While he was writing the Common Core, Jason Zimba kept a copy of Indiana's old academic standards handy.
They were that good, says Zimba, a former math and science professor. They were the product of a 1999 directive from Indiana's legislature for the state to adopt a set of clear, concise, jargon-free academic standards. The standards were so concise, so jargon-free, so clear that the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., had Catholic schools in the nation's capitol teaching Indiana Academic Standards. No wonder Zimba used them as a model.
"The previous Indiana standards were often out on my desk," says Zimba. After he and the team finished writing the Common Core, he started consulting with a group that helped implement the standards.
But if Indiana's standards were a model for others, why would the state want to abandon them?
Because other states' standards were nowhere near as good — and the Common Core promised to change that.
"It’s always been somewhat, well, not confusing, but bewildering that we would need 50 different sets of standards and assessments," says Terry Spradlin, a director of Indiana University's Center for Evaluation and Education Policy. "A student Sally or Johnny being taught in a classroom in fourth grade in Indiana, if they were to leave and move to another state, the truth is kids have been learning vastly different things."
It's been that way since states started setting standards back in the 1980s. Spurred on in 1983 by the alarming "A Nation At Risk" report, education officials everywhere began spelling out the expectations for what each student in each of their state's classrooms should be learning.
But this effort was done piecemeal. Instead of working together to develop a common set of standards, every state designed their own. And some states — like Indiana — did a better job than others.
In 2007, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers started talking about doing something states hadn’t done before: working together to write a common set of academic standards — standards written with "college- and career-readiness" in mind.
Only Texas and Alaska opted out. By March 2010, rough drafts were available.
And by June 2010, the Common Core was born.
The Common Core is nothing but a bait-and-switch, Crossin thought.
Even though Crossin's kids attended a private school, the school accepted state vouchers. As such, its students took the ISTEP+ exams — and were thereby beholden to the same state standards as public school kids.
But Crossin didn't have a problem with how things were going at her school. All the Common Core could do was force her school into using curriculum she considers to be inferior, and into preparing for tests developed somewhere else.
"Those voucher-recipient schools," Crossin says, "were being asked to sign on to a yet-unseen, yet-developed, federally-funded test."
And, Tuttle says, voucher schools weren't the only victims of the switch. She points to international benchmark numbers — the highly-regarded TIMSS study — showing Indiana students performing better than those in other, traditionally high-performing countries. Why then, Tuttle and Crossin thought, did Indiana need the Common Core?
The two parents took action. They formed Hoosiers Against the Common Core. They got in touch with a state lawmaker, Sen. Scott Schneider, R-Indianapolis. In 2012, he agreed to sponsor legislation blocking the new standards.
But it didn't go anywhere. GOP state superintendent Tony Bennett was among the nation's most ardent supporters of the nationally-crafted standards. He deflected gripes from within his own party about the Common Core being nothing but federal encroachment in sheep's clothing. (President Obama's administration has never formally endorsed the standards, but they've made it pretty clear they want states to adopt something like it.)
Bennett's agenda was winning the day, and Bennett's agenda included the Common Core.
Then, in late 2012, something happened that changed everything.
The bill sent a national message. Indiana isn’t the only state where Republicans have reversed course on the Common Core. But it’s one of the few places where criticism of the new standards has reached enough of a critical mass to suspend their implementation.
The 'pause,' Common Core proponents charged, sent a badly-garbled message to Indiana schools.
The legislation called for a General Assembly-led review of the standards. It required the state's schools to give the ISTEP+ for an extra year. And it barred schools from using the standards in any classrooms where it hadn't been already implemented.
"When you put all the pieces together, it does equal what opponents of Common Core have been saying all along," said parent Erin Tuttle, who shared a celebratory fist-bump with Schneider after the bill's passage. "It does take a lot of wisdom on legislators' behalf to be able to put the pieces together, because it is a complex puzzle. But once you put the pieces all together, the picture’s very clear."
But what were schools supposed to do in the meantime? All schools across the state had already implemented the Common Core in kindergarten and first grade — they were following the instructions Bennett was giving them while at the helm of the Indiana Department of Education. Most schools were set to roll out the Common Core in second grade classrooms this school year.
"We hope that the confusing and incoherent language is made clearer by the Department of Education in the coming weeks, so that way, teachers and principals understand what happened here today… There needs to be clarification," Stand for Children executive director Justin Ohlemiller said on the night the Common Core "pause" passed.
And what about schools that had already fully-implemented the Common Core?
Remember, the pause legislation requires the state to keep administering the ISTEP+ until 2015 — until the state can decide what standards to use in the future. The ISTEP+ has been phasing in Common Core-aligned questions, but it's mostly written to the state's former standards.
Think of what that means for Vandriessche's second graders. They've never been in a classroom that's used the Common Core standards. Under the state's old Common Core transition timeline, they were never supposed to take Indiana's old test.
But because of the pause legislation, when Vandriessche's students take their first statewide tests as third graders, they'll be asked to pass a test written to match the state's old standards.
