Are Children Learning

A year after Common Core, the next battle could be Indiana's new science standards

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Schools in the Tindley network are among the most racially isolated in the city.

Indiana could be gearing up for another fight over academic standards — this time, in science.

Over the next year, the Indiana Department of Education will work toward an update of the state’s science standards, which are expectations for what kids in each grade should learn.

But already some are worried the revision process will rely too heavily on standards that critics say are too easy, too unclear and too close to the drama that accompanied Indiana’s adoption, and subsequent abandonment, of the Common Core State Standards in English and math.

The Next Generation Science Standards were developed by the National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and standards-based reform organization Achieve. But to Erin Tuttle, who helped found Hoosiers Against Common Core, those standards are nothing more than “sister standards to Common Core.”

“What I see with these is the same mistakes as Common Core,” Tuttle said. “Why are we going to go down his same road? It seems like there are better, more efficient ways of doing this that could result in better learning opportunities for Indiana students.”

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz said the Next Generation standards are just one guide Indiana’s standards-setting committee will look at, just as was the case with the state’s new English and math standards, which replaced Common Core in 2014.

“We get together our crew, and it’ll include a wide constituency of people that will serve on those committees, and we look at our standards,” Ritz said. “Yes, we look at national standards as well. We’re required to do that in the statute, making sure we’re looking at what’s out there.”

Tuttle argued the standards-writing process is part of the problem. She said the state is not open enough about how it develops standards and doesn’t give enough time for public input.

“After my experience with Common Core, I have no faith at all that the Indiana Department of Education will do a proper vetting of the Next Generation standards,” Tuttle said.

Jeremy Eltz, a science specialist with the department who is working on the standards, said he hopes to have a draft up for public comment by the end of the month. He’s invited more than 150 teachers, professors and community organizations — like the NAACP, the local Catholic archdiocese and homeschooling groups — for input.

“We’re a couple weeks behind at this point,” Eltz said. “But the way I have it set up, I have a few months built in, so this isn’t a hard deadline.”

The department presented the estimated timeline for the standards along with an update to the Indiana State Board of Education at its February meeting. The process is not expected to be completed until early 2016.

Critics argue national standards don’t measure up

Indiana last revised its science standards in 2010, creating ones Tuttle argues are far superior to the those created by Achieve.

So far, just 13 states have adopted the new science standards, which were completed in 2013.

Based on a review by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education policy group, Indiana’s 2010 science standards earned an “A-” grade, while the Next Generation standards earned a “C.” Tuttle said the national standards were ranked low in part because they cut out science content to add in more skills and practice.

“One criticism is that they don’t have enough content in chemistry or physics to actually construct a high school course,” Tuttle said. “There isn’t enough material there.”

Eltz agreed with Tuttle that the new national science standards are lighter in content. But he doesn’t necessarily think that’s bad. The standards’ emphasis on skills and scientific practice is important for students, too, he said. Indiana’s science standards now are fairly content-driven, he said.

“You really want your students to be able to perform the practice of a scientist and an engineer,” Eltz said. “But you also want a student to not have to Google everything when they get that job.”

Tuttle has similar concerns, right down to the same worry that kids won’t know what they need to know.

“With Common Core and with these it seems to be how we’re teaching stuff, not what we’re teaching,” Tuttle said. “You can’t Google everything.”

It would be irresponsible not to consider national standards, Eltz said. But it doesn’t mean Indiana has to adopt them verbatim. He said the state’s current science standards are generally well-liked by educators, so he doesn’t foresee having to make big, fundamental changes to them.

When updating the standards, Eltz said, the goal is to balance content, practice, national standards and other research — especially since reports have shown time spent on science in elementary school classrooms fell from three hours per week to about two from 1994 to 2012.

If teachers have less time to teach science, maybe science standards should include less content, he suggested. Research shouldn’t be ignored, but it’s certainly not the only factor.

“I focus more on the research and what’s best for kids,” Eltz said. “I mean, a letter grade from a think-tank is good, but what’s best for the kids is better.”

Is history repeating itself in Indiana?

Tuttle and fellow Indiana mom Heather Crossin helped spark the opposition movement to Common Core back in 2013.

With children in private school, the women were concerned after seeing their kids’ homework include new teaching approaches as the state moved to adopt Common Core.

So they took the issue to the statehouse. Tuttle and Crossin 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 math and English standards.

In the months that followed, both Ritz and Gov. Mike Pence joined forces to push the idea that Indiana should have its own state-specific standards. The agreement to adopt Common Core was then voided by the legislature in early 2014, and new standards were set the following summer. Schools began implementing them for the first time last fall.

But it wasn’t necessarily a win for Tuttle. She and other Common Core critics have described Indiana’s new standards as a watered-down version of the standards they worked so hard to banish. She’s not confident that this time it’ll be any different, no matter how much “noise” they made about it.

At the final Common Core meeting of the Education Roundtable last year, for example, some of Tuttle’s sign-carrying anti-Common Core activists shouted in shock and horror as Pence joined Ritz in endorsing Indiana’s rewritten academic standards, the ones they urged him to reject as too similar to Common Core.

