The basics of Indiana academic standards: A new beginning

(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’s debate over its new standards for what all children must learn at all grade levels was so intense and emotional it ended with both sides feeling betrayed and disappointed.

Standards-setting is usually a sleepy process, led by committees of teachers and education experts in sparsely attended meetings with little fanfare.

But 2014 saw standards at the center of legislative debates. The final vote by the Indiana Education Roundtable to approve new standards was preceded by statehouse protests and met by jeers from a standing room only crowd.

When the Indiana State Board of Education finished the task of approving the standards that April, they were instantly confronted by a host of obstacles to overcome.

The state needed a new plan for imparting their guidance to teachers and students and for attaching the new standards to the state’s tests and accountability system.

A change in direction

When the state’s six-year cycle for renewing standards came around in 2009, the quiet old routine was still intact.

Teachers and experts reviewed the guidance the state was giving to teachers and set about updating those that were out-of-date.

Most of the hundreds of standards are technical and uncontroversial. For example, some states teach a concept — say fractions — at a different grade level than others. Reviewers in such cases might consider whether Indiana should adapt to what other states are doing or stay with its past approach.

Curriculum, or the specific lessons that are used to teach students, is always decided at the local level. Sometimes curriculum is controversial.

For example, some school district prefer to teach reading with a stronger emphasis on phonics, or decoding words by sound. Others teach reading by emphasizing different techniques, such as memorizing key words and connecting what’s read to what children already know. State standards often come with additional guidance that critics say can steer teachers toward one approach at the expense of another.

As Indiana’s 2009 standards overhaul finished up and moved toward approval votes from the Roundtable and state board, then-Gov. Mitch Daniels and then-state Superintendent Tony Bennett reconsidered whether the state should instead sign on with Common Core, which would go on to be adopted by 46 states.

Outside of state policymakers and education experts, Common Core was then an all-but-unknown effort to raise expectations for what is learned in schools across the country so children could better compete with their peers around the world, as many countries out-score the U.S. on international tests.

Indiana became one the earliest and most enthusiastic supporters of Common Core. In 2010, it put aside the proposed standards created the prior year and instead adopted Common Core. The state instructed schools to begin by adopting Common Core standards in the lowest grades with a goal of statewide adoption in 2014 and new Common Core-linked state tests in 2015.

But that never came to pass.

Political backlash

In four short years, everything changed. Common Core became embroiled in national politics and caught in the crossfire of decades-old philosophical debates about the best ways for children to learn.

Opposition in Indiana was led by two private school mothers, Erin Tuttle and Heather Crossin, who were concerned when their children began seeing homework using new teaching approaches as a result of the move toward Common Core.

In 2013, they persuaded state Sen. Scott Schneider, R-Indianapolis, to propose a bill to “pause” Indiana’s adoption of common Core to allow a year of study and re-evaluation of the standards.

Over the next several months, new Gov. Mike Pence and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, political foes on many other fronts, united around the idea that Indiana needed to create its own standards. The review panels instead began crafting new standards by drawing from Common Core, the 2009 Indiana drafts and standards proposed in other states and by outside organizations.

Common Core opponents cheered another bill from Schneider to void their original 2010 adoption and require new standards to be set by July 1, 2014.

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.

But the cheers subsided when drafts of the new standards were released. Critics complained that many of the standards were identical or nearly the same as Common Core standards — more than 70 percent by one accounting.

But those backing Common Core weren’t celebrating either. Just enough Common Core principles had been removed that supporters of the standards consider Indiana’s proposal little more than a watered down version.

Prior to the Roundtable meeting to consider the standards, Common Core opponents held a rally at the statehouse urging its members to vote the proposal down and order a rewriting to remove more of the similarities with Common Core, calling specifically on Pence to champion the idea.

They were disappointed to say the least.

At the Roundtable meeting, Pence and Ritz jointly endorsed the proposed standards. That led some opponents to shout out in disbelief as Pence explained his satisfaction with the state’s standards work. The new standards passed and final approval followed days later from the state board.

New tests for new standards

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 were expected to begin teaching the new approaches that fall. By comparison, 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.

Like Common Core, Indiana’s standards aim to assure students are prepared to succeed in college and careers when they graduate high school. New tests of “college and career readiness” have questions that are very different from the state’s ISTEP exam of the past.

Most college and career ready tests are given entirely online and allow students to answer questions by manipulating what they see on screen, not just by clicking on a multiple choice answer or providing a written response.

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.

For Indiana, ISTEP passing rates affect schools, teachers and principals. Schools with low scores that don’t improve can face severe state sanctions if they earn repeated F grades. After six years rated F, a school can be taken over by the state and handed off to an outside organization to be run separately from its prior school district.

Test score growth of students also are considered as part of a teacher’s performance rating, which determines whether they get a raise or even result in firing for those with repeated low marks.

The 2014-15 school year was unlike any other, as teachers and students tried to prepare for a test they’ve never seen based on new state standards they’d only begun to learn. How the scores come out remains to be seen.

-Updated December 2015