Are Children Learning

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.”


Denver parents worry budget changes will hurt students with special needs, despite district assurances

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Josue Bonilla, 13, left, gets a high five from his teacher Wendi Sussman, right, after completing a hard reading lesson in his multi-intensive special education class at STRIVE Prep charter school in Denver in 2016.

Denver parents of students with disabilities are concerned that an impending reorganization of the school district’s special education department will have a negative impact on their children.

Specifically, parents are worried about cuts to the number of special education teachers and paraprofessionals, teacher’s aides that one advocate called “the backbone of special education,” the people who often help students follow directions or focus on their schoolwork.

District officials insist the reorganization does not cut paraprofessional or teacher support. Any reductions families are experiencing, they said, are the result of school-level budget constraints as the number of students with disabilities at those schools ebbs and flows.

In fact, officials said the reorganization is meant to increase the number of adults working inside schools – a change they said will benefit all students, not just those with special needs. The plan calls for trimming $4 million from the district’s billion-dollar budget by shrinking the pool of central office staff who help school principals serve students with disabilities. That money would be reallocated to fortify mental health services for all students, including by providing every district-run school with at least one full-time social worker or psychologist.

Some parents of students with disabilities are skeptical. Their feelings speak to the tenuousness of resources for special education students and distrust that they’ll get the services they need. Federal law guarantees students with disabilities a “free and appropriate” education. What that means in practice can a subject of disagreement among districts, parents, and advocates.

“The improvements that they’re proposing to make, they’re all great,” said Jeanne Posthumus, whose sixth-grade daughter has a rare genetic disorder and receives special education services at a Denver charter school. “But don’t do it on the backs of kids with special needs.”

About 10,000 of the 92,600 students in Denver Public Schools have disabilities, according to district statistics. They have historically lagged far behind their peers in reading, writing, and math. Last year, 44 percent of Denver fourth-graders without disabilities met expectations on the state literacy test, while just 8 percent of fourth-graders with disabilities did.

Eldridge Greer, the district’s associate chief of student equity and opportunity, said the reorganization, which is set to go into effect on July 1, is meant to “dramatically improve academic outcomes and truly meet the promise of special education.”

Part of the problem with the system as it exists now, Greer said, is that the central office staff who help school principals end up spending too much time putting out fires related to student behavior and too little time working on improving academic instruction.

The proposal calls for eliminating about 30 of those central office positions, as well as some supervisory and vacant positions in the same department. The positions that remain will focus on academics, including coaching and training special education teachers, Greer said.

Managing student behavior will become the responsibility of a bigger corps of mental health workers hired with the savings, he said. Most schools already have social workers and psychologists, but not all of them can afford to have one on staff five days a week.

That’s despite a tax increase approved by voters in 2016 that included $10.9 million to hire more mental health workers and nurses. The money was split among schools based on enrollment, with extra allotted to those with high needs, district officials said. But it still left some smaller and more affluent schools without five-day coverage, which principals have said is crucial.

“We’re seeing so many more young children in kindergarten with severe behavioral needs,” said Robin Kline, the principal at Steck Elementary, a high-achieving school in southeast Denver that serves a wealthier student population. “Whether or not they’re special education, they require a level of special education, figuratively, that requires a lot more one-on-one.”

The proposal also calls for hiring eight more “behavior techs,” who are specially trained professionals or paraprofessionals who can be deployed to schools for weeks at a time to help manage behavior crises. The district has seven behavior techs this year.

In addition, elementary schools with special programs for students with emotional needs would get an additional $50,000 to spend on paraprofessionals, mental health workers, or teachers.

The reorganization, Greer said, “creates role clarity and enables the instructional specialists to do what they do best.” He emphasized that the district is not cutting its special education budget, and he said it would continue to provide services to students who qualify. The district spends $1,300 more per student on special education now than it did in 2013, he said.

Parent Danielle Short said families are confused by the changes. Her 7-year-old son, Micah, has Down syndrome and was treated for leukemia. He’s currently in a kindergarten class taught by one teacher and two paraprofessionals. Though the paraprofessionals are there to help all of the students in the class, she said they spend a lot of time with Micah, helping him in the lunchroom and the bathroom, and keeping an eye on him in the hallways.

The first grade class at Micah’s school has just one part-time paraprofessional. To keep Micah fully included with his peers, rather than in a separate classroom, Short said his special education team has determined he needs a dedicated paraprofessional next year.

“It’s not my vision for him to have para glued to his hip,” she said. “But he needs one right now.”

She’s worried the reorganization will affect Micah’s ability to get one, especially since families at other schools said they have been told their students’ one-on-one paraprofessionals may be cut next year. Greer denied that’s the case, but he said he understands the parents’ reaction.

“When we try to make this system change, it can create incredible anxiety because people remember just a generation ago how hard it was to get students with disabilities through the schoolhouse door,” Greer said.

His assurances haven’t completely assuaged parents’ fears. Short said that while she’s grateful that schools will get more mental health support next year, she wants to make sure her son’s more specific needs are met, too.

“The psychologist has been helpful for my son,” providing strategies to help with some of his behavior, Short said. But, she added, “his needs are not met by increasing the psychologist from half-time to full-time. He has other needs that should be funded by the district.”

