(This story is one in a series exploring the basics of key issues in education in Indiana. For a list of the issues and links to the other stories in the series, go here.)

What does Indiana’s third grade reading test tell you about whether a child is ready for fourth grade?

A lot, according to members of the Indiana State Board of Education, who instituted the test in 2011. Students who fail, they have argued, should not advance to fourth grade until they can demonstrate they read well enough to handle textbooks and other challenging materials they will need to master in higher grades.

But state Superintendent Glenda Ritz believes a pass-fail standardized test doesn’t tell teachers enough about the skill level of a third-grader. She has proposed junking the current test in favor of one that establishes a numerical reading level for every student, which she says teachers can use to better tailor instruction to improve student reading skills.

The debate over third grade reading is an example of the sorts of dividing lines that have made standardized testing a polarizing issue in national and state politics.

Since the 1990s, Indiana and other states have adopted statewide standardized tests intended as a check to ensure students are learning what they need to succeed in the upcoming years of school and later in college or the workplace.

But this decade has seen a backlash against testing from those who believe it has gone too far. Ritz and others argue too much time is spent on preparing for and taking tests in school and are skeptical about whether standardized test scores are accurate enough in judging student skills to be relied on for key decisions — like whether students can be promoted to the next grade or if they are ready to graduate.

In 2014, standardized testing was a central battleground as state policymakers instituted new standards for what students were expected to learn. IN 2015, major changes to ISTEP, Indiana’s state accountability exam, followed. But more changes are on the horizon.

New tests, new controversies

ISTEP, or Indiana State Testing for Educational Progress, was created by an act of the legislature in 1987 and now includes math and English tests administered annually in grades 3 to 8. ISTEP science tests are given in fourth and sixth grade, and social studies tests are given in grades five and seven. Neither science nor social studies scores are part of the state’s A to F accountability system for grading schools.

Other state tests in Indiana include the third grade reading test and high school end-of-course exams in Algebra 1 and 10th grade English, which are required to earn a high school diploma.

ISTEP has gone through many changes. When it was launched in 1988, it tested students in grades 1 to 3, 6 to 8 and 11 and was administered in the spring. The test was moved to the fall in 1995 to allow the results to be used more quickly for intervention instead of waiting until after the summer. It was moved back to the spring at then-state Superintendent Tony Bennett’s urging in 2009.

Indiana instituted several new state tests under Bennett.

In 2010, Indiana began using end-of-course exams at 10th grade as graduation tests. Students had to pass a standardized test of Algebra 1 and English 10 in order to earn a high school diploma. Bennett was also the driving force behind the third grade reading test.

Changes to state tests have increasingly encountered backlash from teachers and parents.

Ritz, for example, said her frustration with the new reading test led her to challenge Bennett in the 2012 election. Her victory shocked most observers, making her the only Democrat holding statewide office.

Ritz and others opposed the suggestion that a test could determine which students should be “held back” from fourth grade. However, students were not uniformly blocked from the next grade if they failed. Bennett’s education department advised schools that third-graders who failed the reading test could still advance to fourth grade for all other subjects, as long as they were grouped with third-graders for reading instruction. Critics said that made the notion that students were “held back” meaningless.

The effectiveness of high school end-of-course exams was soon in question, too. Students were required to pass them to graduate, but the rule included a loophole that schools began to quickly exploit.

The state created an avenue intended to help what many believed would be a rare student: one who earns strong grades in school but struggles on standardized tests because of test anxiety or other factors. Such students could earn a waiver if they could not pass one of the required tests by their senior years.

To obtain a waiver, students had to show they had 95 percent attendance and a C average in the tested subject. If so, they could still earn a diploma without passing, provided they took the test every time it was offered and undertook any test preparation opportunities offered by their schools.

The percentage of seniors graduating with waivers quickly grew to 8 percent statewide by 2012. By comparison, the percentage in Ohio, with a similar waiver rule, was less than 1 percent of graduating seniors.

At some schools, waivers were used even more. In 2012, the Indianapolis Star reported about one in six Indiana school districts boosted their graduation rates by at least 10 percentage points thanks to waivers. At a handful of schools, nearly half the graduating seniors used waivers.

