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As Indiana officials debate high school tests, SAT and end-of-course exams are on the table

Stephanie Snyder

The group tasked with figuring out a new way to test Indiana high school students has three things to balance: state law, federal law, and a strong desire from teachers and parents to keep tests short.

How to craft a system that accomplishes all of that is far from clear. As Indiana moves to eliminate ISTEP tests after 2017, a state committee is moving quickly to work it out — and considering options that include the SAT and end-of-course exams.

Under state law, high schools must give students one test to determine whether they need remediation and another to see if they have mastered state standards and can graduate. Meanwhile, federal law requires high schoolers to take at least one grade-level test in English, math and science.

Currently, Indiana’s 10th-grade ISTEP is used as the graduation exam and is the test that counts for federal accountability. For remediation, the state gives certain students who have repeatedly struggled in English and math the “Accuplacer” exam.

At a meeting Tuesday, some committee members wanted to consider using a college entrance exam like the ACT or SAT in place of the graduation exam or the exam to identify kids who need more help.

A benefit of using a college entrance exam is that it could encourage kids to take those tests more seriously, boosting their chances for college admission. But those tests also might be taken too late to help students who are struggling.

Using the ACT or SAT as a graduation exam could also distort the purpose of those tests, said Karla Egan, a test expert who presented to the panel. Those tests were created to gauge a potential for success in the first year of college, not whether a student has mastered high school skills or state standards.

Several educators liked the idea of going back to end-of-course exams, like those that Indiana offered in Algebra 1, 10th-grade English and biology before ISTEP was expanded to 10th grade last year.

The benefit of those exams is that students can take them as soon as they finish a class, when the information is freshest. But new federal law makes it difficult to use those exams to measure advanced students, who might take high school algebra in eighth grade, for example.

Meanwhile, state Superintendent Glenda Ritz suggested a key problem was the state law requiring both a graduation and remediation test.

“The [graduation exam] is really the barrier here,” Ritz said. “That’s going in the opposite direction from what people want.”

The decision about what tests to choose will depend on what exactly the group wants to measure, Egan said. When asked what option she’d pick, she was stumped.

“It’s a fair question, but I can’t answer it because I don’t know that this group is saying, ‘Here’s what we want out of this test,’” she said.

The panel’s chairwoman, Nicole Fama, said she hoped the group would have recommendations on high school tests ready for the next meeting on Sept. 13. The committee must send final recommendations on the entire testing system to lawmakers by Dec. 1.

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