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.