ISTEP fiasco reveals larger state problem

(Terre Haute) Tribune-Star

The headline in the one Indiana newspaper said it all.

“New ISTEP: ‘Train wreck’ waiting to happen?” The headline referenced a comment by a Lafayette school superintendent, concerned about changes to the mandated standardized test for Hoosier students, ISTEP+, an acronym for the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress-Plus.

That headline and story were published the first week of November.


Recently, the test grabbed attention statewide and nationally, including that of Gov. Mike Pence. Once parents discovered that ISTEP was going to take their kids 12 hours to finish — the same timespan as the acclaimed TV miniseries “Roots” — they joined teachers, principals and superintendents in utter frustration. Pence jumped in, and on Feb. 9 ordered the Department of Education and its leader, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, to pay an outside consultant $22,000 and work with him to shorten the ISTEP.

Testing is scheduled to begin March 2.

Why is this happening? Fingers pointed furiously and immediately. Pence blamed Ritz for a lack of transparency and emphasized that test preparation was her department’s responsibility. Then, he added, tellingly, “I cannot help but feel this is all a byproduct of the dysfunction that has existed at the State Board of Education the past two years.”

That dysfunction was created by the one-party powerhouse running state government, hellbent on diminishing and circumventing the office that Hoosiers elected Ritz, a Democrat, to fill. That vote in the 2012 election, ousting Republican superintendent Tony Bennett, was never accepted by his party as the repudiation of his untested reforms that it was.

Earlier this month, the GOP super-majority General Assembly stripped a significant chunk of Ritz’s authority with two politically motivated bills.

The ISTEP mess reflects that dysfunction.

Among other reasons, ISTEP ballooned in length because Indiana became the first state to drop out of the Common Core State Standards — an tactic endorsed by Pence, as well as tea party groups. As a result, Indiana had to develop its own new standards.

As Indiana Department of Education spokesman Daniel Altman explained last week, the governor last year called for those standards to be “uncommonly high.” “That means if your standards are uncommonly high, the assessment is going to be more rigorous,” Altman told The Associated Press. “That means it takes more time for students to take that test.”

With the reality of all this adversarial behavior spilling down onto schoolkids, Pence and Ritz finally worked together, rallying forces to trim three hours from ISTEP. Ritz also said she would seek the Legislature’s approval to suspend the social studies portion of the test for kids in grades 5 through 7, according to The AP. That would cut another hour.

The fiasco has a silver lining. It has exposed the negative impact of unchecked reforms pushed onto Hoosiers. ISTEP has undergone three modifications since 2009. It now comes with heavy baggage, affecting teacher evaluations, educators’ salaries and the A-to-F school accountability grades. ISTEP is the subplot of nearly every activity in Indiana schools today.

That’s too much, and the length of the test merely reveals that larger problem.

This was distributed by Hoosier State Press Association. Send comments to