The basics of education in Indiana

The basics of Indiana academic standards: A new beginning

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Notes from a committee during work to create new Indiana math standards in last year.

(This story is one in a series exploring the basics of key issues in education in Indiana. For a list of the issues and links to the other stories in the series, go here.)

Indiana’s debate over its new standards for what all children must learn at all grade levels was so intense and emotional it ended with both sides feeling betrayed and disappointed.

Standards-setting is usually a sleepy process, led by committees of teachers and education experts in sparsely attended meetings with little fanfare.

But 2014 saw standards at the center of legislative debates. The final vote by the Indiana Education Roundtable to approve new standards was preceded by statehouse protests and met by jeers from a standing room only crowd.

When the Indiana State Board of Education finished the task of approving the standards that April, they were instantly confronted by a host of obstacles to overcome.

The state needed a new plan for imparting their guidance to teachers and students and for attaching the new standards to the state’s tests and accountability system.

A change in direction

When the state’s six-year cycle for renewing standards came around in 2009, the quiet old routine was still intact.

Teachers and experts reviewed the guidance the state was giving to teachers and set about updating those that were out-of-date.

Most of the hundreds of standards are technical and uncontroversial. For example, some states teach a concept — say fractions — at a different grade level than others. Reviewers in such cases might consider whether Indiana should adapt to what other states are doing or stay with its past approach.

Curriculum, or the specific lessons that are used to teach students, is always decided at the local level. Sometimes curriculum is controversial.

For example, some school district prefer to teach reading with a stronger emphasis on phonics, or decoding words by sound. Others teach reading by emphasizing different techniques, such as memorizing key words and connecting what’s read to what children already know. State standards often come with additional guidance that critics say can steer teachers toward one approach at the expense of another.

As Indiana’s 2009 standards overhaul finished up and moved toward approval votes from the Roundtable and state board, then-Gov. Mitch Daniels and then-state Superintendent Tony Bennett reconsidered whether the state should instead sign on with Common Core, which would go on to be adopted by 46 states.

Outside of state policymakers and education experts, Common Core was then an all-but-unknown effort to raise expectations for what is learned in schools across the country so children could better compete with their peers around the world, as many countries out-score the U.S. on international tests.

Indiana became one the earliest and most enthusiastic supporters of Common Core. In 2010, it put aside the proposed standards created the prior year and instead adopted Common Core. The state instructed schools to begin by adopting Common Core standards in the lowest grades with a goal of statewide adoption in 2014 and new Common Core-linked state tests in 2015.

But that never came to pass.

Political backlash

In four short years, everything changed. Common Core became embroiled in national politics and caught in the crossfire of decades-old philosophical debates about the best ways for children to learn.

Opposition in Indiana was led by two private school mothers, Erin Tuttle and Heather Crossin, who were concerned when their children began seeing homework using new teaching approaches as a result of the move toward Common Core.

In 2013, they 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 the standards.

Over the next several months, new Gov. Mike Pence and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, political foes on many other fronts, united around the idea that Indiana needed to create its own standards. The review panels instead began crafting new standards by drawing from Common Core, the 2009 Indiana drafts and standards proposed in other states and by outside organizations.

Common Core opponents cheered another bill from Schneider to void their original 2010 adoption and require new standards to be set by July 1, 2014.

Conservative leaders in the Republican Party got behind the bill, saying they feared following Common Core would ultimately lead to a loss of state control over standards. The U.S. Department of Education and President Obama supported Common Core and asked states to adopt the standards in return for release from some of the consequences of the federal No Child Left Behind law, which was evidence enough to some of them that Common Core was too connected to federal priorities.

The bill passed and was signed by Pence, earning praise for the governor for getting rid of Common Core.

But the cheers subsided when drafts of the new standards were released. Critics complained that many of the standards were identical or nearly the same as Common Core standards — more than 70 percent by one accounting.

But those backing Common Core weren’t celebrating either. Just enough Common Core principles had been removed that supporters of the standards consider Indiana’s proposal little more than a watered down version.

Prior to the Roundtable meeting to consider the standards, Common Core opponents held a rally at the statehouse urging its members to vote the proposal down and order a rewriting to remove more of the similarities with Common Core, calling specifically on Pence to champion the idea.

They were disappointed to say the least.

At the Roundtable meeting, Pence and Ritz jointly endorsed the proposed standards. That led some opponents to shout out in disbelief as Pence explained his satisfaction with the state’s standards work. The new standards passed and final approval followed days later from the state board.

New tests for new standards

The quick change of direction on standards knocked Indiana off schedule for connecting its new standards to state tests, quickly creating new difficulties for schools trying to prepare students to pass those tests.

Because the state had an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education to have standards in place and new tests in 2015, it was forced to speed up the process for communicating the new expectations to teachers.

