Testing Testing

Experts generally disappointed in second draft of Indiana's new standards

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

The reviews of Indiana’s draft plan for new academic standards to replace Common Core are in and, overall, they are not complimentary.

The Indiana Department of Education and Gov. Mike Pence’s Center for Education and Career Innovation today released the final draft of the standards, which have been in the works in earnest since February. State Superintendent Glenda Ritz has said she hopes the Indiana State Board of Education will approve them on April 28. The board has a July 1 deadline under a new state law to establish new standards to replace Common Core, which lawmakers voided last month.

Along with the final draft standards, the department released six reviews of the second draft of the standards, three each for English and math, that came from outside experts around the country. The most positive reviews came from Achieve, Inc., the Washington, D.C.-based education consulting company that helped the National Governors Association with the process that developed Common Core standards.

But other reviewers were harsh, calling the math standards “half baked” and in need of “major revisions,” while terming the English standards an “utter disappointment” and “not significantly different” from Common Core.

State officials said the critiques, received in March, were considered and the advice incorporated into the final draft standards released today. But last week, state board member Andrea Neal raised concerns that the experts’ criticism was far reaching and that the state’s release of their reports less than a week before the Education Roundtable is scheduled to consider the final draft standards wasn’t enough time for a thorough review of what they had to say.

Indiana, once an early champion of Common Core, has backtracked over the past two years from the standards that 45 states have agreed to follow, including the Hoosier state in 2010. Common Core was designed with the goal of assuring all students graduate high school ready for college or careers, but critics in Indiana said they feared the shared standards cede too much control over the states’ education systems to the federal government. Creation of Common Core was led by the state governors but the standards were later endorsed and promoted by the U.S. Department of Education.

As a state-ordered review of Common Core was underway earlier this year, lawmakers introduced and ultimately approved a bill to instead withdraw Indiana from participation in Common Core. That spurred state education officials to quickly begin the process of setting new standards to replace them.

“The process began last fall with DOE’s technical and advisory teams reviewing the previous standards, and has included more than 150 Hoosier educators, higher education experts and members of the business community,” a statement accompanying the release of the final draft states. “The state received more than 2,000 public comments and conducted three public hearings, in addition to receiving feedback from 10 national evaluators whose reports were shared with Hoosier panel members.”

Here are some excerpts from the reviewers’ reports:

Joanne Eresh, on behalf of Achieve, Inc., commented on the draft English standards:

“Although the draft 2014 English/language arts standards mirror the format and progression of the Common Core State Standards and draw the majority of their draft 2014 standards verbatim from that document, the state appears to have clearly examined each statement they have included in this draft, keeping, changing, adding and revising standards as they try to capture the clearest and highest expectations for the students of Indiana.”

Kaye Forgione, on behalf of Achieve, Inc., commented on draft math standards:

“The draft 2014 mathematics standards provide the coherence and focus that are characteristic of the Common Core State Standards in mathematics, and are generally specific enough to convey the level of performance expected of students at each grade level and in each course.”

James Milgram, a math professor at Stanford University, commented on the draft math standards:

“The draft standards that I reviewed represent an improvement over Indiana’s current standards, the Common Core State Standards, in that the draft covers most, but far from all, of the fundamental K to 12 mathematics that students have to learn. The level of Indiana’s current standards is far too low to prepare students for success in non-remedial mathematics courses at any of Indiana’s public four year colleges and universities. So the fact that the new draft contains standards for the rest of the high school math curriculum, including trigonometry, probability, pre-calculus and calculus, is very welcome indeed. Overall, I would judge that the new draft has “good bones,” but it requires major revisions in every grade to make it first rate (and as a Hoosier, born and raised in Indiana, I would really like to see Indiana have truly international level math standards).”

Terrence O. Moore, a professor at Hillsdale College and resident of Angola, Ind., commented on the draft English standards:

“The Indiana draft standards are an utter disappointment. They were clearly “written” in a rush, and that rush is being passed on to the reviewers who were initially given a whole ten days to review the standards. Nonetheless, it is not clear that the committee brought together to rewrite the standards could have done much better had months been given to what has become known as “the process.” The reasons are contained in the fatal flaws of these standards as they now stand:

–First, the new draft standards are simply the Common Core: in many cases simply cut and pasted, in others slightly rewritten.

–Second, the problem with the Common Core and all other state standards in the country is that they are written in an impenetrable eduspeak that parents and citizens cannot understand.

–Third, the K to 5 standards, whose purpose in the early grades should be to teach the fundamentals of reading and spelling, are clearly written with either an anti-phonics bias or a lack of understanding of how an explicit phonics program actually works.

–Fourth, another mischief to be found in these standards is the questionable dictating of teaching practices in the name of standards.

