Are Children Learning

Indiana's move away from Common Core becomes clear

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Indiana appears to be on the verge of a final turn away from Common Core standards.

Gov. Mike Pence made clear in his strongest words yet that he supports of locally-created standards during Tuesday’s State of the State address. But it was state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, state board members and advocates for Common Core whose comments today made seemed to show a new consensus that Indiana will not stick with Common Core standards entirely.

If that proves true, it would be a stunning turnaround in only one year’s time for a state that was one of the earliest adopters of Common Core in 2010, with former Gov. Mitch Daniels and the state’s then-Superintendent Tony Bennett among the most energetic national advocates for the national standards. Common Core lasted more than two years as the state’s official standards with virtually no opposition as schools began to use them in elementary grades.

A move away from Common Core potentially could be disruptive to teachers who have already begun, or started preparing for, the transition to the new standards. Some districts have already bought books and learning materials for the switch. Common Core proponents said it could handicap Hoosier children if they are left out as the rest of the country has largely signed on to follow the standards.

Traditionally, the Indiana Department of Education creates K-12 standards and the Indiana State Board of Education approves them. Members of the Indiana State Board of Education, which less than a year ago unanimously reaffirmed its support for Common Core, now seem resigned to the reality that the state’s standards will change. Even advocates of Common Core are refocusing on assuring that whatever standards emerge incorporate most of the major tenets of the nationally-shared standards.

These revelations began with four short sentences in Pence’s 30-minute speech that caused a stir, raising questions about whether he had shifted his position more strongly against Common Core. Here’s what he said:

“Hoosiers have high expectations when it comes to Indiana schools. That’s why Indiana decided to take a time-out on national education standards. When it comes to setting standards for schools, I can assure you, Indiana’s will be uncommonly high. They will be written by Hoosiers, for Hoosiers and will be among the best in the nation.”

It was clear that Pence was speaking of Common Core when he referenced “national education standards.” Common Core standards have become the norm nationwide with 46 states, Indiana included, having adopted them in an effort to agree on what U.S. students need to know by the time they graduate high school to compete internationally. Pence’s pledge that the state’s standards would be “written by Hoosiers” and be “uncommonly high” caught the ear of Democrats, Ritz and state board members.

Critics say Common Core standards are too closely associated with the U.S. Department of Education under President Obama, and could give up too much local control. Others argue Indiana’s prior standards were stronger, or that Common Core is too heavily dependent on standardized tests.

Both Pence and Ritz have been non-committal about their positions on Common Core. Pence has said he has no preconceived notions about Common Core. Ritz has expressed concern about some portions of Common Core, notably part of what is outlined for math, but she has never stated outright opposition to Common Core’s place as the state’s guide for what teachers should teach.

Indiana adopted Common Core in 2010, but in 2013 a backlash led by conservative state senators led to passage of a bill to “pause” implementation, which was underway in local schools. The bill launched a year of study and public input. The state board must vote again by this July to decide whether Indiana should continue with Common Core.

On Friday, Ritz said she did not view the standards question to be one of whether or not Indiana will follow Common Core. Instead, Ritz said, she is leading an effort to explore what is taught in every subject area and what makes sense for Indiana students to know.

“I don’t look at it as Indiana adopting a set of standards,” she said. “We are looking at individual standards. We’re not looking at carte blanche adoption of every single Common Core standard.”

The standards review process is on schedule to be presented to the state board in April, Ritz said. A bill introduced last week to extend the “pause” by a second year is unneeded, she said. Lawmakers introduced that bill with the goal of giving the state more time to decide about Common Core. But Ritz said the state must choose standards and then move quickly to deciding how to replace ISTEP with a new state test.

“We don’t see a need to extend the study of the standards,” she said. “We have to start the assessment piece.”

State board member Tony Walker said the “anchor” of any new standards, or a large portion of whatever Indiana creates on its own, will have to follow the framework of Common Core. That’s critical to preparing Hoosier graduates for college entrance exams that are being rewritten to align with Common Core standards, he said.

“It’s going to have to be built on Common Core,” he said. “We can’t go it alone.”

When it comes to tests, Ritz said she believes the replacement for ISTEP will be another state-created exam, not one of two Common Core-linked tests now being built by a pair of consortia of states.

“I feel strongly that Indiana will be working on our own assessments,” she said.

That’s significant because a state-sponsored study last year showed Indiana could save more than $1 million of the $34 million it annually spends on testing by using one of the shared tests other states are building rather than making its own test, or hiring a company to make one. It also means Indiana’s state test results will not be comparable to the results in other states, another advantage Common Core proponents tout.

When it comes to college entrance exams like the SAT or ACT, Ritz said strong standards and good understanding by teachers of what to teach and how to teach it will overcome any concerns about Hoosier students being at a disadvantage.

“Teachers will teach in order for students to do well on assessments,” she said.

Derek Redelman, vice president of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, said the reality around the country is that efforts by other states to write their own standards haven’t strayed far from Common Core.

