Are Children Learning

Indiana's move away from Common Core becomes clear

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Indiana appears to be on the verge of a final turn away from Common Core standards.

Gov. Mike Pence made clear in his strongest words yet that he supports of locally-created standards during Tuesday’s State of the State address. But it was state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, state board members and advocates for Common Core whose comments today made seemed to show a new consensus that Indiana will not stick with Common Core standards entirely.

If that proves true, it would be a stunning turnaround in only one year’s time for a state that was one of the earliest adopters of Common Core in 2010, with former Gov. Mitch Daniels and the state’s then-Superintendent Tony Bennett among the most energetic national advocates for the national standards. Common Core lasted more than two years as the state’s official standards with virtually no opposition as schools began to use them in elementary grades.

A move away from Common Core potentially could be disruptive to teachers who have already begun, or started preparing for, the transition to the new standards. Some districts have already bought books and learning materials for the switch. Common Core proponents said it could handicap Hoosier children if they are left out as the rest of the country has largely signed on to follow the standards.

Traditionally, the Indiana Department of Education creates K-12 standards and the Indiana State Board of Education approves them. Members of the Indiana State Board of Education, which less than a year ago unanimously reaffirmed its support for Common Core, now seem resigned to the reality that the state’s standards will change. Even advocates of Common Core are refocusing on assuring that whatever standards emerge incorporate most of the major tenets of the nationally-shared standards.

These revelations began with four short sentences in Pence’s 30-minute speech that caused a stir, raising questions about whether he had shifted his position more strongly against Common Core. Here’s what he said:

“Hoosiers have high expectations when it comes to Indiana schools. That’s why Indiana decided to take a time-out on national education standards. When it comes to setting standards for schools, I can assure you, Indiana’s will be uncommonly high. They will be written by Hoosiers, for Hoosiers and will be among the best in the nation.”

It was clear that Pence was speaking of Common Core when he referenced “national education standards.” Common Core standards have become the norm nationwide with 46 states, Indiana included, having adopted them in an effort to agree on what U.S. students need to know by the time they graduate high school to compete internationally. Pence’s pledge that the state’s standards would be “written by Hoosiers” and be “uncommonly high” caught the ear of Democrats, Ritz and state board members.

Critics say Common Core standards are too closely associated with the U.S. Department of Education under President Obama, and could give up too much local control. Others argue Indiana’s prior standards were stronger, or that Common Core is too heavily dependent on standardized tests.

Both Pence and Ritz have been non-committal about their positions on Common Core. Pence has said he has no preconceived notions about Common Core. Ritz has expressed concern about some portions of Common Core, notably part of what is outlined for math, but she has never stated outright opposition to Common Core’s place as the state’s guide for what teachers should teach.

Indiana adopted Common Core in 2010, but in 2013 a backlash led by conservative state senators led to passage of a bill to “pause” implementation, which was underway in local schools. The bill launched a year of study and public input. The state board must vote again by this July to decide whether Indiana should continue with Common Core.

On Friday, Ritz said she did not view the standards question to be one of whether or not Indiana will follow Common Core. Instead, Ritz said, she is leading an effort to explore what is taught in every subject area and what makes sense for Indiana students to know.

“I don’t look at it as Indiana adopting a set of standards,” she said. “We are looking at individual standards. We’re not looking at carte blanche adoption of every single Common Core standard.”

The standards review process is on schedule to be presented to the state board in April, Ritz said. A bill introduced last week to extend the “pause” by a second year is unneeded, she said. Lawmakers introduced that bill with the goal of giving the state more time to decide about Common Core. But Ritz said the state must choose standards and then move quickly to deciding how to replace ISTEP with a new state test.

“We don’t see a need to extend the study of the standards,” she said. “We have to start the assessment piece.”

State board member Tony Walker said the “anchor” of any new standards, or a large portion of whatever Indiana creates on its own, will have to follow the framework of Common Core. That’s critical to preparing Hoosier graduates for college entrance exams that are being rewritten to align with Common Core standards, he said.

“It’s going to have to be built on Common Core,” he said. “We can’t go it alone.”

When it comes to tests, Ritz said she believes the replacement for ISTEP will be another state-created exam, not one of two Common Core-linked tests now being built by a pair of consortia of states.

