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State budget chiefs still pushing to dump ISTEP

Alan Petersime

The two men who hold the purse strings in the Indiana legislature are not backing down from their idea of dumping ISTEP for a cheaper, “off-the-shelf” exam used in other states.

On Wednesday, Indiana State Board of Education members urged lawmakers to get over their concerns about higher testing costs, arguing the higher costs proposed for an overhaul of state tests were reasonable and affordable.

But Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, and Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, the powerful chairmen of the budget-making committees in the Senate and House, didn’t sound like they were coming around when they appeared together at today’s House Education Committee meeting to push Senate Bill 566.

The bill would scrap ISTEP in favor of paying a testing company for the right to use an exam that students take in other states.

Kenely said the bill was a response to state Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s earlier proposed budget for state tests. Ritz said Indiana would have to spend significantly more to include new test features and adapt ISTEP to measure the higher expectations of new Indiana standards put in place last year.

Ritz’s original proposal presented back in December would have cost the state about $65 million per year, a 45 percent increase over what the state pays now.

“Chairman Brown, myself and others on the committee were really shocked by the cost,” Kenley said.

Ritz has since revised her proposal, cutting the potential cost to about $37 million per year. But during Wednesday’s state board meeting, the latest projection for a different proposal from board member Sarah O’Brien was estimated to cost about $50 million per year, though O’Brien disputed the figure.

But even those cheaper options haven’t diminished the push for a complete rethinking of what Indiana’s tests should be.

“This has been a huge issue,” Kenley said. “We think we’ve put together a common-sense approach.”

The bill wouldn’t completely unhinge the Indiana Department of Education’s plan to hire to British-based Pearson to create a new ISTEP test to fit Indiana’s new academic standards for next year. But it would give Pearson’s version a short lifespan — the bill would direct the department in 2017 to adopt a test used by other states, like the Iowa Test of Basic Skills or a test created by the Northwest Evaluation Association that some Indiana schools already use to prepare kids for ISTEP.

But supporters of keeping ISTEP, or at least sticking with state-led process for writing Indiana’s exams, include several key players. Gov. Mike Pence and House Education Committee Chairman Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, are among those who have been cautious about the proposals in Senate Bill 566.

Behning quizzed Kenley about whether a test like NWEA was the right kind of exam to be used for A-to-F grades and other accountability measures. Kenley acknowledged today’s NWEA exam would need to be altered, but he said he was assured by the organization that was not difficult or costly to do so.

Another option would be to make small changes to Indiana standards so what the state teaches would better match tests in use in other states.

“It appears testing across the country is evolving into a more synthesized activity,” Kenley said. “They are more like each other than they have been. There’s a good chance you don’t have to rewrite Indiana’s standards.”

Indiana had been on track to use a shared Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, exam, which is connected to Common Core standards. But Pence ordered Indiana out of the consortium creating that test, and Indiana later dropped an effort to use Common Core standards along with 45 other states last year.

But Brown said the state should scale back its ban on PARCC to allow testing companies making Indiana’s future tests to collaborate with the consortium.

“I think we need to at least be open to the idea that they can partner with other vendors,” Brown said.

The Senate passed the bill 46-3 in February, but the House has been slow to embrace the proposal. The education committee is scheduled to discuss it again on Tuesday and possibly vote.

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