But changes in state law, including a rule that could block those who use waivers from receiving state aid for college, and other factors appeared to be reversing the trend by 2014.

Testing troubles and teacher evaluation

In 2011, about 10,000 students had problems taking ISTEP and in 2012, 9,000 students had trouble taking the test online. CTB/McGraw Hill, which had a four-year, $95 million contract to create ISTEP, struggled to overcome the glitches.

In April of 2013, about 500,000 Indiana students were taking ISTEP online when something odd and frustrating happened: a large number of them were kicked offline and had to repeatedly log back in. For others, the screen just froze.

In all, about 78,000 Indiana students taking ISTEP experienced interruptions over the course of several days, which amounted to about 16 percent of all test takers online. It was the third consecutive year that online ISTEP had such troubles, but it was by far the largest incident yet.

There were more problems with ISTEP in 2015. New test questions were given for the first time and the guidelines the company created for scoring didn’t recognize all of the possible correct answers students gave for the new technology-enhanced questions. In the past there was just one path to a correct answer. Now students can get questions right in different ways, such as by manipulating graphs or writing equations.

This delayed the exam results for months. As of December 2015, the results were still not out.

The incidents repeatedly called into question the validity of the test. Even after an outside reviews of the glitches found little evidence that students’ test scores were affected on a wide scale, Ritz several tims recommended school districts discount the scores when evaluating teachers.

That’s because of a 2011 law overhauling the way teachers are judged for pay raises required that student test scores become a factor in their performance reviews was just taking effect in most schools in 2013. Teachers with low evaluation scores could be blocked from receiving pay raises or even fired if their ratings did not improve.

New standards bring new tests

Indiana’s state tests are going to look different in the future — that much is certain.

A complicated debate about state standards was resolved when Ritz led an effort to create new standards, as mandated by a 2014 state law.

The new standards established new expectations that students must graduate high school ready to be effective workers right away should they seek jobs or be able to start college without needing to take remedial classes to brush up on skills they didn’t master in high school.

Since 2010, Indiana has been moving toward creating new state tests to coincide with the new standards.

Indiana was an early adopter of Common Core standards, which eventually 45 states agreed to follow. Two consortia of states began independently developing new Common Core-linked tests for states to use.

But in 2013, Indiana began to have second thoughts about Common Core and the consortium it joined, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career.

Lawmakers passed a bill “pausing” Common Core in Indiana in 2013, laying out a yearlong process to reconsider the standards. That morphed in late 2013 into an effort to set new Indiana standards. By 2014, lawmakers followed with another bill to void Indiana’s adoption of Common Core altogether.

In the meantime, Gov. Mike Pence also ordered the state to withdraw from its participation with PARCC in 2013. But the state needed new tests to judge its new standards. That created a problem.

Because of the state’s desire to dump Common Core, lawmakers designated ISTEP remain as the state test for 2014-15. But that didn’t fly with the U.S. Department of Education.

As part of a 2012 “waiver” agreement, to release Indiana from some of the sanctions of No Child Left Behind, the state promised to administer a “college and career ready” test by 2015. Without PARCC, Indiana would need a new strategy.

In the summer of 2014, the state proposed to federal officials that it would add new questions to ISTEP with the goal of evaluating student readiness for college and careers. At the same time, its contract with CTB/McGraw-Hill expired. In June of 2014, Indiana received six proposals from companies, including CTB/McGraw-Hill, seeking to create its future state tests.

But for 2015, Indiana was in a difficult position. A completely new state exam wouldn’t be ready before 2016. But the old ISTEP test didn’t measure college and career readiness, as federal education officials expected.

So for one year, The state sought to create a transitional test, using some questions typical of past versions of the test and some that mirror what the new test will look like. But when that made the test much longer, Pence balked. That sparked a war of words with Ritz that ended with a bill that was rushed through the legislature to waive state rules and allow the test to be shortened.

At the same time, the Indiana legislature in 2015 was considering a variety of changes to its state testing program, although many of them fizzled. Still costs and other concerns had some lawmakers wondering if it wasn’t time to junk ISTEP altogether and look for alternative ways to measure student achievement. But that idea ultimately was put off for future discussion.

But those ideas could be revived in 2016, as repeated problems with ISTEP helped broaden support for change.

-Updated December 2015