INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A report summarizing what was billed as an independent investigation into Indiana's new, unpopular standardized student exam includes edits and suggested changes by a state administrator hired by Gov. Mike Pence's State Board of Education who altered language that reflected poorly on Republicans' decision to substitute the exam for one based on national Common Core academic standards.
A Microsoft Word file obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request contains multiple edits and drafts of the report, including the final version, which was ultimately submitted by consultants hired by the state Board of Education but not yet released to the public.
The document shows State Board of Education executive director John Snethen helped shape the content through 92 deletions, revisions and comments, raising questions about how independent the investigation into the ISTEP program was. For example, Snethen objected to strong language in an early version that stated: "It is safe to say that the 2015 ISTEP+ program is a work in progress, put in place quickly and without the usual procedures (e.g., field testing) used with most new assessment programs."
"Why is it safe to say this?" Snethen asked in notes typed into the draft, adding: "This is an example of a statement that could raise concern." The phrase was not included in the final version of the report.
Other draft language that did not make it into the final version included a passage that rated the state exams a "B-" overall.
The changes made by Snethen also suggest the Pence administration is cautious of possible backlash to the new academic standards, which were put in place after Indiana became the first state to withdraw from the Common Core standards in 2014 due to conservative critics saying they amounted to a federal takeover of education. Since then, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Louisiana officials have also taken steps to exit the national standards.
Pence, who signed the 2014 measure freeing Indiana from Common Core, is up for re-election this year, and has made education improvements a major theme of his campaign.
Snethen did not respond to a request for comment, but a Board of Education spokesman said that any changes were done for clarity.
"Any suggested edits to the executive summary were added to make a very difficult and technical report more easily understood," spokesman Marc Lotter said. "Those suggested edits were reviewed by the independent experts and agreed to before inclusion in their final executive summary. Also, none of the edits altered the fundamental conclusion or recommendations of the independent experts."
One of the report's authors, University of Colorado professor Derek Briggs, said he did not believe the edits changed the report's fundamental conclusions but confirmed that state officials were concerned about "messaging." Snethen viewed the first version of the report as one that had a "glass half-empty perspective," and wanted it to show that the glass was "half full," Briggs told the AP.
"From my vantage point, it was absolutely an independent evaluation," Briggs said. "It is a matter of how these things get messaged and so I appreciate that there is concern about whether the State Board played an active role in messaging."
The ISTEP+ test, which features Indiana-specific academic standards, was hastily rolled out in early 2015. Educators balked, saying it would take a staggering 12 hours to complete; the GOP-controlled Legislature passed a bill shortening the exam before students ever took the test. And some students who later took it online reported computer glitches, which were found to have an impact on their performance.
Others have raised questions about whether the test was scored properly or even an accurate assessment, leading the state Board of Education to call for the investigation, which state officials said would be independent when it launched April.
The documents obtained by the AP show Snethen had exchanges with two outside consultants who were paid by the state to conduct the investigation. The documents also showed:
— Words like "shortcomings," which were used to describe the "the design and development" of the test, appeared in an initial version reviewed by Snethen but later replaced with "areas where we recommend improvements."
— Draft language included in one version of the report assigns the test "a B-, which is better than would be expected given how quickly the ISTEP+ tests in math and (English and language arts) were assembled under an extremely tight timeline after last-minute legislative changes." That segment was dropped from the final report, though the preliminary draft still stated that the exam was reliable.
Apparent government involvement in an investigation that state officials billed as independent is "troubling," said Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis public policy professor Sheila Suess Kennedy.
"The broad principle here is that, if you are to retain academic integrity, you do not submit your findings for editing," she said.
Overall, the report found that the test was still a "highly reliable" measure of students' abilities.
But poor student performance on the 2015 ISTEP — 20 percentage points lower than 2014's scores on the state's prior test — was predicted by Democratic state schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz, who has frequently clashed with the GOP over education policy.
It's become a liability for Republicans and Pence, who in recent years have tied students' test performance to teacher merit pay and school ranking. Republicans resisted a pause in such requirements until October, when it became clear students did not perform well.
Since then, Pence, who faces a difficult challenge to stay in the governor's office from Democrat and former House Speaker John Gregg, has reversed course, signing two measures preventing the 2015 test scores from being used to determine teacher merit pay or school rankings.
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