The basics of Common Core standards in Indiana: A reconsideration

(This story is one in a series exploring the basics of key issues in education in Indiana. For a list of the issues and links to the other stories in the series, go here.)

Indiana was an early adopter of national Common Core standards, but, after a change in the political dynamic, the state’s commitment to the Common Core soon waned.

In early 2014, the state became the first in the nation to reject Common Core after first adopting it, when the Indiana legislature passed a bill voiding the state’s prior adoption. For the 2014-15 school year, the state rushed to put in place new standards created by state-supervised committees of educators and experts.

Common Core is a set of academic standards developed by an association of state governors aimed at ensuring students graduate high school ready to enter college or begin careers. Supporters say the standards raise expectations and will make students more internationally competitive.

But some Indiana critics argued the standards were not as strong as they were billed to be and that they reduced local control over curriculum because they were too strongly connected to the priorities of the U.S. Department of Education. Others complained that Common Core perpetuated a standardized testing focus in schools.

Implementation is “paused”

Back in 2010, Indiana was a leading state in pushing for Common Core adoption.

At the urging of two of its high profile champions, former Gov. Mitch Daniels and former state Superintendent Tony Bennett, the Indiana State Board of Education adopted the standards as its own that year with little fanfare. But a growing backlash against Common Core prompted the state to reconsider whether it will stick with it.

The initial effort to reconsider Common Core in 2012 petered out in the legislature. Common Core had strong support at the time from Daniels, Bennett, key legislative leaders and all 11 members of the Indiana State Board of Education.

But just a year later, opposition to the Common Core had grown. New Gov. Mike Pence has said he is uncertain about the Common Core while new state Superintendent Glenda Ritz favored a re-evaluation of the standards. State Sen. Dennis Kruse, who chairs the senate’s education committee, announced he no longer supported the Common Core. An opposition group, led by a pair of Indianapolis moms, pushed lawmakers to step back from Common Core. Ultimately, lawmakers approved a bill that “paused” implementation of the Common Core, requiring the state education department to study the standards and make recommendations.

In 2014, Common Core opponents persuaded state Sen. Scott Schneider, R-Indianapolis, to propose a bill to void their original 2010 adoption and require new standards.

Conservative leaders in the Republican Party got behind the bill, saying they feared following Common Core would ultimately lead to a loss of state control over standards. The U.S. Department of Education and President Obama supported Common Core and asked states to adopt the standards in return for release from some of the consequences of the federal No Child Left Behind law, which was evidence enough to some of them that Common Core was too connected to federal priorities.

The bill passed and was signed by Pence, earning praise for the governor for getting rid of Common Core.

Indiana in 2011 committed to adopting “college and career ready” standards as part of an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education that released the state from some of the accountability requirements of the 2002 federal No Child Left Behind law. So even after the state dumped Common Core, it had to reassure federal officials the new standards adhered to many of the same principles.

What’s tested is taught

Some school districts had already implemented the Common Core for all grades by 2013. But the state’s recommended implementation schedule had only required Common Core standards through second grade.

State tests begin at third grade. So the initial plan called for new Common Core linked tests in 2014-15. Indiana was originally part of the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC), one of two consortia of states creating Common Core linked tests, and had planned to adopt PARCC tests in place of the state ISTEP exam in 2014-15. But in 2013, new Gov. Mike Pence announced Indiana would withdraw from PARCC and seek a different approach for testing.

The quick change of direction on standards knocked Indiana off schedule for connecting its new standards to state tests, quickly creating new difficulties for schools trying to prepare students to pass those tests. Because the state had an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education to have standards in place and new tests in 2015, it was forced to speed up the process for communicating the new expectations to teachers.

Schools offered training in the new standards over the summer of 2014 but teachers began the new school year without as much training as they usually receive on new standards. For example, all teachers had at least a year to prepare for Common Core under the roll out plan before the change in standards, and many had several years to get ready.

New tests bring new issues
There is also the issue of the future cost of testing. The Indiana Office of Management and Budget in the summer of 2013 produced a fiscal impact study that showed the state could save some money if it used Common Core tests produced by the consortia rather than adapting ISTEP or creating their new tests.

In 2013-14, Indiana was expected to spend about $34.3 million to administer ISTEP. OMB found the cost would be less — between 31.4 million and $33.2 million — if the state simply adopted Common Core tests built by one of the consortia. Reworking ISTEP to qualify it as “college and career ready,” or creating a new home-grown state test, would cost about $34.7 million, or more than any other option, the OMB reported.

For 2014-15, the state will adapt ISTEP to include new questions that test “college and career readiness.” Bids also are being received by testing companies that hope to eventually create a new state test, which will share the “readiness” goal of Common Core.

For 2015, Indiana was in a difficult position. A completely new state exam won’t be ready before 2016. But the old ISTEP test didn’t measure college and career readiness, as federal education officials expect.

So for one year, The state sought to create a transitional test, using some questions typical of past versions of the test and some that mirror what the new test will look like. But when that made the test much longer, Pence balked. That sparked a war of words with Ritz that ended with a bill that was rushed through the legislature to waive state rules and allow the test to be shortened.

The state is continuing to overhaul its state tests for the future so they connect to its new standards.

-Updated December 2015