–Fifth, all of the above deficiencies probably flow from a lack of clarity concerning what an academic standard should be.”

Sandra Stotsky, a professor emerita at the University of Arkansas who helped Indiana write standards in 2009 that were never adopted, was asked to comment on the draft English standards. Stotsky, a withering critic of Common Core, agreed to comment on the draft standards only if they did not look like Common Core standards:

“The standards for grades 6 to 12 in the draft sent to me on March 14, 2014 for review were not significantly different from the standards for grades 6-12 in the public comment draft that had been posted by the Indiana Department of Education in February 2014. Those standards received a great deal of public criticism for being mostly Common Core’s standards. But (the second draft) was not much different. According to the department’s own analysis, 93 percent of the standards in grades 6 to 12 in (the second draft) were identical to, or slightly edited versions of, Common Core’s standards in grades 6 to 12. The differences between (the original draft) and (the second draft) lay mainly in K to 5, even though K to 5 in (the second draft) was, according to the department’s own analysis, also heavily repetitious of Common Core’s standards. On March 17, I wrote to Gov. Pence indicating that I would not review (the second draft).”

Hung‐Hsi Wu, a math professor at the University of California at Berkeley, commented on the draft math standards:

“The standards of (second draft) in K to 8 are predominantly those of the (Common Core), with a few amendments made and with a few nonessential standards added. It would appear that the amendments are not necessarily for the better. The 9 to 12 standards of (second draft) are, of course, different from those in (Common Core) because the former is grade-specific and the latter is not. Unfortunately, the 9 to 12 standards of (second draft) are only half-baked and do not appear to have been carefully thought through. They are far from ready for prime time.”

good news bad news

Most Tennessee districts are showing academic growth, but districts with the farthest to go improved the least

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

It’s not just Memphis: Across Tennessee, districts with many struggling schools posted lower-than-expected growth scores on this year’s state exams, according to data released Tuesday.

The majority of Tennessee’s 147 districts did post scores that suggest students are making or exceeding expected progress, with over a third earning the top growth score.

But most students in three of the state’s four largest districts — in Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga — aren’t growing academically as they should, and neither are those in most of their “priority schools” in the state’s bottom 5 percent.

The divide prompted Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to send a “good news, bad news” email to superintendents.

“These results point to the ability for all students to grow,” she wrote of the top-performing districts, many of which have a wide range of academic achievement and student demographics.

Of those in the bottom, she said the state would analyze the latest data to determine “critical next steps,” especially for priority schools, which also are located in high-poverty communities.

“My message to the leaders of Priority schools … is that this level of growth will never get kids back on track, so we have to double-down on what works – strong instruction and engagement, every day, with no excuses,” McQueen said.

Growth scores are supposed to take poverty into account, so the divide suggests that either the algorithm didn’t work as it’s supposed to or, in fact, little has happened to change conditions at the state’s lowest-performing schools, despite years of aggressive efforts in many places.

The results are bittersweet for Tennessee, which has pioneered growth measures for student learning and judging the effectiveness of its teachers and schools under its Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, known as TVAAS.

On the one hand, the latest TVAAS data shows mostly stable growth through the transition to TNReady, the state’s new test aligned to new academic standards, in the first year of full testing for grades 3-11. On the other hand, Tennessee has invested tens of millions of dollars and years of reforms toward improving struggling schools — all part of its massive overhaul of K-12 education fueled by its 2009 federal Race to the Top award.

The state-run Achievement School District, which launched in the Race to the Top era to turn around the lowest-performing schools, saw a few bright spots, but almost two-thirds of schools in its charter-reliant portfolio scored in the bottom levels of student growth.

Shelby County’s own turnaround program, the Innovation Zone, fared poorly too, with a large percentage of its Memphis schools scoring 1 on a scale of 1 to 5, after years of scoring 4s and 5s.

District profile: Most Memphis schools score low on student growth

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called the results a “wakeup call” for the state’s biggest district in Memphis.

“When you have a population of kids in high poverty that were already lagging behind on the old, much easier test, it’s not surprising that we’ve got a lot of work to do here,” he said, citing the need to support teachers in mastering the state’s new standards.

“The good part is that we’ve seen the test now and we know what’s expected. The bad part is we’ve seen the test … and it’s a different monster,” he told Chalkbeat.

You can find district composite scores below. (A TVAAS score of 3 represents average growth for a student in one school year.) For a school-by-school list, visit the state’s website.


Most Memphis schools score low on student growth under new state test

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

More than half of Memphis schools received the lowest possible score for student growth on Tennessee’s new test last school year, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat for Shelby County Schools.

On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the lowest measure, about 54 percent of the district’s 187 schools scored in the bottom rung of the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, known as TVAAS.

That includes most schools in the Innovation Zone, a reversal after years of showing high growth in the district’s prized turnaround program.

