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Alan Petersime

Will Common Core return to Indiana through ISTEP?

New options for creating ISTEP just approved by lawmakers have some Common Core critics wondering if the controversial standards shared by other states could make a comeback in Indiana.

When Indiana abandoned Common Core, Gov. Mike Pence was clear he also wanted the state to steer clear of Common Core-linked tests that states were creating through two national consortia. Indiana had been a leader in one of them — the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career, or PARCC — but Pence’s 2013 executive order forced the state to sever ties with that test.

But thanks to the just-passed Senate Bill 566, PARCC questions just might show up on ISTEP one day — a pretty big about-face.

Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, said the new law, which Pence signed, simply gives the state more flexibility. The state should be allowed to use anything that can help cut testing costs, he said, so long as it adheres to Indiana’s expectations for what students should be learning.

“Why prohibit us from using questions from other states or from the consortia as long as they align with our standards?” Behning said. “The goal is so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, and you can save costs because you are not developing those questions that are already out there.”

But opponents, including former Indiana State Board of Education member Andrea Neal and Erin Tuttle, who helped spark the movement to get Indiana to pull out of Common Core as part of Hoosiers Against Common Core, said this is the state backtracking on a promise it made constituents back in 2013 when Gov. Mike Pence withdrew Indiana from Common Core and PARCC.

“It seems to me that it is further evidence that we left the Common Core in name only, not in practice,” Neal said.

It doesn’t make sense for the state to spend money to contract with British-based testing company Pearson and write an Indiana-specific test, Tuttle said, if the state was just planning to use test questions that were already created and paid for. Pearson has also written part of the PARCC test.

Tuttle said the bill is also confusing because it specifically allows the state to continue a relationship with Common Core, something Indiana lawmakers — and particularly Republicans — have worked to abolish. Elsewhere in state law it says the state may not adopt Common Core standards, but the associated tests from PARCC and Smarter Balanced are under no such prohibition.

“All the language does is provide for a federally funded test or a consortium test,” Tuttle said. “PARCC and Smarter Balanced are the only two organizations I can think of that fit that description.”

Proponents say new law is over-scrutinized

Neal is worried that PARCC test questions aren’t as high-quality as they are purported to be, and thus won’t do a good job of measuring student knowledge.

The “open-ended” questions ask students to explain their answers by showing mathematical work or using support from reading passages. Neal, a private school teacher, says schools have gone overboard trying to use such questions, which are notoriously hard to grade accurately.

“These are empty skills questions, they are not strong questions that a model test would have on it,” Neal said. “I think sometimes we confuse rigor for vague, poorly written questions.”

Behning said, however, that if the questions aren’t as good as ones from other tests or ones that Indiana would write on its own, he hopes they just won’t be used.

“It’s very specific in that language that if those questions align with the standards that are standards for the state of Indiana that they could be considered for use,” Behning said. “They don’t have to be, it’s just an option out there.”

Behning and other legislators said the decision to let Indiana use questions from PARCC or other test-makers is aimed at solving problems — not causing them. Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, who authored the original Senate Bill 566, said he thinks the suspicion surrounding the law is unwarranted.

“I think it’s being overly scrutinized by some people for fear that it might mean something that it doesn’t mean,” he said.

Now, Indiana has the legal go-ahead to use questions from Common Core-linked tests, something both Pence and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz have been vocal about moving away from ever since they joined forces to push the idea that Indiana should have its own state-specific standards.

The agreement to adopt Common Core was voided by the legislature in early 2014, and new standards were set the following summer. Schools began implementing them for the first time last fall. This spring was the first year kids were tested on the new standards.

State board staff told Neal that Indiana owned all the questions on the 2015 ISTEP, and Ritz said that will continue in the $75 million contract it has with Pearson for the 2016 ISTEP. But she didn’t rule out using questions from other tests in the future.

“As we develop our test, (the law) gives us the flexibility to borrow or rent questions,” Ritz said. “We could as we go forward.”

But for Tuttle, it’s just another broken promise.

“This is a complete betrayal of the trust of the people of Indiana,” she said.