Schools offered training in the new standards over the summer of 2014 but teachers were expected to begin teaching the new approaches that fall. By comparison, all teachers had at least a year to prepare for Common Core under the roll out plan before the change in standards, and many had several years to get ready.

Like Common Core, Indiana’s standards aim to assure students are prepared to succeed in college and careers when they graduate high school. New tests of “college and career readiness” have questions that are very different from the state’s ISTEP exam of the past.

Most college and career ready tests are given entirely online and allow students to answer questions by manipulating what they see on screen, not just by clicking on a multiple choice answer or providing a written response.

For 2015, Indiana was in a difficult position. A completely new state exam won’t be ready before 2016. But the old ISTEP test didn’t measure college and career readiness, as federal education officials expect.

So for one year, The state sought to create a transitional test, using some questions typical of past versions of the test and some that mirror what the new test will look like. But when that made the test much longer, Pence balked. That sparked a war of words with Ritz that ended with a bill that was rushed through the legislature to waive state rules and allow the test to be shortened.

For Indiana, ISTEP passing rates affect schools, teachers and principals. Schools with low scores that don’t improve can face severe state sanctions if they earn repeated F grades. After six years rated F, a school can be taken over by the state and handed off to an outside organization to be run separately from its prior school district.

Test score growth of students also are considered as part of a teacher’s performance rating, which determines whether they get a raise or even result in firing for those with repeated low marks.

The 2014-15 school year was unlike any other, as teachers and students tried to prepare for a test they’ve never seen based on new state standards they’d only begun to learn. How the scores come out remains to be seen.

-Updated December 2015


After almost 10 years of changes to Indiana classrooms, ESSA’s headed your way. Here’s what you should know about the new federal law.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in IPS School 91's multi-age first-, second- and third-grade classroom work on math activities.

This year, Indiana education officials are focused on shifting education policy to comply with the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which Congress passed in late 2015.

But given Indiana’s history, ESSA is likely to be just the latest in a long line of education policy changes.

What started with a new schools chief focused on shaking things up in 2008 turned into major legislative changes that gave Indiana its oft-cited charter school and voucher programs in 2011.

Around the same time, Common Core standards burst on the scene, highlighting Indiana once again as an early adopter and — just a few years later — as one of the first states to jump ship. Battles over replacing ISTEP ramped up in late 2015, followed in rapid succession by an election resulting in a new governor and an upset in the race for state superintendent.

Throw ESSA into the mix, and it’s safe to say the last decade of Indiana education policy has been tumultuous. What does this new law mean for Indiana? We answer some of those questions below.

Where did ESSA come from?

U.S. lawmakers passed the newest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in late 2015 to replace the controversial No Child Left Behind Act.

The goal, in part, was to remedy a number of complaints around NCLB. State and federal officials have talked up how ESSA is supposed to give states more autonomy and remove NCLB’s rigid performance goals.

Advocates hope ESSA will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

What does ESSA mean for testing?

As it turns out, not that much — most of Indiana’s testing changes come down from the state, not the feds.

Indiana’s ISTEP test would have fulfilled most of the federal requirements, but the state trashed ISTEP earlier this spring in favor of a new test (still in the works) that will be given for the first time in 2019 — “ILEARN.”

For elementary and middle school students, ILEARN will be “computer-adaptive,” and adjust difficulty based on students’ answers. In high school, students would be expected to pass end-of-course assessments in Algebra, ninth-grade biology, 10th-grade English and 12th-grade U.S. Government.

The state’s plan also includes a chance to pursue giving state tests in other languages. So far, Spanish would be the focus.

How does this affect A-F grades?

Congress passing the Every Student Succeeds Act collided almost directly with Indiana’s overhauled A-F grade model, used for the first time in 2016.

Although the new model checks many boxes when it comes to new ESSA requirements, there’s still work that needs to be done.

Indiana’s new A-F model replaces one that centered primarily around ISTEP test scores. A-F grades still factor in test scores higher than other measures, but they no longer reflect just test passing rates. How students improve on tests from year to year is also included and weighted equally with passing rates.

Beginning this school year, A-F grades will include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

What about low-performing schools?

So the timeline doesn’t change — public schools can still only get four Fs in a row before the state steps in. But once they do, that’s where the process differs starting in 2018-19.

Going forward, two new categories will replace priority schools and focus schools. Two new ones will be introduced: “targeted support” and “comprehensive support.”

At schools receiving targeted support, certain groups of students — ethnic groups, English learners, low-income students or students with disabilities — would score in the bottom 5 percent of state test-takers for at least two years in a row.

Comprehensive support is similar to what are now priority schools — those that fall in the bottom 5 percent of passing state tests; any school that receives an F grade; or any high school where the four-year graduation rate is lower than 67 percent.

