Indiana governor signs bill eliminating unpopular ISTEP

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The deeply unpopular ISTEP student exam will be repealed by July 2017 under a bill Gov. Mike Pence signed into law Tuesday.

Appearing at an assembly at Eagle Elementary School in Zionsville, the Republican governor jokingly told students that the good news is the ISTEP will go away but the bad news is they will still have to take tests.

“We’re going to have accountability in our testing, but we’re going to find a better way,” Pence said before signing the bill at a table flanked by students. “We’re going to look to our teachers and we’re going to look to our administrators … and we’re going to ask how can we do a better job?”

After years of tinkering with the state’s education policy, including withdrawing from the national Common Core standards, the decisions by the GOP-majority Legislature now pose a political liability, because parents and educators have become increasingly weary of high-stakes testing. And ISTEP scores plummeted about 20 percent in 2015 when compared to the previous year due in part to a hastily rolled out test that was based on Indiana-specific standards for math and science instead of the Common Core.

While Democratic State Schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz has long called for student testing to be rethought, the idea to scrap the ISTEP did not gain currency until recent months with Republicans, who have supported school accountability measures that use student performance on the standardized test to determine school grades and help award teacher merit pay.

The bill signed by Pence was sponsored by GOP House Education committee Chairman Bob Behning and will create a 23-member panel of educators and experts who will study and make recommendations about what should replace ISTEP.

The committee is tasked with finding ways to reduce the amount of time students spend taking standardized tests, as well as ways to decrease the cost of administering tests. But they are also being asked to evaluate ways to increase the fairness of testing to students, teachers and schools. Another consideration for the panel is figuring out the impact the newly approved federal Every Student Succeeds Act will have on education in Indiana. The law replaces the No Child Left Behind law that was put in place more than a decade ago by former President George W. Bush.

Democrats, however, are unhappy with the measure, because minority Democrats cannot appoint people to the board. As is, Pence, Ritz and GOP leaders in the Senate and House are able to appoint members, but legislative Democrats are not. Additionally, Democrats complain that that Ritz, the state schools chief, will not chair the committee.

“Superintendent Ritz has said for years that the state needed to get rid of the ISTEP exam,” state Democratic Party Chairman John Zody said in a statement. “But unfortunately, her advice fell on deaf ears. That is, until another public relations crisis fell on the governor’s lap. While it is encouraging that Mike Pence finally listened to Ritz, he still refuses to respect her position as our State’s Superintendent of Public Instruction.”

Much of the testing backlash came after lawmakers abruptly withdrew from national Common Core math and English standards. Conservative critics say the national math and English benchmarks that describe what students should know after completing each grade amount to a federal takeover of education. The new Indiana-specific standards — the third time in a decade that the standards were changed — were touted as more difficult. The 2015 ISTEP exam also was plagued by testing glitches.

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