When the Indiana State Board of Education faces the tough question later this year of whether to change the passing score for ISTEP, a decision it made last week just might come up again.

By a 9-to-1 vote, board members just approved a plan to make it easier for teachers to pass content tests they must take to qualify for jobs. And the debate might have previewed some of the issues likely to to be raised about ISTEP.

The new passing scores are expected to significantly boost the number of prospective elementary school teachers who pass content tests in English, math, science, health, social studies and fine arts. Right now, some of those exams have low pass rates, such as just 24 percent passing for the English test. With the changes, the science test will become the hardest, with a projected 53 percent pass rate, and math will become easiest, with an 85 percent pass rate.

Some board members wondered why they should reconsider the passing scores at all when the costly new exams were designed to better match up to Indiana’s new academic standards.

To board member Gordon Hendry, for example, it seemed like the testing company’s job to get the passing score set right in the first place.

“I’m just trying to understand if the test is wrong and we’re having to come back and rejigger it, then why are we paying all this money?” Hendry said.

But it’s not that simple, Indiana Department of Education officials said.

The cut-off scores for passing the new tests, created by British-based testing company Pearson, must be adjusted as Indiana’s state standards for teachers are tweaked, they said.

“These tests are customized to Indiana standards, and there isn’t any national data to use to do comparisons with in the course of looking to set cut scores,” said assistant superintendent Risa Regnier.

The process of setting the scores is very similar to what Indiana has gone through in the past couple years to adjust state academic standards, the guidelines for what students must know to graduate and go to college, and write new ISTEP tests.

When state standards change, test questions must also change. And when test questions change, experts have to re-evaluate passing scores to make sure the tests correctly identify who knows the material and who doesn’t.

When standards change, tests change

Creating a standardized test involves a lot of statistical analysis and in many ways can be scientific, but it also requires a lot of human judgment.

It’s teachers — generally panels of educators — who sift through test questions and try to help the test-makers accurately gauge what a teacher needs to know before they walk into a classroom.

How do they advise the test-makers where the passing cut-off score should be?

Turns out, it’s a bit of a guessing game.

The testing company binds together all of the test questions in a booklet in order from the easiest question to the hardest and asks teachers to page through until they hit the point where they think the difficulty begins to go beyond what the average teacher should know. Then they mark the page number.

The panel reviews the range of the number of questions each estimated a teacher should know to pass. Together, they come up with a recommendation from within that range. Essentially, the teachers propose their best guess for how many questions the test-taker should be required to get right to pass.

Because the teachers don’t know the prior passing score, when they set a new passing score it isn’t influenced by a desire to make the test easier or harder than before, Regnier said.

Cari Whicker, a member of the board and a teacher, likes the approach. She said she’d been on on passing score panels before and assured Hendry and the board that the process is sound. Scores are frequently adjusted, she said, with no agenda in mind.

“The teachers, first of all though, aren’t recommending we lower the cut scores,” she said.

The passing scores had to be reset this time because of recent changes to not just the state’s teacher licensure standards, but also because a new company was writing the tests.

For the past few decades, Indiana teachers-to-be took a test known as the Praxis — a national exam that wasn’t specifically connected to Indiana’s standards for teachers. That changed in 2011 when the education department sought new teacher tests based on new state teaching standards adopted the year before. The state chose Pearson to create those tests and switched over to using them in 2014.

Board member Vince Bertram, CEO of Project Lead The Way, still questioned the rigor of the tests themselves — suggesting Pearson should be extra aware of whether the test is truly appropriate for the average, beginning teacher.

“Why are we asking someone on an initial practitioners exam to do something that would take someone 19 years to learn?” he said. “Why aren’t we asking information that is relevant to a beginning teacher?”

More passing score changes could be coming soon for tests in chemistry and physics, and career and technical education exams for teachers of agriculture and family and consumer sciences. The panel recommended the other changes, but the department did not present those to the board last week.

Then comes the more closely watched board decision: where to set the passing score for the new ISTEP. Probably by the end of the year, board members will make that decision, and the process is much the same.

Again, teachers will gather to review booklets containing all the ISTEP questions ranked from easiest to hardest and give their best guesses for how many questions kids must get right to pass the state exams.

An exam that is carefully crafted by test company scientists to balance hard and easy questions, reviewed by a panel of teachers and comes with a recommended passing score still has another step — the state board. It will again be up to 10 appointed state board members, and the elected state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, to decide exactly where to set the passing score.

For now, the board’s preliminary decision for where to set the teacher passing scores are up for public comment for 30 days. Then the board will consider make the final decision about what the cut-off score will be.