’s because problems with the administration and scoring of the tests have been uncovered in recent months.

“We need to establish confidence,” the Indianapolis Republican said, noting the much-maligned test will still be used as a benchmark to judge future scores. “The school community, parents, legislators need to be absolutely certain that what were looking at is going to be accurate.”

Republicans have also sought to redirect some criticism to Ritz, who they say did not do a good enough job policing the company that conducted the test.

“If I was building a house I wouldn’t go to my contractor and say, ‘Here are my plans. I’ll see ya in six months,’” Behning said.

Still, not everyone is in favor of the Legislature’s current approach.

Ashley Gibson, of the group Stand For Children, said holding schools and teachers accountable is important, even if the quick implementation of the test was “unfortunate.”

“We do feel it is a more honest reflection of how our student performed,” said Gibson, whose group argues that taking away too many tests will harm accountability efforts.


Associated Press reporter Tom Coyne contributed to this report.


Online: House Bill 1003 and Senate Bill 200 can be found at https://iga.in.gov/


Follow Brian Slodysko on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BrianSlodysko

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