Plan would cut 3 hours from exam

The state may have a way to cut the length of ISTEP by at least three hours, but officials will have to work fast to make that happen.

The Indiana Department of Education’s current plan includes reducing the number of open-ended, analytical questions that students would be asked on the test and having fewer students answer sample questions that would be used to create future tests.

Many details of the plan have to be worked out, including clarifying what requires approval by state lawmakers.

That leaves State Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz and the department of education about a week-and-a-half to give updated test instructions to Indiana’s superintendents, teachers and principals before students can start taking the test Feb. 25.

Is that possible?

Yes, according to a representative from CTB/McGraw-Hill who spoke at a special Indiana State Board of Education meeting Friday.

Ed Roeber, one of two consultants the state hired to find ways to shorten ISTEP, gave the board a more pragmatic answer.

“It will be challenging,” Roeber said.

Ritz originally asked the board to consider a different set of recommendations at Friday’s meeting, including dropping the third-grade IREAD-3 exam this year, suspending the state’s A-F school accountability system and not making this year’s ISTEP scores a part of teachers’ annual evaluations.

Ritz organized the meeting in response to growing concerns about the length of ISTEP, which is set to take Indiana’s 470,000 third- through eighth-graders 11 to 12½ hours to complete.

But at the start of the meeting, the board of education voted 10-1 to drop Ritz’s recommendations from the agenda; Ritz was the lone dissenting voter.

The board is also uncertain about a move Ritz and the consultants recommended to drop the social studies portion of the exam, taken by fifth- and seventh-graders. Dropping social studies would cut 105 minutes from the exam; and while some board members agree the cuts are necessary, other want to leave portions intact.

Because state law requires students to take the social studies exam as part of ISTEP, state lawmakers would need to approve dropping that part of the test. Lawmakers also might need to approve changes made to when and how students are tested over the open-ended questions, Ritz said.

Tension over ISTEP has been high this week between Ritz and Gov. Mike Pence. On Monday, hours after Ritz announced plans to convene the special board of education meeting, Pence announced at a news conference he planned to hire education experts to find ways to cut ISTEP roughly in half. Pence also called on state lawmakers to move forward with legislation that would remove Ritz as chairwoman of the state board of education.

On Tuesday, department of education officials said that neither Pence nor the state board of education should have been surprised at the length of this year’s ISTEP exam. During a presentation in August, board members were told that the number of questions on this year’s exam was expected to double. The department didn’t release testing times until January because it needed to finalize the number of questions that would be on the exam, officials said.

On Wednesday, Pence said that he was confident his consultants, Ritz and department of education officials would be able to work together to find a way to shorten ISTEP.

On Friday, Roeber, the first consultant named by Pence, presented a preliminary list of ways the state could cut time from ISTEP. Those recommendations include reducing the number of open-ended questions by up to 80 percent, having half or fewer of the students taking ISTEP answer sample questions that could be used for future testing and dropping the social studies exam for the year.

The department of education was ready to start working with lawmakers and contacting schools about the new recommendations, Ritz said.

In a statement Friday afternoon, Pence said, “Today’s promise to shorten this year’s ISTEP test is welcome news for students, parents and teachers who were facing nearly 12 hours of testing, more than double the length of last year’s test. I am especially grateful for the efforts of our testing experts who were able to quickly recommend ways to significantly shorten the test and lessen the burden on our kids, parents and teachers.

“While the Department of Education still has work to do to implement these recommendations, Hoosiers may be assured that our administration will continue to work with all parties to shorten the test while maintaining the validity of the assessment and continuing accountability for our schools.”

One question was how much confusion changes to the first and second rounds of ISTEP will make for schools, board members said. The first part of ISTEP testing starts in less than two weeks, and most schools already are practicing and preparing for the exam based on instructions they received for the longer version of the test.

Ritz said she is hopeful state lawmakers will be able to take any necessary action by Monday, and she will start sending messages to all schools about any changes to the test once they become official.

“Communication is key to what we’re going to be doing,” Ritz said.