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.”

TNReady snag

Tennessee’s ill-timed score delivery undercuts work to rebuild trust in tests

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
The Tennessee Department of Education worked with local districts and schools to prepare students for TNReady, the state's standardized test that debuted in 2016.

After last year’s online testing failure, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen pledged to rebuild trust in Tennessee’s new TNReady assessment, a lynchpin of the state’s system of school accountability.

A year later, frustration over TNReady has re-emerged, even after a mostly uneventful spring testing period that McQueen declared a success just weeks ago.

Preliminary TNReady scores are supposed to count for 10 percent of students’ final grades. But as many districts end the school year this week, the state’s data is arriving too late. One by one, school systems have opted to exclude the scores, while some plan to issue their report cards late.

The flurry of end-of-school adjustments has left local administrators to explain the changes to parents, educators and students who are already wary of state testing. And the issue has put Tennessee education officials back on the defensive as the state works to regain its footing on testing after last year’s high-profile setbacks.

“We just need to get more crisp as a state,” said Superintendent Dorsey Hopson after Shelby County Schools joined the growing list of districts opting to leave out the scores. “If we know that we want to use (TNReady scores), if the state says use them on the report card, then we got to get them back.”

The confusion represents one step back for TNReady, even after the state took two steps forward this spring with a mostly smooth second year of testing under Questar, its new test maker. Last year, McQueen canceled testing for grades 3-8 and fired Measurement Inc. after Tennessee’s online platform failed and a string of logistical problems ensued.


Why TNReady’s failed rollout leaves Tennessee with challenges for years to come


But the reason this year’s testing went more smoothly may also be the reason why the scores haven’t arrived early enough for many districts.

TNReady was mostly administered on paper this time around, which meant materials had to be processed, shipped and scored before the early data could be shared with districts. About 600,000 students took the assessment statewide.

After testing ended on May 5, districts had five days to get their materials to Questar to go to the front of the line for return of preliminary scores. Not all districts succeeded, and some had problems with shipping. Through it all, the State Department of Education has maintained that its timelines are “on track.”

McQueen said Wednesday that districts have authority under a 2015 state law to exclude the scores from students’ final grades if the data doesn’t arrive a week before school lets out. And with 146 districts that set their own calendars, “the flexibility provided under this law is very important.”

Next year will be better, she says, as Tennessee moves more students to online testing, beginning with high school students.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen

“We lose seven to 10 days for potential scoring time just due to shipping and delivery,” she said of paper tests. “Online, those challenges are eliminated because the materials can be uploaded immediately and transferred much much quicker.”

The commissioner emphasized that the data that matters most is not the preliminary data but the final score reports, which are scheduled for release in July for high schools and the fall for grades 3-8. Those scores are factored into teachers’ evaluations and are also used to measure the effectiveness of schools and districts. 

“Not until you get the score report will you have the full context of a student’s performance level and strengths and weaknesses in relation to the standards,” she said.

The early data matters to districts, though, since Tennessee has tied the scores to student grades since 2011.

“Historically, we know that students don’t try as hard when the tests don’t count,” said Jennifer Johnson, a spokeswoman for Wilson County Schools, a district outside of Nashville that opted to issue report cards late. “We’re trying to get our students into the mindset that tests do matter, that this means business.”

Regardless, this year’s handling of early scores has left many parents and educators confused, some even exasperated.

“There’s so much time and stress on students, and here again it’s not ready,” said Tikeila Rucker, a Memphis teacher who is president of the United Education Association of Shelby County.

“The expectation is that we would have the scores back,” Hopson agreed.

But Hopson, who heads Tennessee’s largest district in Memphis, also is taking the long view.

“It’s a new test and a new process and I’m sure the state is trying to figure it all out,” he said. “Obviously the process was better this year than last year.”

Laura Faith Kebede and Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.

Not Ready

Memphis students won’t see TNReady scores reflected in their final report cards

PHOTO: Creative Commons / timlewisnm

Shelby County Schools has joined the growing list of Tennessee districts that won’t factor preliminary state test scores into students’ final grades this year.

The state’s largest school district didn’t receive raw score data in time, a district spokeswoman said Tuesday.

The State Department of Education began sharing the preliminary scores this week, too late in the school year for many districts letting out in the same week. That includes Shelby County Schools, which dismisses students on Friday.

While a state spokeswoman said the timelines are “on track,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the timing was unfortunate.

“There’s a lot of discussion about too many tests, and I think anytime you have a situation where you advertise the tests are going to be used for one thing and then we don’t get the data back, it becomes frustrating for students and families. But that’s not in our control,” he said Tuesday night.

Hopson added that the preliminary scores will still get used eventually, but just not in students’ final grades. “As we get the data and as we think about our strategy, we’ll just make adjustments and try to use them appropriately,” he said.

The decision means that all four of Tennessee’s urban districts in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga won’t include TNReady in all of their students’ final grades. Other school systems, such as in Williamson and Wilson counties, plan to make allowances by issuing report cards late, and Knox County will do the same for its high school students.

Under a 2015 state law, districts can leave out standardized test scores if the information doesn’t arrive five instructional days before the end of the school year. This year, TNReady is supposed to count for 10 percent of final grades.

Also known as “quick scores,” the data is different from the final test scores that will be part of teachers’ evaluation scores. The state expects to release final scores for high schoolers in July and for grades 3-8 in the fall.

The Department of Education has been working with testing company Questar to gather and score TNReady since the state’s testing window ended on May 5. About 600,000 students took the assessment statewide in grades 3-11.

State officials could not provide a district-by-district listing of when districts will receive their scores.

“Scores will continue to come out on a rolling basis, with new data released every day, and districts will receive scores based on their timely return of testing materials and their completion of the data entry process,” spokeswoman Sara Gast told Chalkbeat on Monday. “Based on district feedback, we have prioritized returning end-of-course data to districts first.”

Caroline Bauman and Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.