If there was one thing most lawmakers wanted in 2016, it was for Indiana to get rid of the ISTEP exam.
But already in the first meeting today of a 23-member panel charged by the legislature to redesign the test for the 2017-18 school year, a key player suggested a very different course: Essentially keep ISTEP the same for the time being.
Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, said the state might want to consider extending its contract with Pearson, the company administering and scoring the 2016 and 2017 ISTEP tests, to give the state more time to find the “right” way forward. Behning, the chairman of the House Education Committee, just a couple months ago helped champion the idea of scrapping ISTEP as soon as possible.
“I know this is a tight timeline,” Behning said. “There’s probably a good chance we would extend the contract with Pearson for another year until we get what we want to do right.”
If that scenario comes to be, Indiana will have completed a second full year of waffling over its state tests, and students and teachers could be left again to deal with the uncertainty that follows. Last summer, a different legislative committee weighed alternative testing options but ultimately made no recommendations for how to change the exam.
Marianne Perie, a testing expert from the University of Kansas, had some advice today for Indiana lawmakers: Take your time — one test can’t do everything a state needs for accountability.
Legislators have heard that very advice before, but it hasn’t stopped them from forging ahead with big changes to tests on ultra-short timelines and creating tests that are expected to serve many purposes at once. That’s part of the explanation for why there have been so many problems with ISTEP over the past three years.
“I worry about the number of changes in any state that teachers literally get whiplash from it,” Perie said. “If we jump around too much, there will be gaps in (students’) knowledge.”
Now, a new summer committee, made up of lawmakers, policymakers, educators and community members, has just six months to figure out what’s going to replace Indiana’s ISTEP under the new state law. The group has a Dec. 1 deadline to make its recommendations to lawmakers and Gov. Mike Pence.
That’s not much time for a fairly daunting workload. The committee is supposed to examine Indiana’s suite of standardized tests, look for alternatives, keep test time reasonable, ensure costs are low and work out how the tests fit into the state’s new accountability system.
Oh, and the accountability rules must be tweaked to meet requirements of a new federal law that replaced No Child Left Behind, called the Every Student Succeeds Act.
Four big questions will shape the conversations that come next.
WHAT IS THE GOAL OF THE TEST?
ISTEP is a snapshot in time designed to measure how well students have mastered Indiana state standards.
But the test is used for much more than just gauging what students have learned that year. Test results are also used to show how much a student improved over the prior year. ISTEP is central to deciding school and district A-F letter grades, as well. And now it is set up to provide key feedback about how teachers perform. Student test score gains over the prior year are a key factor that drive teacher evaluations
That’s a lot of jobs for one exam, Perie said, and educators and policymakers have very different expectations.
While lawmakers want the tests to be a check on how everyone is doing — students, teachers and schools — educators just want to know what the tests can tell them about what their students still need to learn, she said.
So the committee’s first goal, Perie said, is to figure out the primary reason for the test, then work back to design an exam that best produces data to measure that goal.
WHAT KIND OF TEST IS BEST?
This is where new federal law gives Indiana some flexibility.
Under NCLB, tests had to be one-time “snapshots.” But now, states can split tests up and administer them in smaller doses over the course of a year and then combine the results to produce a single score. That final score would be reported to federal officials, who monitor the state’s progress, in the form of A-F school letter grades.
State Superintendent Glenda Ritz favors such an approach, which she argues would reduce testing time and stress on students and teachers. But some lawmakers have reservations. They fear this combined-testing model could mean schools spend even more time taking state tests and could force all schools to teach the same things at the same time.
It’s not clear how combining multiple test scores would work, Perie said, because it hasn’t actually been done before on a state’s primary exam. The calculation of the final score would likely done by the testing company, such as Pearson. But those scores would need to be carefully scrutinized, she said.
“Right now nobody is doing it,” Perie said. “It’s certainly something the state or policymakers would need to sit down with measurement experts and come to the best way to take different forms or tests and sum them over time.”
WHAT ARE THE TRADE-OFFS?
Few tests are everything Indiana wants, Perie said: short, cheap, statistically reliable and customizable.
More test questions are generally considered to increase the statistical reliability of a test, but a longer test is more expensive to create, she said.
In 2015 Ritz and Indiana’s department of education came under fire for preparing a test that would have taken up to 12 hours for students to complete in some grade levels. Pence signed an executive order demanding the department shorten the test, which ballooned because of changes to Indiana law.
Since then, ISTEP has been somewhat shorter and cheaper, but new tests that might prioritize length and cost above question quality might not be the best option either, she said. Teachers have said they get the most useful information from the questions that happen to be the most expensive to create and grade, like essays.
IS THERE ENOUGH TIME?
As in years past, Indiana has a very short timeline to create its new test.
ISTEP will be given for the last time in 2017, and a new test must be introduced in the spring of 2018 under state law. That means the state has less than two years to discuss, design, approve and create a new exam.
Perie said typically, a good test requires at least two years of work, but other experts say three to five years is better. Indiana is not alone in confronting this challenge — many states across the country are making quick switches away from Common Core tests and face tight timelines to find new tests.
According to Michelle Walker, who heads testing for the state education department, Indiana can pull off a new test in at least 18 months, but it’s hard to say exactly how long it will take. State officials don’t yet know how much of the new test must be created from scratch and what elements of the old ISTEP can be included with just a few tweaks.
At the very least, Indiana must make sure its test and accountability system have the blessing of the U.S. Department of Education.
After the committee’s recommendations, the legislature will have to take action next year to pick some sort of test to succeed ISTEP in 2018. Otherwise, the state could fall out of compliance with federal law, which means losing money nearly every school receives to help support poor kids.
But, as Behning suggested, the test might not be the radical change many are expecting. The next state test could still look very similar to the ISTEP Hooisers know today.