“I feel strongly that Indiana will be working on our own assessments,” she said.

That’s significant because a state-sponsored study last year showed Indiana could save more than $1 million of the $34 million it annually spends on testing by using one of the shared tests other states are building rather than making its own test, or hiring a company to make one. It also means Indiana’s state test results will not be comparable to the results in other states, another advantage Common Core proponents tout.

When it comes to college entrance exams like the SAT or ACT, Ritz said strong standards and good understanding by teachers of what to teach and how to teach it will overcome any concerns about Hoosier students being at a disadvantage.

“Teachers will teach in order for students to do well on assessments,” she said.

Derek Redelman, vice president of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, said the reality around the country is that efforts by other states to write their own standards haven’t strayed far from Common Core.

“A few states have made a few changes but they’ve been minor,” said Redelman, a strong proponent of Common Core. “Even in Virginia and Texas, which are not official Common Core states, everyone whose been looking at those standards say they look just like Common Core.”

Redelman said most complaints about Common Core can be resolved if states make four commitments: Protecting student data security, making whatever small changes are needed to tailor the standards to their states’ particular needs and asserting state sovereignty over its right to set standards and choose its own tests.

In Indiana, the emerging goal of Common Core proponents now is to keep the state’s standards roughly in line with what other states are doing, he said.

“I don’t think we will have Common Core verbatim,” Redelman said. “I think they will be now actively looking for ways to put an Indiana flavor on it.”

A lot has changed since that unanimous state board vote in favor of Common Core last February. Just five of the 11 state board members from that meeting remain, with Pence having made six appointments to the board since that time.

One of them, Andrea Neal, strongly opposes Common Core. Her viewpoint is one that was rarely heard in state board meetings before 2013.

“There’s nothing wrong with national standards if they are extremely high quality standards,” she said. “Common Core are not extremely high quality standards.”

explainer

Five things to know about the latest brouhaha over Tennessee’s TNReady test

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

Last week’s revelation that nearly 10,000 Tennessee high school tests were scored incorrectly has unleashed a new round of criticism of the standardized test known as TNReady.

Testing company Questar says it muffed some tests this spring after failing to update its scanning software. A year earlier, a series of mistakes got its predecessor, Measurement Inc., fired when Tennessee had to cancel most of TNReady in its first year after a failed transition to online testing.

While the two companies’ glitches are hardly comparable in scope, Questar’s flub has uncorked a tempest of frustration and anger over the standardized assessment and how it’s used to hold teachers accountable.

Here are five things to know about the latest TNReady flap:

1. A relatively small number of students, teachers, and schools are affected.

State officials report that the scoring problem was traced to only high school tests, not for its grade-schoolers. Of the 600,000 high school end-of-course tests, about 9,400 were scored incorrectly. Most of the fixes were so small that fewer than 1,700 tests — or less than one-tenth of 1 percent — saw any change in their overall performance level. A state spokeswoman says the corrected scores have been shared with the 33 impacted districts.

2. But the TNReady brand has taken another huge hit.

Tennessee has sought to rebuild public trust in TNReady under Questar and celebrated a relatively uneventful testing season last spring. But the parade of problems that surfaced during TNReady’s rollout, combined with this year’s drops in student performance under the new test, have made subsequent bumps feel more like sinkholes to educators who already are frustrated with the state’s emphasis on testing. Questar’s scanning problems were also tied to delays in delivering preliminary scores to school systems this spring — another bump that exasperated educators and parents at the end of the school year and led many districts to exclude the data from student report cards.

3. State lawmakers will revisit TNReady — and soon.

House Speaker Beth Harwell asked Monday for a hearing into the latest testing problems, and discussion could happen as early as next week when a legislative study committee is scheduled to meet in Nashville. Meanwhile, one Republican gubernatorial candidate says the state should eliminate student growth scores from teacher evaluations, and a teachers union in Memphis called on Tennessee to invalidate this year’s TNReady results.

4. Still, those talks are unlikely to derail TNReady.

Tennessee is heavily invested in its new assessment as part of its five-year strategic plan for raising student achievement. Changing course now would be a surprise. Last school year was the first time that all students in grades 3-11 took TNReady, a standardized test aligned to the Common Core standards, even though those expectations for what students should learn in math and English language arts have been in Tennessee classrooms since 2012. State officials view TNReady results as key to helping Tennessee reach its goal of ranking in the top half of states on the Nation’s Report Card by 2019.

