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March 14, 2011

State of the Statehouse: The curious case of the leaked ISTEP essay question

TERRE HAUTE — Everything in the Indiana Statehouse is suspect these days.

Nothing quite illustrates the level of suspicion and distrust that permeates the place and everything associated with it than the curious case of the leaked ISTEP essay question.

Here’s how the case started, according to Sue Loughlin, the able education reporter for the Terre Haute Tribune-Star: On March 1, while students were still taking the annual standardized exam, the Indiana Department of Education learned that a test question about a “special scholarship program” had been posted verbatim on Facebook by someone associated with a teachers’ group in Lawrence County and circulated through e-mail by a teacher in Clay County.

It was the nature of the question — and not an attempt to provide students with a “cheat sheet” — that apparently infuriated the leakers. A Clay County school board member confirmed that, telling Loughlin: “It was an attempt to make a political comment about the choice of topics for the question.”

The fallout: The Indiana Department of Education has invalidated the question on the more than 83,000 exams that were taken. Disciplinary action awaits the culprits.

What exactly was the question?

It was a writing prompt, given to 8th graders taking the language arts portion of the test. It read: “Your school has just announced a program that will allow a group of eighth graders from your class to attend high school anywhere in the United States. You will have all of your expenses paid for by a special scholarship program. Write a persuasive essay to your school’s selection committee explaining why you should be chosen and where you would like to go to high school. In your persuasive essay, tell about the personal qualities you have that would make you a good choice. Explain why you want to go to high school in the town or city you have chosen.”

Why was it seen as political?

Because it was interpreted by some Democrats as propaganda, aimed at a bunch of pre-teens, promoting a Republican-backed voucher bill that would provide taxpayer-funded “scholarships” to children of low-income families to attend private schools.

That voucher bill is now stalled; it was cited as one of the reasons why Indiana House Democrats fled to Illinois three weeks ago in a quorum-busting move and why they refuse to come back.

The bill’s backer, Republican Rep. Bob Behning of Indianapolis, and the state Department of Education have been laboring to convince people that there was nothing nefarious about the question.

A DOE spokeswoman told reporters that the question was developed two years ago by the company that creates the standardized test. When it was piloted and given to a sampling of students, they wrote not about vouchers but about how cool it would be to go to school in sunny Florida.

Don’t count on that explanation to put an end to the controversy, though. There is too much partisan ill-will and too many conspiracy theories floating around the Statehouse for that to happen.

Maureen Hayden is statehouse bureau chief for CNHI’s Indiana newspapers. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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