Charter schools fared poorly as well, as did schools that were deemed among the state’s fastest-improving in 2015.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called the scores a “huge wakeup call.”

“It shows that we’ve got a tremendous amount of work to do,” Hopson told Chalkbeat on Monday. “It’s going to be hard and it’s going to be frustrating. … It starts with making sure we’re supporting teachers around mastering the new standards.”

District leaders across Tennessee have been trying to wrap their heads around the latest growth scores since receiving the data in late August from the State Department of Education. Only two years earlier, the Memphis district garnered the highest possible overall growth score. But since then, the state has switched to a harder test called TNReady that is aligned for the first time to more rigorous academic standards.

TVAAS results are scheduled to be released publicly this week, but Chalkbeat obtained a copy being circulated within Shelby County Schools, Tennessee’s largest district.

The data is prompting questions from some Memphis educators — and assurances from state officials — over the validity of TVAAS, the state’s system for measuring learning and judging the effectiveness of its teachers and schools.

This is the first year of issuing district-wide TVAAS scores since 2015. That’s because of the state’s cancellation of 2016 testing for grades 3-8 due mostly to failures in the switch to online testing.

Some educators wonder whether the bumpy switch to TNReady is a factor in this year’s nosedive, along with changes in how the scores are calculated.

For example, data for fourth-graders is missing since there is no prior state testing in third grade for comparison. Elementary and middle schools also don’t have growth scores for social studies, since the 2017 questions were a trial run and the results don’t count toward a school’s score.

Hopson acknowledged concerns over how the state compares results from “two very different tests which clearly are apples and oranges,” but he added that the district won’t use that as an excuse.

“Notwithstanding those questions, it’s the system upon which we’re evaluated on and judged,” he said.

State officials stand by TVAAS. They say drops in proficiency rates resulting from a harder test have no impact on the ability of teachers, schools and districts to earn strong TVAAS scores, since all students are experiencing the same change.

“Because TVAAS always looks at relative growth from year to year, not absolute test scores, it can be stable through transitions,” said Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the State Department of Education.

Shelby County Schools is not the only district with disappointing TVAAS results. In Chattanooga, Hamilton County Schools logged low growth scores. But Gast said that more districts earned average or high growth scores of 3, 4 or 5 last school year than happened in 2015.

Want to help us understand this issue? Send your observations to [email protected]

Below is a breakdown of Shelby County’s TVAAS scores. A link to a school-by-school list of scores is at the bottom of this story.


School-wide scores are a combination of growth in each tested subject: literacy, math, science and social studies.

Fifty three schools saw high growth in literacy, an area where Shelby County Schools has doubled down, especially in early grades. And 51 schools saw high growth in math.

Note: A TVAAS score of 3 represents average growth for a student in one school year. A score of 1 represents significantly lower academic growth compared to peers across the state.


School-wide composite Number of schools Percent of schools
1 101 54%
2 19 10%
3 20 11%
4 10 5%
5 37 20%


School-wide composite Number of schools Percent of schools
1 58 28%
2 16 8%
3 38 19%
4 18 9%
5 75 37%

Innovation Zone

Out of the 23 schools in the district’s program to turn around low-performing schools, most received a growth score of 1 in 2017. That stands in stark contrast to prior years since the program opened in 2012, when most schools were on a fast growth track.

School-wide composite Number of iZone schools
1 14
2 2
3 2
4 0
5 5

Reward schools

Nearly half of 32 schools deemed 2015 Tennessee reward schools for high growth saw a major drop in TVAAS scores in 2017:

  • Central High
  • Cherokee Elementary
  • Germanshire Elementary
  • KIPP Memphis Middle Academy
  • Kirby High
  • Memphis Business Academy Elementary
  • Power Center Academy High
  • Power Center Academy Middle
  • Ross Elementary
  • Sheffield High
  • South Park Elementary
  • Southwind High
  • Treadwell Middle
  • Westside Elementary

Charter schools

Charter schools authorized by Shelby County Schools fared similarly to district-run schools in growth scores, with nearly half receiving a TVAAS of 1 compared to 26 percent of charter schools receiving the same score in 2015.


School-wide composite Number of iZone schools
1 18
2 6
3 7
4 2
5 7


School-wide composite Number of iZone schools
1 10
2 2
3 7
4 3
5 16

Optional schools

Half of the the district’s optional schools, which are special studies schools that require students to test into its programs, received a 1 on TVAAS. That’s compared to just 19 percent in 2015.


School-wide composite Number of iZone schools
1 23
2 6
3 5
4 2
5 10


School-wide composite Number of iZone schools
2 5
3 6
4 5
5 14

You can sort through a full list of TVAAS scores for Shelby County Schools here.