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ISTEP scores are coming tomorrow. Here’s how this year’s scores could change and why they matter.

A fourth-grade student does test-prep in his English class at Brownsville Ascend Lower Charter School in Brooklyn. Stephanie Snyder

Although ISTEP’s run in Indiana will soon come to an end, there are still two more years of results to comb through. The latest are set to be released to the public Wednesday.

Years of testing chaos have meant that many in the state — particularly teachers, students and parents — have developed testing fatigue. Changing standards, changing tests and changing administrations have meant there’s been little consistency during a time that can be stressful for those in the classroom.

That stress isn’t unfounded, either — test scores are still the driving piece behind state and federal accountability, meaning they still factor heavily into A-F grades. If enough kids don’t pass and schools receive failing grades for four years, state officials get involved.

Below, we explain the ups and downs Indiana has seen for the past few years, as well as what we’ll be watching for in the new test results state officials will put out at Wednesday’s Indiana State Board of Education meeting.

Let’s set the scene.

This year marks the third year Indiana students have taken largely the same test as in prior years. The test was revamped for 2015 after Indiana abandoned the Common Core standards, one of the few moments of agreement between then-Gov. Mike Pence and then-state Superintendent Glenda Ritz.

Confusion ensued. Teachers were met that fall with a yet-to-be-created test based on new Indiana-specific academic standards, which were designed to be much tougher.

When the 2015 test did take shape, it was projected to be nearly twice as long as its predecessor, prompting Pence to sign an executive order to shorten it. The move inflamed tensions between Pence and Ritz, and ISTEP became even more politically charged. Subsequent scoring issues and a delayed release didn’t help.

But even when we did finally get results, it wasn’t the end of the drama. Almost half of all kids who took the test failed math, English or both. Statewide, the percentage of students who passed both English and math nosedived by 22 percentage points to 53.5 percent.

Before that, Indiana students collectively hadn’t lost ground on ISTEP since 2009. Taken together, the upheaval before, during, and after the 2015 test played a big role in lawmaker’s eventual decision to scrap ISTEP altogether last year.

The 2016 test was expected to offer some redemption — the first year is always rough, experts say. But the anticipated rebound did not occur. Scores dropped for the second year in a row. While the test format and content were the same, Ritz posited that the state’s switch in vendors from CTB to Pearson could explain some of the decline.

So what’s on deck for 2017?

That’s tough to say. If we use previous years as an example, another dip isn’t out of the question. But given the relative stability of the last couple years (no new test, no new vendor), this could be the year Indiana gets its score rebound.

What we do know is the 2017 testing period went off with fewer glitches compared to prior years, although a calculator mishap could force some students to retake the test.

Ok, so it’s been a little smoother. Why does that matter?

It certainly bodes well for state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, who helmed the test’s administration for the first time this past spring. She ran a campaign based on her strength as an administrator, and so far, that appears to be the case.

McCormick is also responsible for overseeing and implementing the state’s next test, which will be called ILEARN and given for the first time in 2019. If she has a good run with ISTEP, she has a better shot of ensuring the next state test can begin to recover from ISTEP’s “broken brand,” as one lawmaker put it.

It’s also the first year of testing under a new governor. While Gov. Eric Holcomb has been far less involved with education than his predecessor, as the state’s chief executive, he could get caught in the crossfire should scores tumble.

Go back to lawmakers — how are they involved?

Quite a bit, as it turns out.

Probably no state officials have had a more active role in shaping Indiana’s test than lawmakers, who are responsible for the many twists and turns the system as a whole has taken over the years. They wrote the laws that took us away from Common Core and its cheaper associated test, created ISTEP’s framework and allocated money to it.

And, they ultimately decided to kill it, sparking yet another bout of test development that will again disrupt what small amount of stability the last two years have wrought.

2017 results likely won’t have much bearing on legislation this session — the ILEARN bill last session took care of that. But as federal accountability rules continue shifting and Indiana looks to adjust A-F grades in the future, it’s important to remember lawmakers heavily influence not just how tests look, but how test scores are used.

Check back in with Chalkbeat tomorrow afternoon for news on the 2017 ISTEP scores. You can find all of our testing coverage here.

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