Lawmakers Rapidly Moving ILEARN ‘Hold Harmless’ Bill Through Statehouse

Jan 8, 2020

Credit Lauren Chapman/IPB News

Indiana lawmakers are moving quickly with a measure to avoid penalizing schools for a drop in student scores on the state’s new ILEARN test, with both the House and Senate having moved the hold harmless bill through committee just days into this year’s legislative session. 

Students in grades three through eight took the new ILEARN test last spring, and a significant drop in achievement compared to the state’s old ISTEP test prompted calls from leaders across the state for lawmakers to avoid penalizing schools through state accountability measures.

Lawmakers debated the bill during a pair of meetings this week before they were approved in committee. Jason Bearce is the vice president of education and workforce development for the Indiana Chamber and is one of several who voiced concerns with the measure. 

He says schools need to be accountable, even if a drop in scores makes sense with a new test.

“We do not believe that in and of itself justifies an extended hiatus from school accountability,” he says.

The bill would hold schools and teachers harmless for test scores for two years, allowing school corporations and individual schools to use the state letter grades they received during the 2017-18 school year. 

The hold harmless measure also includes high schools, even though high schoolers don’t take parts of the ILEARN used for school accountability. 

Others at the meeting suggested keeping the state letter grades static would mislead the public or make test data and scores less transparent. 

Joel Hand with the Coalition for Public Education pushed back on that idea, and says the bill will protect schools and won’t take away the public’s access to test score data.

“Those will still be public knowledge," Hand says. "They will still be accessible through the department of education’s website. Parents will still be notified what their students' scores were.”

The conversation has renewed questions about the state’s accountability system and how it should or shouldn’t change to reflect how well Indiana students learn. State schools chief Jennifer McCormick has pressed for Indiana to measure school accountability under the federal system. The federal system will continue to rate schools, despite hold harmless efforts at the state level. 

Officials say the federal system is better equipped to offer flexibility for new tests, but many legislative leaders and education policymakers prefer Indiana’s system and don’t find it necessary to conform to federal accountability measures. 

An accountability panel made a series of recommendations to lawmakers ahead of this year’s session, but those conversations about how to change the system and better align it with new graduation pathways remain ongoing.

Meanwhile, some lawmakers have expressed interest in making changes to the “hold harmless” bill, but plan to keep up the rapid pace to make it law.

Contact Jeanie at jlindsa@iu.edu or follow her on Twitter at @jeanjeanielindz.

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