If a school gets a C grade or better for two years in a row, it is no longer categorized as needing comprehensive support. Schools in targeted support have five years to earn two consecutive C grades.

Doesn’t the graduation rate change, too?

Unfortunately, yes.

As early as fall of 2018, the general diploma could cease to count in the graduation rate the state is now required to report to the federal government.

The federal calculation will likely cause rates to drop and school A-F grades to take a hit because general diploma students students would no longer be considered graduates to the feds.

Students can still earn a general diploma — it just can’t factor into state accountability grades. ESSA requires states to count graduates that earn the diploma that a majority of students get or one that is more rigorous, but not one that is less.

What happens next?

There are still some major questions lingering over how the new A-F grade components will play out next year, particularly when it comes to dual credit classes and changes to graduation rate.

Those issues won’t get solved right away, if only because the Indiana State Board of Education must officially approve any A-F grade system changes, which won’t happen until after the ESSA draft plan is completed.

The plan must be submitted to federal education officials in September. First it gets a review from the governor, who can choose to endorse it or not — no formal approval is required.

Read more of Indiana’s ESSA coverage here.


The basics of...

The basics of Jennifer McCormick: Political newcomer struggles to set herself apart

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Jennifer McCormick speaks during a 2016 campaign event.

This is one of two stories summarizing the basics facts about Indiana’s two major party candidates for state superintendent. A more detailed story about Jennifer McCormick’s policy positions can be found here. To learn more about Glenda Ritz, go here. To see all of Chalkbeat’s “basics” stories, go here. To read all of Chalkbeat’s 2016 election coverage, go here.

Tune in to our live blog on Election Day for highlights from the field and updates on the races as results trickle in.

As the political newcomer to this year’s race for Indiana state superintendent, Republican Jennifer McCormick has had to spend a lot of time telling voters who she isn’t.

She isn’t Glenda Ritz, she’s said, emphasizing that as a former teacher and principal who has spent the last 12 years as a top administrator in the Yorktown school district, she has experience as a steady, organized manager that she says Ritz lacks.

And she says she isn’t Tony Bennett, the education reform-darling who lost in a huge upset to Ritz in 2012, either.

In fact, McCormick falls somewhere between the two: She’s a career public school educator and district leader with policies not entirely unlike Ritz’s. But she also has the backing of the Republican party and advocates who’ve pushed to expand charter schools and private school vouchers.

Although McCormick has been more supportive of charter schools and vouchers than Ritz has been, the Yorktown superintendent says she’s concerned about the way school choice efforts divert money from public schools and vehemently denies suggestions that she would want to see them expand.

On the campaign trail, McCormick has tried to steer the conversation away from controversial policy matters toward what she sees as her strong suit: Her years of leadership running schools and districts.

The New Castle native has spent her career in Yorktown, a traditional public school district in northeastern Indiana that enrolls about 2,500 students K-12. Her school district is wealthier, whiter and faces few of the challenges that confront urban and rural districts across the state.

Yorktown school board president Tom Simpson said McCormick has worked to provide more computers and tablets to students and has made a point of ensuring that teachers are trained to use and teach with the devices. She’s also worked over the years to help the district adapt to its growing population.

How she’ll govern

It’s still not clear what kind of relationship McCormick would have with lawmakers if elected. Although her policies don’t necessarily line up with those of Republican legislative leaders, the fact that she brings none of Ritz’s baggage after four years of clashes with Republican Gov. Mike Pence could ease tensions and lead to smoother working relationships.

But McCormick’s lack of policy experience and adamant statements that she won’t engage in “politics” could also mean she underestimates the work needed guide her vision through the sometimes-thorny Indiana legislature.

Plus, should both she and John Gregg, the Democrat running for governor, prevail, there’d once again be a political division between the state’s top education leader and top executive, who is responsible for appointing the majority of members to the state board of education.

On the issues

McCormick’s positions on many state education issues are similar to those of her opponent. She largely agrees with Ritz on the need for an A-F grade overhaul, more school funding, and adding support and pay for teachers.

Here’s a rundown of her positions:

Vouchers. McCormick said while she supports the power of parents to choose the best school for their children, she’s not interested in expanding programs that divert money from public schools.

Testing. While Ritz has called for a new kind of test that would be given to students in chunks throughout the year and provide feedback to teachers, McCormick said she would be in favor of adopting the SAT, or something like it, for high school students and keeping a simple, ISTEP-like test for elementary and middle school students.

Preschool. While Ritz has campaigned strongly for a “universal” preschool plan for all Indiana four year-olds, funded with what she anticipates would be $150 million per year from the state’s budget, plus federal and private grants, McCormick has called for a more conservative approach — at least at first. She says the state should prioritize students who are struggling or from low-income families rather than offer pre-K to kids with more resources.