Lawmakers outraged at 'school voucher' question on ISTEP test
Note that Heather Neal, chief of staff of the State Department of Education, who was formerly Executive Director at School Choice Indiana, is outraged by the outing of a test question, not by the political nature of that question.
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DATE: October 13, 2010
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By Dan Carden
INDIANAPOLIS | The Indiana Department of Education is investigating a possible breach of ISTEP test security involving a question some state lawmakers say improperly promotes school vouchers.
The Times has chosen not to publish the full essay question because students still are taking the annual standardized exams through Wednesday. But the question prompts students to consider a scenario involving a "special scholarship program."
State Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, said the question politicizes the testing process by asking students their opinion on school vouchers. Legislation pending in the General Assembly would give parents special scholarships using public funds for their children to attend private school.
"I would like to express my outrage that the Department of Education has inserted its own political agenda into, of all things, the ISTEP test," Tallian said. Gov. Mitch Daniels and State Superintendent Tony Bennett, both Republicans, strongly support the voucher plan.
The bigger outrage, according to DOE Chief of Staff Heather Neal, is the breach of test security.
"I cannot emphasize how big of a deal this is for a teacher or administrator or test coordinators to be circulating a test question," Neal said. "It is possible we could have to invalidate tests-- about 80,000."
According to Neal, the department believes a test coordinator copied the question from the eighth-grade language arts test and passed it to others, including one who briefly posted it Tuesday on a Facebook page. The reported Facebook page appears to be connected with a teachers' group in Lawrence County, south of Bloomington.
Neal said if DOE is forced to suppress the question, ISTEP test results will be delayed and the state will have to pay "hundreds of thousand of dollars" in additional grading expenses. The test results for all eighth graders could also be invalidated, leaving schools with little guidance for high school English class placement, she said.
Tallian, who said the question shouldn't have been asked in the first place, plans to write to DOE demanding to know why the question was on the test.
"It's a blatant attempt to collect opinion that supports the administration's agenda," Tallian said.
But Lauren Auld, a DOE spokeswoman, said ISTEP test questions are developed over a two-year period.
She said the initial question is written by the test vendor. It is reviewed by DOE assessment and content experts; reviewed again by a panel of Indiana teachers; reviewed a third time for bias and sensitivity; reviewed by a citizens committee; and, finally, added as a pilot question to 2,500 ISTEP exams before it is approved for the statewide exam.
"It's quite a strenuous process," Auld said, adding Bennett has no input on ISTEP questions.
Neal said most students answering the breached question during its pilot phase said they would attend school in California or Florida because those states are sunny and have nearby beaches.
But state Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, said he believes the question is part of a larger nationwide plot to privatize public education in Indiana and the United States.
"This kind of thing is trying to get into the minds of young people and is a way to get that message back to parents," Smith said. "(Bennett) knows what he is doing-- it's orchestrated."