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August 9, 2013

Ritz says there was ‘manipulation’ of A-F grades

INDIANAPOLIS — State education officials are hoping parents and teachers will see the results of their students’ ISTEP+ scores by late August, but aren’t making any promises about when the much-delayed results of the high-stakes assessment tests will be released.

Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz said her staff at the Indiana Department of Education is working long hours to process and produce the test scores but are hampered by a slew of problems, both related and unrelated, to the computer glitches that disrupted the online standardized testing this spring.

“This is serious stuff we’re having to deal with,” Ritz told the State Board of Education at its monthly meeting Wednesday.

On that list of “stuff” is both the fallout from the delayed ISTEP test scores and the questions surrounding the state’s A-to-F school grading system in the wake of allegations that some schools’ grades were manipulated by Ritz’s predecessor, former state schools chief Tony Bennett.

Ritz, a Democrat, told the state board that an initial investigation by her staff into the allegations against Bennett, a Republican, revealed there was “manipulation” of the calculation categories used in 2012 to rank each Indiana school by grade.

The Associated Press, based on emails released by Ritz’s staff, reported last week that Bennett, who lost his bid for re-election to Ritz, pressured his staff to raise the grades of some charter schools in Indiana, including one founded by a Republican campaign donor. Bennett has denied wrongdoing but has resigned as chief state schools official in Florida.

Ritz declined to elaborate on what her staff found during its preliminary investigation. But she said the state DOE will continue to conduct its own investigation, alongside a separate investigation that’s being conducted by an independent taskforce set up last week by legislative leaders.

Meanwhile, Ritz’s staff is also dealing with the fallout from the delayed release of the spring ISTEP scores, which were originally due out in May.

Ritz put a hold on the release of the scores after questions arose about their validity. About 16 percent of students who took the online ISTEP exam this spring were interrupted at least once when computer glitches kicked them offline.

An independent review of the test scores released last month by the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment showed the computer problems had no “measurable negative impact” on the test scores, and that overall test scores were actually up over last year. The center’s staff is continuing to review individual student scores, which is causing further delays.

The delays have caused problems for schools because ISTEP scores are used to determine which students need remediation over summer and are also used by school administrators to evaluate and compensate teachers. The ISTEP scores are also used to help calculate the A-to-F school grades.

During Wednesday’s meeting, the head of the testing company that administered the online ISTEP test apologized for the computer problems that disrupted the testing.

“We take this personally and seriously,” said Ellen Haley, president of CTB McGraw Hill. “We’ve been in the state developing the ISTEP for many, many years. … We feel that we know the state and we know the schools and we know the ripple effect that these two days of interruptions had on classrooms.”

Haley confirmed what state school officials already knew: That the test interruptions were caused by CTB McGraw Hill because its computers didn’t have enough memory to accommodate all 482,000 Indiana students who were taking the test.

Haley said CTB McGraw Hill had run a “stess test” last winter, before the ISTEP exams were administered to determine if it had enough memory on its servers. But that stress test took place on a “snow day” when about half the schools in Indiana were out because of the bad weather.

Ritz said CTB McGraw Hill and the state DOE are still in negotiations over penalties the company may have to pay under its four-year, $95 million contract with the state.

On Wednesday, the Associated Press reported that CTB/McGraw-Hill has already agreed to a $1.2 million settlement package with the State of Oklahoma over similar testing problems that disrupted thousands of Oklahoma schoolchildren who were taking that state’s online standardized test. The package reportedly includes a cash settlement of $376,205 to compensate local school districts’ financial losses associated with the testing problems.

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for CNHI, the Tribune-Star’s parent company. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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