INDIANAPOLIS -- The state's school superintendent gets the hard job of shaping and implementing education policy in the politically charged atmosphere of the Statehouse.

In addition to the usual buffet of education issues, the winner of this fall's election will face pressure to follow a new federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, tying dollars to standards aimed at ensuring that students are on track to graduate and are ready for college or careers.

Democrat Glenda Ritz

The incumbent and longtime educator came into office in 2012 with a surprise victory over a Republican predecessor who'd championed aggressive reform, but had alienated teachers and parents.

Ritz said there is now too much at stake for the state's 1 million-plus students and their 60,000 teachers to change direction.

Republican Jennifer McCormick

McCormick is a former teacher and principal with a dozen years' experience as a top administrator in the growing Yorktown schools.

She hopes to appeal to voters who are weary of the partisan battles that have ensued over high-stakes testing and school accountability.

Here's a look at the candidates' views on some critical education issues facing the state.

Standardized tests

Question: What is the best way to determine if Indiana students are mastering state standards and are ready to move on to the next grade or graduate?

McCormick: We have assessments for different purposes. For summative purposes, it is important at the end of each grade level, or the end of a specific course, that we give summative tests to ask are kids ready to move on? It is important for parents to have a gauge on their child's readiness.

But a lot of issues we're struggling with now (stems from) the Department of Education's administration of the tests. Any time you administer a test statewide, you have to have a lot of communication, you have to be very organized. The lack of that is part of what's causing the problems now.

Ritz: I've been working with both Democrats and Republicans to end the high-stakes ISTEP test, and that's been my focus from the very beginning. My plan to replace it would reduce the testing time by eight hours and reduce cost by $12 million annually. And it would actually provide information about a student's growth throughout the year, and not just pass/fail results at the end of the year. We need to know how our students are performing and how they are growing.

Evaluating teachers and schools

Question: What is the best way for the state to assess the quality of schools and teachers? Currently the state hands out letter grades to schools.

McCormick: I'm a firm believer that (student) assessment tests don't tell the whole story about an educator. We have robust teacher evaluations in place that are done annually. We need to make sure our leaders are trained well in them and that our teachers understand what the evaluation system is.

As far as school accountability, schools should not get one grade. One grade does not tell all, it must be multi-faceted, similar to a student report card. We don't give students one grade; that tells us nothing. Schools should have accountability based on student growth and performance, their relationship with families, their graduation rates -- there's a lot of different areas. It needs to be multi-faceted.

Ritz: Our schools and teachers deserve support from their state leaders, which is why I created the (Department of Education's) outreach division for school improvement to make sure my department is getting every school the resources it needs to improve. As a result, in just two years' time, 193 low-performing schools are now high-performing, which has positively impacted over 108,000 students.

It's really about school improvement support. Under (the Every Student Succeeds Act), we have flexibility now for how we are placing schools in categories for school improvement. I've got an accountability advisory committee meeting regularly, looking at best ways to focus on school improvement. That may mean we don't label our schools with an A, B, C, D or F anymore.

Private school vouchers

Question: Indiana's School Choice voucher program is one of the fastest growing in the nation, with more than 32,000 K-12 students enrolled in private schools, at a cost of $134 million in public dollars. Should the program continue to expand?

McCormick: Any program that impacts K-12 funding, regardless of what it is, needs to be reviewed. Is it working for what it was intended for? Are those students taking advantage of vouchers getting a better educational opportunity? I would encourage our lawmakers to make sure they are reviewing that. I would also encourage them to set aside appropriations outside of regular K-12 funding for that program.

Ritz: I have always supported a parent's choice to send their child to any school. But the voucher program is really aptly named School Choice because the school does the choosing now and not the parent. I have called for the General Assembly to evaluate the program before expanding it further, so we can really study the fiscal, academic and diversity impact of the program. In interest of transparency, I've issued a report every year on the School Choice program. We're spending a lot of money, and we really need to take a look at the funding of our schools and evaluate what we're really doing.

Legislature's role

Question: How much voice should the General Assembly have in setting education policy for schools?

McCormick: Hopefully, over the long term, they'll have less. I understand they do play a role in it, but it's partnership (with the state schools superintendent) and my commitment to partnership is going to be huge. We need to make sure the decisions they're making are based on research, on data, and on what is happening in the trenches, so that we're making good solid decisions and we're thinking through some of those unintended consequences as we're moving forward.

Ritz: The work is really a partnership with the Department of Education, which is why I've worked with both political parties, and always have, to pass a law to protect thousands of schools from being unfairly penalized from the unexpected drop in test scores after transitioning (last year) to a new, more rigorous test.

It is a partnership to move education policy forward, and I spend a lot of my time making sure that's what we're doing.

Maureen Hayden covers the Indiana Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at mhayden@cnhi.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden.

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