“Having somebody’s attention is different than having somebody’s action,” she said.

pisa power

A surprising link: when kids work harder on tests, their countries’ economies grow more

American politicians often wring their hands over the country’s mediocre performance on international tests. New research finds one reason they’re right to worry: a country’s scores on one of those tests, known as PISA, do tend to mirror its economic growth.

That research also arrives at a more surprising finding — one that could add to the debate about the importance of teaching students “soft skills” in school.

Students’ ability to push through to the end of the test — their “stick-to-it-iveness,” if you will — was equally able to predict whether a country was on an upward economic climb, the study found.

Students in certain Northern European and Asian countries, for example, did nearly as well on questions toward the end of the test as they did on its early questions. The idea is that those students don’t give up easily, a technique that’s been used in previous studies to get at hard-to-measure skills like “grit” or perseverance.

In some cases, countries where students did similarly at the start of the test saw big differences in how quickly performance declined over the course of the exam.

On the 2006 PISA, the U.S. scored in the middle of the pack of nearly 60 countries in both overall performance and in students’ decline between the first question and the last.

Past studies have found that a country’s performance on international tests predicts future economic growth, but the latest study, published in the peer-reviewed Economics of Education Review, is among the first to try to quantify the impact of these harder-to-measure traits.

“Both the starting performance and the performance decline are positively and significantly associated with economic growth,” the researchers write.

Worth noting: the U.S. has been an outlier in the past when it comes to PISA. Our economic growth has outpaced other countries’ with similar scores.

First Person

Let’s be careful with using ‘grading floors.’ They may lead to lifelong ceilings for our students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

I am not a teacher. I am not a principal. I am not a school board member. I am not a district administrator (anymore).

What I am is a mother of two, a high-schooler and middle-schooler. I expect them both to do their “personal best” across the board: chores, projects, personal relationships, and yes, school.

That does not mean all As or Bs. We recognize the sometimes arbitrary nature of grades. (For example, what is “class participation” — is it how much you talk, even when your comments are off topic?) We have made it very clear that as long as they do their “personal best,” we are proud.

That doesn’t mean, though, that when someone’s personal best results in a poor grade, we should look away. We have to ask what that grade tells us. Often, it’s something important.

I believe grading floors — the practice (for now, banned in Memphis) of deciding the lowest possible grade to give a student — are a short-sighted solution to a larger issue. If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address.

"If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address."Natalie McKinney
In a recent piece, Marlena Little, an obviously dedicated teacher, cites Superintendent Hopson’s primary drive for grade floors as a desire to avoid “creat[ing] kids who don’t have hope.” I am not without empathy for the toll failing a course may take on a student. But this sentiment focuses on the social-emotional learning aspect of our students’ education only.

Learning a subject builds knowledge. Obtaining an unearned grade only provides a misleading indication of a child’s growth.

This matters because our students depend on us to ensure they will be prepared for opportunities after high school. To do this, our students must possess, at the very least, a foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic. If we mask real academic issues with grade floors year after year, we risk missing a chance to hold everyone — community, parents, the school board, district administration, school leaders, teachers, and students — accountable for rectifying the issue. It also may mean our students will be unable to find employment providing living wages, resulting in the perpetuation of generational poverty.

An accurate grade helps the teacher, parents, and district appropriately respond to the needs of the student. And true compassion lies in how we respond to a student’s F. It should act as an alarm, triggering access to additional work, other intervention from the teacher or school, or the use of a grade recovery program.

Ms. Little also illustrates how important it is to have a shared understanding about what grades should mean. If the fifth-grade boy she refers to who demonstrates mastery of a subject orally but has a problem demonstrating that in a written format, why should he earn a zero (or near-zero) in the class? If we agree that grades should provide an indicator of how well a student knows the subject at hand, I would argue that that fifth-grade boy should earn a passing grade. He knows the work! We don’t need grade floors in that case — we need different ideas about grades themselves.

We should also reconsider the idea that an F is an F. It is not. A zero indicates that the student did not understand any of the work or the student did not do any of the work. A 50 percent could indicate that the student understood the information half the time. That is a distinction with a difference.

Where should we go from here? I have a few ideas, and welcome more:

  1. In the short term, utilize the grade recovery rules that allow a student to use the nine weeks after receiving a failing grade to demonstrate their mastery of a subject — or “personal best” — through monitored and documented additional work.
  2. In the intermediate term, create or allow teachers to create alternative assessments like those used with students with disabilities to accommodate different ways of demonstrating mastery of a subject.
  3. In the long term, in the absence of additional money for the district, redeploy resources in a coordinated and strategic way to help families and teachers support student learning. Invest in the development of a rich, substantive core curriculum and give teachers the training and collaboration time they need.

I, like Ms. Little, do not have all the answers. This is work that requires our collective brilliance and commitment for the sake of our children.

Natalie McKinney is the executive director of Whole Child Strategies, Inc., a Memphis-based nonprofit that provides funding and support for community-driven solutions for addressing attendance and discipline issues that hinder academic success. She previously served as the director of policy for both Shelby County Schools and legacy Memphis City Schools.