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Alan Petersime

State board members: How can Indiana cut costs for testing?

The state might have to live with a more expensive state test, at least for 2016, unless the legislature quickly makes good on an idea it is considering to ditch ISTEP altogether and moves up the timeline to do it.

Indiana State Board of Education members today demanded answers about why proposals to change Indiana’s state tests for the future are projected to up costs in the next few years, based on winning bids announced Wednesday for companies who want to make those tests.

“We are spending an obscene amount of money on federally mandated standardized tests,” Board member Andrea Neal said. “Looking at the scope and size of the winning assessment bids yesterday, we’re clearly poised to spend more time and money teaching the test.”

The Indiana Department of Administration awarded the bid for the 2015-16 ISTEP test to the British testing company Pearson over the company that traditionally has created the test, CTB-McGraw Hill. California-based CTB-McGraw Hill had a four-year, $95 million contract to create ISTEP that expired last year. Five other testing companies received bids for other parts of the state’s testing system, such as end-of-course exams and practice tests, that total a projected $133.8 million during the next two years.

But the Indiana Department of Administration’s Jessica Robertson cautioned that those costs are not yet final. The losing companies can appeal the awards by next week, she said. After that, the state board and Indiana Department of Education can begin to negotiate changes to the exams with the winning companies that could bring down the price.

Even so, next year’s test almost certainly will be more expensive than previous tests, said Michele Walker, the education department’s testing chief, because the 2016 ISTEP would add new tests for grades 9 and 10.

“Our assessment costs now compared to new one is a little like apples to oranges,” Walker said.

But Neal said a discussion about changing state tests should wait until there is clear direction from the state legislature. Lawmakers have said they are reluctant to add new money to pay for much more expensive tests to the education department’s budget. In addition, Senate Bill 566, which the House is expected to hear soon, proposes the state scrap ISTEP entirely and replace it with a nationally administered test, such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, for the 2016-17 school year.

But even if the state sticks with the companies that won the bid and the plan they would follow, the state board’s testing and accountability director, Cynthia Roach, said there are changes that could cut the proposed two-year, $133 million price tag for the state testing program.

She suggested the state look at re-using older test items it owns that still connect to new Indiana academic standards, cutting down on expensive copyrighted reading passages and eliminating practice tests for kindergarten to second grade in social studies and science.

Aside from cost concerns, some board members weren’t happy with the process that led to the selection of Pearson to create ISTEP. Cari Whicker, a board member and teacher, pointed out that, under the state’s scoring system to evaluate the bids, Pearson ranked third of four companies that bid on ISTEP for both cost and quality but won the bid anyway.

“I look at this, and I think the kids are getting cheated, the taxpyaers are getting cheated,” Whicker said. “And I feel cheated.”

Robertson said the bidding companies were judged on several factors, including cost, quality and the economic benefit to Indiana. But board member Gordon Hendry said it appeared Pearson’s winning advantage came through extra points it earned for economic impact. It was very close to its competitors on price and quality, Hendry said, but got far more points for creating an economic benefit for Indiana.

That perplexed Neal.

“The company having the largest Indiana impact is a international conglomerate based in Britain?” she asked. “This is supposed to favor Indiana companies.”

Robertson said the process was the very same that is used for any state agencies to hire outside contracts.

“We advertised early on that we were considering multiple factors, and quality is one of those as well as cost, and those are the main point drivers,” Robertson said. “At the end of the day, this is what came of it. At the end of the day, our actions meet what we advertised we would do.”