Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

10 Questions About Academic Standards You Were Afraid To Ask

Hannah Reinoehl, a kindergarten teacher at East Side Elementary in Brazil, uses sign language to help her students review letter sounds.

Elle Moxley / StateImpact Indiana

Hannah Reinoehl, a kindergarten teacher at East Side Elementary in Brazil, uses sign language to help her students review letter sounds.

Today and tomorrow state education officials will meet in Indianapolis to hash out the details of Indiana’s next academic standards.

Indiana is on track to become the first state to pull out of a national initiative to share academic standards known as the Common Core. State lawmakers want Indiana-specific expectations for students.

It’s rare that academic expectations get as much attention as they have here in Indiana — but for the average parent or interested outsider, it’s hard to have an opinion on a debate that’s so full of jargon and nuance.

Don’t worry. We’re here to help. If you feel like you’re swimming in edu-lingo, read through this post. We hope at the end, you’ll be able to make sense of the standards debate that’s coming soon — and that you’ll maybe even be able to have an opinion on what standards the state should adopt next.

Okay, so I keep hearing all this talk about “Common Core standards” — but I don’t even know what academic standards are.

Simply put, academic standards are expectations for what students should know and learn at each grade level. So a second grade math standard might call for students to estimate length in inches, feet, centimeters and meters. Or a sixth grade literature standard could ask how an author develops the narrator’s point of view in a text.

Standards are bigger-picture than curriculum — a term used to describe how teachers deliver their lessons. The lesson one English teacher uses to teach point of view could look very different than another educator teaching the same standard.

What standards are my kids learning right now?

Right now, it’s actually a mixture. Indiana is a Common Core state. But the state hasn’t fully made the transition yet. So schools are teaching some of the new Common Core standards and some of the old Indiana Academic Standards. (That transition period is normal when state education officials set new standards.)

You can find a copy of the Indiana Academic Standards here. The Common Core standards are here.

All of this feels pretty wonky, to be honest with you. Why do standards matter, anyway?

At the end of each school year, Indiana students take a test to see what they’ve learned. Those tests are based on the state’s academic standards. The current statewide standardized test, the ISTEP+, is based on the standards Indiana had before the Common Core.

There are, of course, real consequences for schools that aren’t improving test scores. Schools with chronically low scores risk state takeover under Indiana’s school accountability system. That’s why schools continue to teach the old Indiana academic standards — they’re what students will be tested over at the end of the year.

You keep calling the Common Core “nationally-crafted standards.” I thought they were the Common Core State Standards. Where did these standards come from, anyway?

Every state used to set its own expectations for students — and the standards in some states were much better than others. Hoping to change that, a coalition of governors and state schools chiefs launched an effort to write new standards in 2007. Those standards — the Common Core — were released in 2010 for states to adopt, which Indiana did.

States didn’t have to adopt the Common Core. But there were incentives for doing so. The federal government made huge sums of money available to states with college- and career-ready standards. It’s possible to have college- and career-ready standards without adopting the Common Core. (Virginia has independent college- and career-ready standards. Minnesota adopted the Common Core standards for English language arts but wrote its own math standards.) Still, with so many states on board, it’s probably safe to say the Common Core State Standards are the de facto national standards.

I’ve lived in this state for a long time, but I don’t remember fighting about standards before. Is this normal?

Well, how normal is buying a new mattress? Indiana used to adopt new standards every six years. Schools last got new math standards in 2006 and new English language arts standards in 2008. The state tried to write new math standards in 2009, but they were never adopted.

So all of this was pretty routine. State Board members would get drafts of new standards from subject matter experts and they’d vote to adopt them. No need for state lawmakers to get involved. (But some Common Core opponents say they should be involved.)

You keep talking about English and math standards. What about science and social studies?

The Common Core standards only cover English language arts and mathematics. (There are some literacy standards that cross disciplines, too, encouraging more reading in other subjects.) So Indiana still has standards for other subjects, including science, social studies, health and physical education.

There are common science standards that were released in 2011, but they haven’t been as widely accepted or adopted as the Common Core.

OK, so how do the old Indiana standards compare to the Common Core?

They’re not that different, actually. When the state decided to switch from its old expectations to the new, nationally-crafted standards, the Department of Education mapped out the changes teachers would need to make in their classrooms.

“We did a very extensive crosswalk in 2010 between the Indiana standards and the Common Core,” says state superintendent Glenda Ritz. “Keep in mind, there’s overlap. Huge overlap.”

If the old Indiana Academic Standards and the Common Core are so similar, why adopt new standards at all?

Make no mistake — Indiana’s previous academic standards are well-regarded. But they may not have been preparing students to go to college or get a job. Common Core proponents point to high remediation rates at the state’s colleges as evidence that the former Indiana Academic Standards weren’t getting the job done. There may have been too many standards and not enough time to teach them. The Common Core is supposed to fix that problem by teaching fewer topics with more depth.

There are non-academic reasons to adopt the Common Core, too. When Indiana joined the 45 other states that have adopted the new standards, it opened up new possibilities for shared textbooks, curriculum materials and tests. In essence, sharing standards would save money over time.

So what’s all the fuss about? Why not adopt the Common Core and be done with it?

Let’s be clear: Not everyone thinks the nationally-crafted Common Core standards are right for Indiana. About two years ago, a group of concerned parents formed a group called “Hoosiers Against Common Core” to lobby state lawmakers to exit the initiative. They found success last session when the Indiana General Assembly passed a “pause” proposal that halted roll out of the Common Core until the new standards could be studied.

Opponents of Common Core say the new standards aren’t as rigorous as the expectations they replaced. And they don’t like the idea of national standards. They’re worried about state sovereignty over what Hoosier kids are learning and would rather write independent Indiana standards.

So what actually changes at my kids’ school if Indiana leaves the Common Core?

It all depends on how closely new academic standards follow the Common Core. Since whatever student expectations Indiana adopts next must prepare students for college or career, it’s likely that there will be significant overlap. And schools that have purchased Common Core-aligned textbooks may have to keep using them until the next adoption cycle.

So in the short term, it might look like business as usual. But starting in spring 2016, Indiana students will be taking a new standardized test. Since assessments are written to match the standards, it’s likely the test will look different than the ISTEP+ even if the state keeps the name.

Follow @ellemoxley on Twitter for updates on the academic standards rewrite.


  • May

    The Federal government needs to get OUT of education. period. The 10th amendment to the constitution states that anything not covered in the constitution would be regulated by the people or the individual states. The founding fathers of the United States purposefully left education OUT of the constitution because they didn’t want the federal government to have that much power.

    • Noah

      From the article: “…a coalition of governors and state schools chiefs launched an effort to write new standards in 2007. Those standards — the Common Core — were released in 2010 for states to adopt, which Indiana did.”

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