In Light Of Low Scores, Holcomb Calls For 'Hold Harmless' On Teacher, School Accountability

Aug 26, 2019

Policymakers say they want to hold schools harmless for major drops in student achievement on the state’s new ILEARN test, after mounting pressure from school leaders and parents.

In a series of statements released Monday, leaders in the General Assembly as well as state officials like Gov. Eric Holcomb and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick, stressed the need to prevent the state from penalizing schools for the results during the exam’s first year in use.

Indiana schools moved from ISTEP+ to a new standardized test, ILEARN, in 2017, and students first took the test earlier this year. Similar to other transitions in standardized testing, the scores went down. 

Results released to parents and schools this month show drops in student achievement in language arts and math specifically.

Indiana Association of School Principals co-executive director Tim McRoberts says many school leaders thought the test went well when students took it this spring. One of the most significant changes is the test becoming “computer adaptive,” meaning it changes which questions to ask students based on their previous responses. 

“And the technology seemed to be working better, so I think yeah, getting the results for some of the scores was a bit of a shock to them,” he says. 

Test scores help drive teacher evaluations and school letter grades, so lower achievement has educators and parents across the state concerned.

The previous transition to a new standardized test in Indiana prompted legislative action as well. In 2015, after then-Gov. Mike Pence's decision to exit Common Core standards, ISTEP+ scores dropped across the state, a 17 percent decrease for English and a 27 percent decrease for math. Lawmakers passed two bills in 2016 to "hold harmless" those scores from school and teacher evaluations.

So McRoberts says it wasn’t a complete surprise. 

“They knew it was going to be a different test, they knew it was going to be a different process, so you know I don’t think people were shocked, I just think they were disappointed,” he says. 

Holcomb said in a statement since this is the first year of ILEARN, he wants the General Assembly to step in so the scores "do not have an adverse impact on teacher evaluations and schools’ letter grades for the 2018-19 school year."

"This action will ease the transition to ILEARN, which is a student assessment that allows Indiana to comply with federal ESSA requirements," Holcomb said.

In his statement, Holcomb urged McCormick to support legislative action on ILEARN to protect schools.

McCormick said in a statement of her own that the department has already taken steps to do so and will discuss them with the press this week, ahead of ILEARN results being made public early next month.

"The combination of the rigors associated with this newly aligned college and career readiness assessment, national normative data, and the defined established performance cuts all contributed to the lower performance levels,” McCormick said. “While frustrating, performance dips at some level were expected, as previously experienced in 2014-2015 with the onset of the then newly implemented ISTEP+."

House Education chair Bob Behning (R-Indianapolis) in a statement agreed that lower results were to be expected, and highlighted the state’s ongoing work to change how it grades schools.

“We knew there would be an adjustment period as we transitioned from ISTEP+ to ILEARN. While these results are not the ones we had hoped for, the value of Hoosier students and teachers is not defined by test scores, but by the learning being accomplished in the classroom," Behning said. "We are taking a hard look at our overall state accountability system."

Senate education chair Jeff Raatz (R-Centerville) and Senate Pro Temp Rod Bray (R-Martinsville) also issued statements in support of Holcomb.

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders pointed to the need for hold harmless legislation as an opportunity to re-evaluate standardized testing's place in school funding and performance-based teacher pay.

“This issue has shed light on a larger issue: the way we test our students greatly affects so many outcomes for our schools, from teacher pay raises to entire school funding,” said Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane (D-Anderson) in a statement. “Of course I agree that these scores shouldn’t be used to adversely affect our teachers and schools. But this is a learning opportunity for lawmakers to understand how much pressure our teachers and students are facing to perform well on exams while wasting countless hours testing instead of investing in valuable learning moments.” 

Educators hope conversations about accountability, and potentially decoupling testing from teacher and school accountability, gains traction during the next legislative session. 

Indiana State Teachers Association President Keith Gambill says lawmakers need to pass some sort of formal measure as soon as possible to ensure schools won’t be penalized for this year’s achievement drop, and ultimately take the conversation even further. Gambill says test scores need to be taken out of teacher evaluations completely, and that testing isn’t a good tool to hold schools accountable.

“[Test results] should be used to guide educators in how best to help students,” he says. “Testing is not designed to evaluate teachers.”

This comes as a working group from the Indiana State Board of Education has been meeting to discuss changes to the state’s school accountability system. 

The State Board of Education plans to finalize and release ILEARN results to the public at its Sept. 4 meeting.

Contact Jeanie at jlindsa@iu.edu or follow her on Twitter at @jeanjeanielindz. Contact Lauren at lchapman@wfyi.org or follow her on Twitter at @laurenechapman_.

This story has been updated.