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November 10, 2013

For Indiana test score clamor, 'victory' relative

Of the many John F. Kennedy statements often repeated by both Democrats and Republicans, his declaration that "victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan" seemed apt for the release last week of national test scores showing solid gains by Indiana students.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress scores showed solid growth by Indiana's fourth- and eighth-graders, but the spin from both sides of Indiana's ongoing education battles left some questions about how much students had actually improved and who could claim to be a "father" to this "victory."

Scores jumped roughly the same as they had over previous years and through various policies in Indiana, noted Indiana University education professor Peter Kloosterman. But U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan placed the credit at the feet of former Gov. Mitch Daniels and former schools Superintendent Tony Bennett, who pushed through sweeping education changes championed by Duncan and others. Indiana's largest teachers union, meanwhile, said those gains should be credited to teachers who have excelled despite increasing burdens placed on them.

The playing up of the scores was enough to draw out Bennett, who recently moved back to Indiana but had kept a low-profile since his resignation as Florida's education chief following an Associated Press report that he oversaw changes to the state's school grading system in part to ensure a school run by a top GOP donor received an A. Bennett said the results "validate our long-held belief that given the right policy framework, Indiana teachers and students could achieve higher levels of academic achievement."

His comments spurred a quick rebuke from his successor, Democratic schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz, whose spokesman accused education reform supporters of playing politics with the scores.

But the level of improvement is itself up for question. Kloosterman, who studies student performance on NAEP, also dubbed the "nation's report card," pointed out two reasons not to invest too much in the new scores: The small sample size makes it hard to apply across all student populations, and the scores fluctuate from year-to-year.

The state has fluctuated between clocking in just a few points above the national average to more significant test results, he noted. Those numbers have varied greatly since 2000, when Indiana was run by Democratic Gov. Frank O'Bannon and Republican schools Superintendent SueEllen Reed, who opposed most of Daniels' education polices through his first four years in office.

"Indiana is consistently above the national average, but not at the level of the highest-performing states," Kloosterman said in a statement. "These trends have held throughout all the state and national education policy changes over this period."

Claiming victory, seemingly regardless of outcomes, is old hat for both Democrats and Republicans, especially in the early days of a new policy while the public is still assessing its merits. It's also equally hard for most leaders to publicly acknowledge the latter half of Kennedy's comment. (It took President Barack Obama weeks to apologize for widespread problems with the federal health exchange, even as the spectacle of the government shutdown drew public attention away from the problems.)

Jeff Butts, superintendent of Wayne Township Schools in Indianapolis, urged some moderation from all sides when asked about the reaction to the scores.

"Indiana teachers are the finest educators and people I have ever known. Their work with students and partnerships with families are what makes the difference," Butts said. "That being said, let us not forget this is one examination and one data point that we are able to use to determine if what we are doing is working."

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