State school board approves big drop in ISTEP passing rate

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The percentage of Indiana students who passed the state’s new and more-stringent standardized exam is expected to drop dramatically after the State Board of Education on Wednesday set pass-fail benchmarks for last spring’s test.

But how exactly those lower scores will impact school ratings and teacher pay — as called for under Republican-approved “accountability” requirements — remains to be seen. That’s because Republican Gov. Mike Pence reversed a previously held positon and on Tuesday called for lawmakers to intervene so that the results of this year’s test “fairly reflects the efforts of our students and teachers.”

The state is months behind schedule for giving schools and parents the results of the exam taken by more than 400,000 students in grades three through eight. To compare, results of the spring 2014 exam were released in August of last year, while officials says it will take until at least mid-December this year.

Democratic state schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz for months has warned that many more students will fail the 2015 ISTEP exam because of more difficult state standards, which were created after Republican legislators and Pence withdrew Indiana from national Common Core standards last year. She has called for teachers and schools to not be penalized for low scores, which are a factor used to determine school ratings and teacher pay.

The benchmarks approved without opposition by the board Wednesday will see about 65 percent of students pass the language arts section, with about 59 percent passing the math section. More than 80 percent of students passed each part of the exam in 2014.

Many schools could drop two letter grades with even a slight decline in student scores, Ritz has said. The number of schools receiving an F could jump from the current 87 to nearly 480, Daniel Altman, a spokesman for Ritz, said late Wednesday. Ritz has said in the past the number of schools receiving an F would be around 150, but Altman said new calculations show the higher figure.

Such a jump would leave many communities around the state with schools wrongly labeled as failing, Ritz has said.

Until now, Republicans, including members of the Pence-appointed State Board of Education, have resisted backing off the state’s school rating system as a means of blunting the impact of this year’s results. But that changed Tuesday, when Pence, with an eye on his slumping popularity and re-election prospects, said he had concerns about the impact of the scores.

In a letter addressed to Ritz and board members, Pence said he opposes penalizing teachers for the drop in scores. And he also raised the same concerns as Ritz, questioning if school A-F letter grades should take a hit, too, though he stopped short of saying what to do about it. In the letter, Pence told board that he “welcomed” suggestions about how to proceed, though no board members offered up ideas at Wednesday’s meeting.

“I’m actually looking forward to the conversation with members of the General Assembly about what kind of flexibility Indiana might want to partake in to actually give relief,” said Ritz.

Pence’s proposal, which would require lawmaker approval, still needs to be fleshed out. But the idea was welcomed by GOP House Speaker Brian Bosma and Republican Senate Leader David Long.

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