Short was among a group of parents who pleaded with the school board at its monthly meeting Thursday to, in the words of another mother, “stop pillaging special education funds.”

Christy Pennick told the board her son’s school, Swigert International in northeast Denver, is already feeling the effects: Instead of two special education teachers, it will have one next year.

Swigert principal Shelby Dennis confirmed that the district’s formula for allocating special education funding, which she said is based on the level of service students need, has allotted the elementary school one fewer special education teacher next year.

But Dennis said she doesn’t know if that’s a result of the reorganization or not. Since the district ran its formula for Swigert, one student with disabilities has transferred into the school and three more have qualified for special education services, she said. Given that, she said she’s hopeful the district will increase Swigert’s allotment in the fall. Even if it doesn’t, she said she was able to find $30,000 in her budget to hire a part-time teacher for next year to fill in some of the gap.

Pam Bisceglia, executive director of Advocacy Denver, a civil rights organization that serves people with disabilities, said it’s stories like that that raise red flags.

“What parents are hearing once again is where cuts are being made is to special education,” Bisceglia said. “It says their kids aren’t as important.”

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

Indiana’s plan to measure high schools with a college prep test is on hold for two years

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Thanks to last-minute legislative wrangling, it’s unclear what test Indiana high schoolers will take for the next two years to measure what they have learned in school.

Lawmakers were expected to approve a House bill proposing Indiana use a college entrance exam starting in 2019 as yearly testing for high schoolers, at the same time state works to replace its overall testing system, ISTEP. But the start date for using the SAT or ACT was pushed back from 2019 to 2021, meaning it’s unclear how high schoolers will be judged for the next two years.

This is the latest upheaval in testing as the state works to replace ISTEP in favor of the new ILEARN testing system, a response to years of technical glitches and scoring problems. While a company has already proposed drafting exams for measuring the performance of Indiana students, officials now need to come up with a solution for the high school situation. ILEARN exams for grades 3-8 are still set to begin in 2019.

“Our next steps are to work with (the state board) to help inform them as they decide the plan for the next several years,” said Adam Baker, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education. “We take concerns seriously and we will continue doing all we can to support schools to manage the transition well.”

The delay in switching from the 10th grade ISTEP to college entrance exams for measuring high school students was proposed Wednesday night as lawmakers wrapped up the 2018 legislative session. Rep. Bob Behning, the bill’s author, said the change came out of a desire to align the testing plan with recommendations on high school tests from a state committee charged with rewriting Indiana’s graduation requirements.

It’s just the latest road bump since the legislature voted last year to scrap ISTEP and replace it with ILEARN, a plan that originally included a computer-adaptive test for grades 3-8 and end-of-course exams for high-schoolers in English, algebra and biology. Indiana is required by the federal government to test students each year in English and math, and periodically, in science.

The Indiana Department of Education started carrying out the plan to move to ILEARN over the summer and eventually selected the American Institutes for Research to write the test, a company that helped create the Common-Core affiliated Smarter balanced test. AIR’s proposal said they were prepared to create tests for elementary, middle and high school students.

Then, the “graduation pathways” committee, which includes Behning and Sen. Dennis Kruse, the Senate Education Committee chairman, upended the plan by suggesting the state instead use the SAT or ACT to test high schoolers. The committee said the change would result in a yearly test that has more value to students and is something they can use if they plan to attend college. Under their proposal, the change would have come during the 2021-22 school year.

When lawmakers began the 2018 session, they proposed House Bill 1426, which had a 2019 start. This bill passed out of both chambers and the timeline was unchanged until Wednesday.

In the meantime, the Indiana Department of Education and the Indiana State Board of Education must decide what test high schoolers will take in 2019 and 2020 and how the state as a whole will transition from an Indiana-specific 10th grade ISTEP exam to a college entrance exam.

It’s not clear what approach Indiana education officials will ultimately take — that’s up to the state board — but state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said on Monday that she’d like the state to stick with the 10th grade ISTEP test for now, a cheaper and somewhat easier option at this point, she said. It’s an unpopular move, she noted, and it would require tweaking the state’s contract with Pearson, the testing company that created this version of ISTEP. But it gives Indiana officials the needed time to work out the transition.

Some educators and national education advocates have raised concerns about whether an exam like the SAT or ACT is appropriate for measuring schools, though 14 states already do.

Jeff Butts, superintendent of Wayne Township, told state board members last week that using the college entrance exams seemed to contradict the state’s focus on students who go straight into the workforce and don’t plan to attend college. And a report from Achieve, a national nonprofit that helps states work on academic standards and tests, cautioned states against using the exams for state accountability because they weren’t designed to measure how well students have mastered state standards.

“The danger in using admissions tests as accountability tests for high school is that many high school teachers will be driven to devote scarce course time to middle school topics, water down the high school content they are supposed to teach in mathematics, or too narrowly focus on a limited range of skills in (English),” the report stated.

House Bill 1426 would also combine Indiana’s four diplomas into a single diploma with four “designations” that mirror current diploma tracks. In addition, it would change rules for getting a graduation waiver and create an “alternate diploma” for students with severe special needs.The bill would also allow the Indiana State Board of Education to consider alternatives to Algebra 2 as a graduation requirement and eliminates the requirement that schools give the Accuplacer remediation test.

It next heads to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desk to be signed into law.