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Testing Meltdown in Indiana as Officials Squabble Over 12-Hour ISTEP+

Over the last two years, Indiana has been no stranger to volatile education politics, but the latest fracas could be one of the more damaging: Gov. Mike Pence, Superintendent Glenda Ritz, and others are scrambling for ways to handle the news that the upcoming state assessment could take students about 12 hours to complete, a number that has triggered turmoil in the Hoosier State.

Here are the basic facts: About 10 days ago, the Indiana Department of Education announced that the ISTEP+, the state assessment given to about 450,000 students in grades 3-8, would take students about 12 hours to complete, roughly double the time commitment ISTEP+ required last year. Educators said they were shocked that the test would take that long, with one elementary school principal telling the Associated Press they had no idea that "we should be preparing our students' stamina for this type of testing."

Why did the state assessment double in length? According to the department, the state had to add open-ended questions to the assessment in order to account for the state's new content standards. Those are the English/language arts and math standards that replaced the Common Core State Standards in Indiana last year. Department spokesman Daniel Altman told the AP that since the new standards are more rigorous, the new test is correspondingly more rigorous, although it's worth pointing out that many consider Indiana's current standards to be similar in several respects to the common core.

The department is led by Ritz, a Democrat who does not get along well with the state's GOP leadership, including Pence—lawmakers are considering a bill that would strip her of her leadership of the state school board. On Feb. 9, Pence expressed anger about the length of the upcoming ISTEP+, and signed an executive order requiring the state to shorten the length of time it'll take students to complete the test. He also announced that an outside consultant would be hired to examine ways to shorten the test, and told the AP in a news conference: "Doubling the length of the [ISTEP] plus test is unacceptable, and I won't stand for it. Doubling the testing time for our kids is a hardship on them, it's a hardship on families, it's a hardship on our teachers."

The same day, Ritz announced that she was seeking an emergency meeting of the state school board (several members of which are frequent and open critics of the state superintendent) to consider how to shorten the test. On Feb. 11, Kris Turner of the Indianapolis Star reported that Ritz's department would recommended cutting out the social studies section of ISTEP+, a move that would still leave the exam at over 10 hours. Altman also criticized the governor for using the testing issue to attack Ritz.

Until it adopted new standards to replace the common core, Indiana had planned to administer English/language arts and math tests from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, one of two consortia developing assessments aligned to the common core. 

One irony here is that when Ritz, a Democrat, successfully beat former superintendent Tony Bennett in his re-election bid in 2012, one of her arguments was that the state had been overtesting students. Now she is being accused of overseeing a dramatic and inappropriate expansion of state testing. 

As Tom LoBianco points out in the Star, the state's vendor for ISTEP+, CTB/McGraw-Hill, could also be a part of the problem—two years ago, after it experienced problems administering the state test, CTB/McGraw-Hill reached a $3 million settlement with the state. He also writes that various state and federal lawmakers could also share culpability for the latest crisis in Indiana education policymaking, in part due to demands that the common core be dropped.

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