Ritz moves to reduce ISTEP+ testing time

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz announced Friday that she has found ways to reduce the ISTEP exam by three hours and will ask lawmakers for permission to lop off another hour for some students. Photo by Lesley Weidenener, TheStatehouseFile.com

The ISTEP test would be reduced by about three hours in all grades under changes state Superintendent Glenda Ritz announced Friday.

Ritz will also seek legislative approval to eliminate a social studies section she said is required under state law, a move that could shave another hour off the test for students in grades 5 and 7.

That will reduce the overall testing time to roughly eight or nine hours depending on the grade. Ritz said that should bring the test in line with more rigorous exams now being prepared or administered in other states.

Michele Walker, the Indiana Department of Education’s director of student assessment, said the test will be even shorter next year after a new testing system is implemented.

Ritz announced the reductions during a special State Board of Education meeting she called to address questions about the test, which had been projected to double in length to more than 12 hours for some students.

Most of the reductions will come from changes in the way questions are piloted for the 2016 exam, which will be a complete testing overhaul to match new curriculum standards. And Ritz said she came to the decisions largely in consultation with experts Gov. Mike Pence hired this week to make recommendations for shortening the test.

Ritz said she planned to meet with House and Senate leaders on Friday afternoon to discuss the social studies proposals and determine whether additional legislative action is needed. House Speaker Brian Bosma and Senate President Pro Tem David Long have said they are willing to push through changes that will help reduce the test length.

Pence said in a statement Friday he welcomed news that the test would be shorter. He called out Ritz earlier in the week for developing a test that doubled in length from last year but then said later that he was working with lawmakers and the superintendent to make changes.

“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,” he said.

Still, several board members said they were frustrated that Ritz announced the changes without seeking their input first – even though they have also said repeatedly that she has sole authority to create the exam.

“Why are we here?” board member Gordon Hendry said. “My thought is we were here to help today.”

Roughly half the board expressed some concern about eliminating the social studies portion of the test, although that’s something Gov. Mike Pence – who appointed them all – raised as a possibility when he challenged Ritz to shorten the exam.

Board member Tony Walker objected to any changes so close to the start of the exam. Schools are to start administering the first part of ISTEP in the coming weeks.

“If we start chopping away at this test now, we probably will create an issue with the integrity of the test,” Walker said. “I for one don’t believe it’s a crisis.”

Bill Auty of Oregon and Edward Roeber of Michigan – the consultants the governor hired this week – told board members that the changes Ritz plans won’t hurt the reliability or integrity of the test and said it can still be used to determine A-F grades for schools.

However, Roeber acknowledged that every decision to cut something from the test comes with a tradeoff.

One way Ritz plans to cut three hours from the test is by eliminating the ability for teachers and parents to later review some the questions, answers and the student work for some of the open-ended portions of the test. The goal in part of releasing that information is to let parents request rescores of student work. But the releases also mean those questions can’t be used again. As a result, the 2015 exam must also include questions to be used on the 2016 test.

By eliminating the release of the questions, they can be used again in 2016, which reduces the length of the test.

Ritz said it’s not yet clear whether that will need legislative approval. She said her office is to review those issues with lawmakers today.

The superintendent had planned to ask the state board today to consider pausing the A-F grading system for schools for one year to account for complications with this year’s test and the changing standards. But board members voted Friday not to consider the request.

Lesley Weidenbener is executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.