Testing Testing

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.”

Test tweaks

Tennessee will halve science and social studies tests for its youngest students

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Wednesday plans to slim down science and social studies assessments for third- and fourth-graders as she seeks to respond to complaints of over-testing in Tennessee.

McQueen has been mulling over that option since meeting last summer with her testing task force. The State Department of Education received more public feedback on testing during the last eight months while developing the state’s new plan for its schools in response to a new federal education law.

Tennessee already has eliminated a state test for eighth- and tenth-graders, as well as shortened TNReady, the state’s end-of-year tests for math and reading.

It’s uncertain just how significant the latest reductions are, since McQueen also said that some “components” would be added to English tests in those grades.  

And the trimming, while significant, falls short of a suggestion to eliminate the tests altogether. Federal law does not require tests in science and social studies for those grades, like it does for math and English.

Parents and educators have become increasingly vocal about the amount of testing students are undergoing. The average Tennessee third-grader, for instance, currently spends more than 11 hours taking end-of-course tests in math, English, social studies and science. That doesn’t include practice tests and screeners through the state’s 3-year-old intervention program.

McQueen noted that more changes could be on the horizon. Her testing task force has also considered eliminating or reducing TNReady for 11th-graders because they already are required to take the ACT college-entrance exam. “We will continue to evaluate all of our options for streamlining assessments in the coming years, including in the 11th grade,” she wrote in a blog post.

McQueen also announced that the state is tweaking its schools plan to reduce the role that chronic absenteeism will play in school evaluation scores.

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to evaluate schools based off of a measure that’s not directly tied to test scores. Tennessee officials have selected chronic absenteeism, which is defined as missing 10 percent of school days for any reason, including absences or suspension. McQueen said the measure will be changed to count for 10 percent of a school’s final grade, down from 20 percent for K-8 schools and 15 percent for high schools.

Some local district officials had raised concerns that absenteeism was out of the control of schools.

early adopters

Here are the 25 districts committing to taking TNReady online this spring

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

One year after Tennessee’s first attempt at online testing fizzled, 25 out of 140 Tennessee school districts have signed up to try again.

About 130 districts were eligible to test online this year.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Thursday the number is what she expected as districts prepare to administer the state’s TNReady assessment in April.

Although all districts will make the switch to online testing by 2019 for middle and high school students, they had the option to forge ahead this year with their oldest students.

The Department of Education is staggering its transition to online testing — a lesson learned last year when most of the state tried to do it all at once and the online platform buckled on the first day. As a result, the department fired its testing company, derailing the state’s assessment program, and later hired  Questar as its new test maker.

Districts piloted Questar’s online platform last fall, and had until Wednesday to decide whether to forge ahead with online testing for their high school students this spring or opt for paper-and-pencil tests.

McQueen announced the state’s new game plan for TNReady testing in January and said she is confident that the new platform will work.

While this year was optional for high schools, all high schools will participate in 2018. Middle and elementary schools will make the switch in 2019, though districts will have the option of administering the test on paper to its youngest students.

Districts opting in this spring are:

  • Alvin C. York Institute
  • Bedford County
  • Bledsoe County
  • Blount County
  • Bristol City
  • Campbell County
  • Cannon County
  • Cheatham County
  • Clay County
  • Cocke County
  • Coffee County
  • Cumberland County
  • Grundy County
  • Hamilton County
  • Hancock County
  • Knox County
  • Jackson-Madison County
  • Moore County
  • Morgan County
  • Putnam County
  • Scott County
  • Sullivan County
  • Trousdale County
  • Washington County
  • Williamson County