5. Tennessee isn’t alone in traveling a bumpy testing road.

Questar was criticized this summer for its design of two tests in Missouri. Meanwhile, testing giant Pearson has logged errors and missteps in New York, Virginia, and Mississippi. And in Tennessee and Ohio this spring, the ACT testing company administered the wrong college entrance exam to almost 3,000 juniors from 31 schools. Officials with the Tennessee Department of Education emphasized this week that they expect 100 percent accuracy on scoring TNReady. “We hold our vendor and ourselves to the highest standard of delivery because that is what students, teachers, and families in Tennessee deserve,” said spokeswoman Sara Gast.

Q&A

This Wayne Township school made big gains on ISTEP, and its principal said teachers sticking around was key.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students at Robey Elementary School in Wayne Township participate in an English lesson.

As the kindergartners at Robey Elementary School shuffled down the hallway in a single-file line, the wings on their festive construction paper bat headbands flapped softly.

When Principal Ben Markley walked by, the kindergartners jostled to greet him, one after another giving a tiny wave by bending their index fingers up and down. Bat wings flapped furiously.

“Are we working hard today?” Markley asked as he approached, returning what he dubbed the “kindergarten wave” by waggling his own index finger.

“Yes!” the kids chorused back excitedly.

Markley continued down the hallway, explaining that he created the wave to give some of the school’s youngest students a special way to connect with him — a better option than running up and gluing themselves to his legs, he said.

He is now in his fifth year at Robey, a school with more than 750 students located in the northwest corner of Wayne Township. In fact, Markley has spent his entire career as an educator in Wayne Township. And he’s not alone: Of the 20 Robey teachers who taught grades that took ISTEP last year, 19 stayed on from the year before.

Markley says that retaining teachers and staff has afforded students immense benefits — not the least of which that the school made some of the largest gains of any township school on last year’s ISTEP test.

Chalkbeat sat down with Markley recently to talk about the school’s progress. Below are excerpts from the conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

Your passing rate for English and math went up about 8 percentage points from last year, and your letter grade went up from a B to an A. What was your reaction when you learned that?

Two years ago we were pretty disappointed with some of our scores. We saw some areas in math that we thought we should be addressing a little differently — the way our teachers were thinking about curriculum and really the depth and the rigor that we were presenting to our students.

There was this pretty big gap between what we were asking our kids to do and what was on the state assessment. We talked a lot about that last year. We spent a lot of our professional development time thinking about what are the deeper thinking skills that students need, especially in math. We sometimes called it how do we get kids to grapple with problems. How do we get them to show perseverance and dedication and be able to learn from mistakes — to make a mistake and accept that mistake and say, how do we grow from this?

We haven’t had the teacher turnover that some schools have had. And so (teachers within every grade) are becoming content and curricular experts. When you put smart people in the room together talking about how they teach something, they are able to share lots of great ideas.

To see that pan out in improved performance — that’s what you’re so excited about. That’s why you put all that effort and time and energy and debating and conversation in, because then our hard work paid off, and that’s rewarding for teachers.

What is your school community like?

We are about 52 to 53 percent free and reduced lunch this year. We’re about 50 percent white, about 35 to 40 percent African American and about 10 percent Hispanic.

It feels almost neighborhood- or community-like being back here. I think families know that they can come here and they can partner with staff members to try to find the best ways to help their children. We serve rural families and out-of-district families who choose to come to Robey, and we take pride in that fact.

What is your approach to leadership?

I think we have very talented, dedicated, smart people, and so I feel like my job is to get them the resources that they need. I trust the decisions that teachers make. So I want them to feel empowered to make those decisions and suggest those changes and improvements that help us move forward as a school.

I talked about staff continuity already. I think that is something I maybe even initially underestimated how important it was. It fosters a sense of collegiality. They know they’ve got each others’ backs.

It also just gives them time to wrap their minds around our curriculum. The first time you teach it, that’s a big undertaking. It’s overwhelming. And so to have consistency (with our teaching staff) from year to year … was critical to our success.