From the Statehouse

Lawmaker who called for ISTEP test’s death now calling to extend its life

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Lawmakers and educators discuss issues likely to come up during the 2017 legislative session.

It’s been just nine months since Indiana lawmakers voted to get rid of the state’s hated ISTEP exam — and they’re already planning to keep it on life support.

Rep. Bob Behning, the Indianapolis Republican who championed the so-called “kill ISTEP” bill last spring, today said the state might extend its contract with the company that made this year’s ISTEP for one or two years.

That would mean ISTEP could remain largely unchanged beyond 2017, when the test was supposed to be given for the last time.

Read all our coverage of ISTEP and other testing issues here.

Extending ISTEP’s life might not be ideal given the complaints about the test’s history of scoring glitches and delays, but Behning said the state needs more time to create a viable ISTEP replacement.

“If you start looking at timelines, I don’t know how you get around it,” Behning said. “Expecting to have an new assessment in place by … May (2018) is to me, rushing it, and not in the best interests of students.”

Behning’s remarks came at an annual legislative conference today where lawmakers gathered to discuss issues on the legislature’s agenda for the session that begins in January.

The “Kill ISTEP” bill called for lawmakers to vote this session on a new test to measure Indiana students.

They had appointed a committee of lawmakers and educators who offered their final recommendations earlier this month. The recommendations largely called for tweaks to the test rather than a total overhaul, but legislature is not bound by the recommendations.

Behning said he expects the legislature to proceed with voting this session on a new exam, but that exam won’t likely be administered until 2019 or 2020.

That follows the recommendation of test experts who urged the state to take its time to make sure the new test is done right.

Pearson, the British-based company that has the state’s current testing contract, is not responsible for the problematic 2015 test, but ISTEP critics who were hoping for a new exam will likely be disappointed to see the company’s contract continued.

Take Two

One year after TNReady collapse, Tennessee unveils plan to test online again

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier

After last year’s mostly failed transition to online testing, Tennessee will try again next year. And this time, state officials say they “feel confident” that the new online platform will work.

But unlike last year, the state will stagger the transition. All high schools will administer the test online in 2018. Middle and elementary schools will make the switch in 2019, though districts will have the option of administering the state’s test on paper to its youngest students.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced the new game plan for TNReady testing on Thursday after sharing the timeline with superintendents the day before.

“Given the challenges we experienced last year, we took a step back this year and have worked very closely with our vendor, Questar, to create an online product that is right for Tennessee,” McQueen wrote to superintendents. “We are proud of the progress that has been made and feel confident in the strength of the Nextera platform.”

Many districts are expected to get a head start and use the option to administer the high school test this spring. McQueen reported that more than half of the state’s high schools participated in online practice tests last fall, and that feedback was “generally very positive.”

Districts have until Feb. 15 to decide whether to take this year’s test online, and testing will start on April 17.

McQueen has said repeatedly that Tennessee is committed to transitioning to online testing, even after its platform collapsed last year on the first day of testing. The test maker later acknowledged that its platform did not have enough servers for the volume of students online as most of the state tried to make the shift for all grades.

The commissioner reiterated the state’s commitment this week. “It is our responsibility to ensure Tennessee students are prepared to meet the demands of postsecondary and the workforce, and online readiness is a part of that effort,” she wrote. “… Online is the future for our students.”

However, McQueen said that the transition plan isn’t set in stone.

We will continue to look at proof points along the way to be sure we are setting up districts and schools for success using the online platform,” she wrote.

Last year’s failed online rollout was followed by the test maker’s inability to deliver printed test materials, prompting McQueen to cancel tests for grades 3-8 and fire North Carolina-based Measurement Inc.

This year’s test has several differences from 2016:

  • It was designed by Questar, a Minnesota-based testing company that Tennessee hired last July;
  • It will take place during a single testing window, in April 17 to May 5, rather than also having testing in February.
  • It will be slightly shorter, with shorter sections.

School choice

It started with vouchers and charter schools. Now Indiana’s exploring more ways for kids to learn outside traditional public schools.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Through its voucher and charter school programs, Indiana lawmakers have for years embraced strategies to promote school choice. Now, a new proposal that would let kids take classes outside their public schools could expand those efforts even further.

The program, which is already gaining attention nationally for being at the forefront of school choice strategies, is making its Indiana debut in recently filed House Bill 1007, authored by Rep. Tony Cook, R-Cicero.

The bill lays out the basics of what looks kind of like a voucher program, where students can use public dollars to pay for outside schooling — one course at a time. The “course access” program would allow students to choose certain classes to take outside their public school, such as an advanced physics course, Behning said. Then, those course providers would get a cut of a school or district’s state funding.

So far, there are no specifics on who providers might be, but Behning said they could also include public schools that have online or distance learning programs set up.

“It really makes sense when you talk about some of the smaller districts we have,” said Bob Behning, House Education Committee chairman. “Even in some of our urban districts, with some of the shortages we have, It makes sense to have some availability.”

Advocates, such as the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, said in a 2014 report that it levels the playing field between students, citing that students from low-income families, those who attend rural schools or minority students might have fewer opportunities than their wealthier urban or suburban counterparts.

But critics oppose the program for many of the same reasons they oppose a voucher program. The programs can funnel money away from public schools, typically taking a cut of a school’s state tuition dollars to pay whomever provides the outside classes. In some states, that has been for-profit education providers and online schools.

Online schools across Indiana and the United States have failed to demonstrate widespread academic achievement, but they remain a choice that a growing number of Indiana students and students across the country are turning to.

Under Indiana’s proposed bill, the Indiana Department of Education would be responsible for creating a list of classes for the program by June 30, 2018. A provider could be any one that offers these courses, through any method, including online instruction.

A course tuition fee would also need to be determined. Behning said it’s too early yet to say how much that fee might be, but according to state data, Utah districts paid providers between $200 and $350 per course in 2015 depending on the class being offered.

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said she already knows of districts that can engage in partnerships with other types of educational providers without this legislation.

“It sounds like they are creating a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist if there is in fact a way for schools to already do something like this,” Meredith said.

Meredith also worries that by encouraging schools and districts to go to outside providers, it could exacerbate the teacher shortage. There’s little need to hire a licensed teacher if you can outsource the class, she said.

“We need to watch out for the details and ask the question of what problem is this trying to solve,” Meredith said.