Another packed room awaited Indiana lawmakers reviewing Common Core national standards August 5, with people lining the walls, ringing the star-studded hearing room floor, and filling the upper gallery.
The five-hour meeting was the first of three that lawmakers will conduct before another three by the state board of education. In between, accountants will estimate the costs of overhauling Indiana’s education system to fit national goals and tests for English and math in grades K-12. By July 2014, the state board of education will decide whether Indiana improves its own standards or sticks with Common Core.
“I have no preconceived notion as to what will come to adoption in 2014,” state Superintendent Glenda Ritz told lawmakers. She criticized Common Core in math, but said “the process will decide” whether Indiana chooses Common Core with or without amendments, or updates its previous standards.
Indiana is the first state to reconsider the national project after public outcry led to a spring law requiring the current analyses. Hoosiers complained the state had not estimated the costs of Common Core, vetted its quality beside Indiana’s well-respected previous standards, or investigated the implications of signing contracts with federally funded national testing groups.
Ritz noted the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) did not request public input when the state board was considering Common Core, but “it’s not required anywhere for the department to do that.”
This first hearing focused on academic quality. Those testifying on both sides cited a comparison of Indiana’s standards to Common Core by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
Indiana’s previous standards “were commonly regarded as being among the best,” said Jason Zimba, one of Common Core’s lead math writers. “During development of Common Core Indiana standards were often out on my desk.” The Fordham review showed Indiana’s math standards “too close to call” in comparison with Common Core, but it did not consider career preparation, where Zimba said Common Core was better.
The institute sent Kathleen Porter-Magee to testify for the standards. She said its review found Common Core better than Indiana’s standards in English. That’s not true, said Common Core committee member Sandra Stotsky, who spoke against the national standards. She quoted the review: “Indiana’s standards are clearer, more thorough, [and] easier to read than the Common Core standards.” Fordham found Indiana’s standards were grouped more logically, included better examples, and had a better reading list, she said.
The Fordham math reviewer “told me and others directly that Indiana would be much better off keeping its old math standards and not going with Common Core,” testified Bill Evers, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, to quickly hushed audience applause.
Lawmakers and those testifying frequently discussed Indiana’s high college remediation rates.
“One of the things that is most disturbing is the number of students who have AP Calculus on their transcripts and come into remedial math classes,” said Chris Rock, a math and education professor at Manchester University.
Lawmakers quizzed Stotsky for a half hour after her 20-minute testimony, with questions ranging from over-testing fears to remediation.
“We have elementary teachers that have not been trained in math and science and history,” she said, when asked why Indiana graduates need so much college remediation if the state has high expectations for them. “We have a society with many distractions, and the amount of reading students do in and out of school has declined. Students are doing other things with their free time. There are multiple causes for needing remediation at the high school and post-high school level.”
Nonfiction vs. Fiction
Common Core requires children to read more nonfiction. Porter-Magee said this would increase children’s vocabulary and subject knowledge. Stotsky said research shows analyzing fiction develops children’s minds better than nonfiction, and this is why English teachers are trained to teach literature.
Rep. Rhonda Rhoads (R-Harrison County) mentioned her time as a kindergarten teacher, where bringing nonfiction materials into the classroom often meant “trying to sell our students on an agenda or a product and not stopping to think, ‘What is the purpose of this information?'”
“The floodgates have been opened by this requirement for informational text,” Stotsky replied. “What many of us would consider classical literary texts were already disappearing from the classroom. Common Core doesn’t address the problem—it sets up another problem.”
Common Core also mistreats the texts on its recommended reading list, noted Terrence Moore, a Hillsdale College history professor.
For example, Common Core recommends students only read the Bill of Rights, never the entire U.S. Constitution, he noted. Instead, it recommends a book that describes the Constitution using “words such as ‘vicious,’ ‘master class,’ ‘camouflaged,’ and ‘ugly,'” he said. “Students’ first encounter with the Constitution will be this negative document…. Yet we don’t have Common Core directing us to Federalist 10 or 51, but a highly segmented [book] from modern scholar with questionable language.”
The pause law means Indiana will keep its current state tests, the ISTEP+, until 2015-16.
“However those [standards] look, the job becomes finding and developing assessments that align with them,” Ritz said. “I’m committed to having standards and assessments, and vendors will do what we would like them to do for the state of Indiana.”
Image by Joy Pullmann.