“A few states have made a few changes but they’ve been minor,” said Redelman, a strong proponent of Common Core. “Even in Virginia and Texas, which are not official Common Core states, everyone whose been looking at those standards say they look just like Common Core.”

Redelman said most complaints about Common Core can be resolved if states make four commitments: Protecting student data security, making whatever small changes are needed to tailor the standards to their states’ particular needs and asserting state sovereignty over its right to set standards and choose its own tests.

In Indiana, the emerging goal of Common Core proponents now is to keep the state’s standards roughly in line with what other states are doing, he said.

“I don’t think we will have Common Core verbatim,” Redelman said. “I think they will be now actively looking for ways to put an Indiana flavor on it.”

A lot has changed since that unanimous state board vote in favor of Common Core last February. Just five of the 11 state board members from that meeting remain, with Pence having made six appointments to the board since that time.

One of them, Andrea Neal, strongly opposes Common Core. Her viewpoint is one that was rarely heard in state board meetings before 2013.

“There’s nothing wrong with national standards if they are extremely high quality standards,” she said. “Common Core are not extremely high quality standards.”

you got data

Can Colorado do a better job of sharing school report cards with parents? Data advocates say yes.

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Just as the Colorado State Board of Education is expected to approve the latest round of school quality ratings, a national organization is calling on all states to do a better job of providing this kind of information to parents and taxpayers.

The Data Quality Campaign last week released a report highlighting states that are providing more and clearer data on its schools. Colorado, once known as a leader in collecting and sharing school data, was not among the all-star list.

The Washington-based nonprofit, which advocates for school data transparency across the nation, is suggesting states use plain language, disaggregate more data and communicate specific education priorities to parents and the public.

The campaign and other supporters of making school data more public believe the information can empower school leaders, teachers and parents to make better decisions for students.

“Colorado has long been a leader in making sure there is robust data,” said Brennan Parton, the Data Quality Campaign’s director of policy and advocacy. “But if you want the normal mom, community member, or policy maker to understand the data, maybe the goal shouldn’t be comprehensive and complex but meaningful and useful.”

State education department officials acknowledged they could do a better job of making data more accessible to parents, but said in a statement this week that they do not consider its annual “school performance framework” to be a report card for schools.

“We look at the SPF as more of a technical report for schools and districts to understand where the school plan types and district accreditation ratings come from,” Alyssa Pearson, the education department’s associate commissioner for school accountability and performance, said in an email.

The ratings, which are largely based off of student performance on state English and math tests, are used in part to help the state education department target financial resources to schools that aren’t making the grade. All schools are also required to submit improvement plans based on the department’s rating.

The department posts the ratings online, as do schools. But the reports are not sent directly to parents.

Instead, the department suggests that its school dashboard tool is a better resource to understand the status of a nearby public school, although Pearson acknowledged that it is not the most parent-friendly website.

“This tool is very useful for improvement planning purposes and deeper understanding of individual schools and districts — both in terms of demographics, as well as academic performance,” Pearson said. “We are also working on refreshing and possibly redesigning other tools that we have had on the website for reporting, including creating a more user-friendly parent-reporting template.”

Trezevant fallout

Memphis orders a deeper probe into high school grade changes

The firm hired to assess the pervasiveness of grade changes in Memphis high schools has begun a deeper probe into those schools with the highest number of cases.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the firm plans to “search for documentation and figure out what happened” at those schools, noting that not all grade changes — changing a failing grade to passing — are malfeasant.

Still, Hopson promised to root out any wrongdoing found.

“Equally important is figuring out whether people are still around changing grades improperly, and creating different internal controls to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” he told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

Dixon Hughes Goodman, an accounting firm from North Carolina, was hired over the summer as grade tampering was confirmed at Trezevant High School. The firm’s report found the average number of times high schools changed a failing final grade to passing was 53. Ten high schools were highlighted in the report as having 199 or more grade changes between July 2012 and October 2016.

Source: Dixon Hughes Goodman

The report was one of several released Tuesday by the Shelby County Schools board following an investigation instigated by allegations in a resignation letter from former Trezevant Principal Ronnie Mackin.

The firm’s analysis concluded that “additional investigation around grade changes is warranted,” prompting Shelby County Schools to extend the firm’s contract to dig deeper.

The investigations have already cost the school system about $500,000, said Rodney Moore, the district’s general counsel. It is unclear how much the contract extension for Dixon Hughes Goodman will cost, but board chairwoman Shante Avant said it is less than $100,000, the threshold for board approval.

Hopson said there’s not a timeline for when the school audits will be complete. He said the district is already thinking through how to better follow-up on grade changes.

“For a long time, we really put a lot of faith and trust in schools and school-based personnel,” he said. “I don’t regret that because the majority do what they’re supposed to do every day… (but) we probably need to do a better job to follow up to verify when grade changes happen.”

Avant said the board will determine what policies should be enacted to prevent further grade tampering based on the outcome of the investigation.

“The board is conscious that although we know there’s been some irregularities, we do want to focus on moving forward and where resources can be better used and how we’re implementing policies and strategies so that this won’t happen again,” she said.

Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.