Vandriessche thought she was working ahead in the state's timeline. Now, her second graders may have overshot the runway.
State superintendent Glenda Ritz says her hands were tied. To the great frustration of Common Core supporters, Ritz asked second grade teachers to stop rolling out standards in their classrooms this year.
"I refuse to not align standards and assessments for the little ones," she explained.
After all, if students can't pass the tests in third grade because they're unfamiliar with the standards, there could be real consequences for their schools.
"With accountability and assessments, we can't have valid assessments without standards to align the assessments to, and we've made a real push to make sure we have highly-qualified, effective teachers in our classrooms as well," Spradlin says. "Without the standards, we'd really have a two-legged stool, which would not stand on its own."
At the time of their adoption, the Common Core State Standards weren’t contentious. The other pieces of Tony Bennett’s expansive education overhaul drew far more discussion.
But designing an accountability system, setting a standardized assessment — all of it requires Indiana to have clear expectations of what students should know and learn at each grade level. Without the Common Core to set those expectations, it’s almost impossible to move forward with those other big changes.
In instances where her predecessor would step in with adamant defense of the standards, Ritz has remained silent. She's not opposed to the Common Core, but she hasn't been out there rallying for it either.
The "pause" legislation required Ritz's Department of Education to submit a recommendation earlier this year. When Ritz presented it to the Common Core study committee, she explained it was written "in a manner so as not to influence the forthcoming process of adoption of standards in 2014."
And that process will have to wrap up soon. State lawmakers have until November 1 to review the Common Core, when they're required to make a recommendation to the State Board of Education — the body that normally sets academic standards. The plan is to look at the Common Core, standard by standard, to see what’s working and what isn’t.
Whatever happens, this much is clear: Indiana can't go back to its old standards — not without running afoul of the No Child Left Behind Act. The federal government didn't consider the state's old standards to be "college- and career-ready."
There are pretty much two choices: (1) Keep the Common Core. (2) Find new standards and have the state's colleges and universities give them their blessing — in essence, say "These standards will get students ready for college." For how little Ritz has said about the Common Core, for or against, she has said it would be really difficult to get the universities to sign off on the old standards.
"We have a huge remediation problem in mathematics," Ritz says. "Our community colleges spend over $35 million remediating K-12 students in math. We know math standards need to be regarded at a very high level... so we have to be sure that we're gonna have it right."
Evers argues the state would be better off keeping its old standards. The Fordham Institute's Kathleen Porter-Magee understands the argument — for states like Indiana, that had strong standards, the Common Core is a hard sell.
But Porter-Magee, who researches the Common Core, says there's a 'best-of-both-worlds' approach Indiana might take. She says the state can add up to 15 percent more content to the standards and still call the new standards the Common Core.
"It’s still something that needs to be driven by parents and by teachers," Porter-Magee says.
But even if you rewrote the standards to be more rigorous, Evers says it wouldn’t silence most critics.
"There is a...liberal kind of criticism
that doesn’t like any standards or any testing. It just says, 'Let the teachers — the teachers are professionals — let them have autonomy.' Another set of people that would be unhappy, which I would also belong to, who don’t like nationalization of things, whether done by the federal government or a cartel of states," Evers says.
Pence, though, has made his mark on Indiana's Common Core debate in another way.
Last month, Pence signed a letter pulling Indiana out of PARCC, the consortium of states writing new tests.
"I'm someone that really believes education is a state and local function," Pence explained. "I brought that bias into this job. I believe that not only stepping away from the PARCC exam itself, but also with the consortium is appropriate and it's also an affirmation of the direction we've been given from the Indiana General Assembly."
But pulling out of PARCC has its own costs. Remember, the state's standards can't stay the same even if Indiana pulls out of the Common Core — so the test can't stay the same either. Indiana can't stick with the ISTEP+ in its current form.
The state's contract with testing company CTB/McGraw-Hill has one year left on it. State officials might be thinking twice about renewing the contract after computer problems ground online ISTEP+ exams to a halt statewide this past spring — twice.
But who says CTB/McGraw-Hill wants to renew the contract? IU's Terry Spradlin says providing online tests is big business. And it's a national business. That means Indiana's testing contract may be the last thing on testing companies' minds.
There are two national consortia, PARCC included, that are set to roll out Common Core-aligned tests. Indiana could suddenly look like really small potatoes.
"That must also be considered — the cost factors of ... going it alone with our assessment and whether testing companies still want to be in the game to provide a standardized assessment to just a state or two," Spradlin says.
Spradlin says Indiana may be able to team up other states that have opted out of the assessment consortia. But he says Indiana may miss out on opportunities to offer crucial feedback the longer state leaders continue to put off a decision on standards.
"This is a distraction, a lot of noise," Spradlin says. "We are going to have standards, we are going to have assessments, we are going to have an accountability system. Let’s refine, let’s fix what’s broken, and move forward quickly. It is just a distraction right now. All three things are going to be in place ultimately."