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Flanner House charter school closed in September in the wake of a cheating scandal.

Flanner House charter school closed in September in the wake of a cheating scandal.

ISTEP cheating bill dies but idea could be revived, author says

Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, wants Indiana to look more closely for schools with odd state test results that might suggest cheating, but a bill he wrote to create that process is on the shelf — for now.

Behning said he decided not to call down House Bill 1639 for a vote today, the last day for the Indiana House to pass bills for the Senate to consider beginning next month, after hot debates over other education issues took center stage.

This past week, some were surprised to see bills supported by Republican leaders, including Behning, who is chairman of the House Education Committee, defeated. Among them were House Bill 1072 to broaden the Indiana State Board of Education’s oversight of testing. In the Senate, a Republican-authored bill to institute a state civics test requirement was also defeated.

“Timing was probably not the best,” Behning said.

The bill would have asked the Indiana Department of Education to work with the state board to craft procedures to investigate unusual ISTEP results.

Last year, an investigation at Flanner House charter school found that the school had cheated on its 2013 ISTEP test, leading the school to close its doors in September. Behning said the bill was inspired partially by that situation.

In that case, Flanner House’s ISTEP passing rate jumped from one of the worst in the state to among the best in one year. That caught the eye of the charter school’s sponsor, Mayor Greg Ballard’s office, which asked the state to investigate. State investigators found teachers at the school changed student answers on ISTEP.

The bill would also give parents more and easier access to student test results, an issue Behning said the education department has agreed could be improved.

“(The bill would) empower parents, especially of kids in poverty, to give them more tools from the information that we glean from the ISTEP test to be able to help their own children in terms of remediation, in terms of enrichment,” Behning said. “The department of education does provide some of that data, but it’s online, and a lot of it is very technical.”

Behning said he probably will look to add those proposals to other bills as amendments when the legislature resumes its work next month.

The House did pass another education bill Behning authored: House Bill 1638, which would establish “transformation zones.” Under the bill, schools or groups of schools could receive permission to try out innovative plans at schools with students consistently getting low test scores. The bill passed 66-31.

The transformation zone idea, pioneered by Evansville schools, would be less intrusive than state takeover, under which the state hires outside organizations to run failing schools, and Republican lawmakers said it would let districts have more local control of efforts to improve test scores and school culture.

“It tries to do more local control,” Behning said. “The goal of this is to have community leaders, administrators and teachers try to improve the turnaround of a school.”

The bill would also change the timeline for school turnaround. Now, schools receiving D or F grades for four years would be up for state intervention, rather than the current requirement of six straight years of F grades.

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee has already asked the state board of education to let him try a transformation plan in his district. House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said passing this bill would give all districts the ability to create these kinds of school improvement plans. Evansville and IPS needed special permission from the state board to do so, he said.

But opponents said the bill gives too much authority to the state board, not only to designate which schools or districts might be considered “failing,” but also to approve and oversee any plans for transformation zones.

Those plans could let school districts partner with outside organizations to help manage the schools, a move Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, called “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

“It’s not about the children,” Smith said. “It’s about these transformation zone teams making money off our children stuck in poor socioeconomic positions in life.”

The bill will next be considered by the Senate in early March.