Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke!

Angelica Blanchette

If the latest Indiana draft standards for English language arts are any indication, rewriting the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for reading seems to be an exercise in futility. I’m not claiming that the standards are perfect—no standards are—but they are strong, particularly in the early grades, where the Common Core Reading: Foundational Skills standards for grades K–2 clearly articulate the early reading skills that students must master to become fluent and proficient readers.

Unfortunately, a careful comparison between the Common Core Reading: Foundational Skills standards for K–2 and the new Indiana draft standards reveals little in the way of meaningful changes.

In short, if Indiana leaders wanted to use this standards review process to improve on the standards, they would have done better to create a companion guide to the CCSS that interprets and extends the standards in ways specific to the state.

The following issues are pervasive in the Reading K–2 standards of the Indiana draft.

·      To echo Kathleen Porter-Magee’s recent Common Core Watch post, one issue Indiana’s educators will face if these draft standards are adopted is weak organization. The CCSS make a distinction between higher-level “anchor” standards (e.g., “RF.2.3 Know and apply grade-level phonics and word analysis skills in decoding words”) and grade-specific supporting standards (e.g., “RF.2.3a Distinguish long and short vowels when reading regularly spelled one-syllable words”). The Indiana draft standards do not retain this distinction. Instead, the draft reproduces standards from both levels in one common list for the strand (e.g., Reading). This lack of distinction creates an element of redundancy in the list of standards and impedes an educator’s ability to focus attention on closely related standards, such as standards addressing phonological awareness versus those pertaining to phonics and word recognition. The Indiana draft would be more accessible with one more layer of grouping within each strand.

·      The CCSS standards consistently use terminology. For example, the terms spoken or oral are consistently used in the standards related to phonological awareness skills. This clarification of work with phonemes restricted to oral (not written) language is inconsistent in the Indiana draft. This and other inconsistences with terminology deserve attention to improve clarity.

In addition to the pervasive issues just described, there are also particular differences between the Indiana draft standards and the CCSS that warrant a close expert review. Here are a few that caught my attention:

·      The IN R.K.4 standard reads, “Recognize that words are combined to form sentences.” Its CCSS counterpart (RF K.1c) reads, “Understand that words are separated by spaces in print.” As a standard related to print-concept skills, CCSS wording is stronger, because identifying spaces between words in a stream of print is a hallmark print-concept skill. Identifying spaces facilitates a student’s ability to find and use beginning letters as they develop concept-of-word skills. The IN R.K.4 standard conveys an understanding falling under phonological awareness skills; it would be an appropriate sub-standard under IN R.K.7, “Demonstrate understanding of spoken words, syllables, and sounds (phonemes).”

·      The appreciable difference is unclear between some Indiana draft standards, such as “Read common and irregularly spelled high-frequency words by sight” (IN R.1.16) and “Recognize and read grade-appropriate irregularly spelling words” (IN R.1.20).

·      The Indiana draft does not adhere to the “anchor” standard structure of the CCSS; however, as the list of standards is read, clusters parallel to the CCSS “anchor” standards can be found. An attempt to cluster the standards within a strand highlights the misplacement of certain standards. For example, IN R.K.21 addresses sorting words. Sorting words refers to working with words in isolation, yet this standard is found in a cluster of standards applying to reading connected text (IN R.K.19 and R.K.20).

That said, not all of the differences between the Indiana draft standards and the CCSS introduce concerns. There are some modest enhancements.

·      A valuable key literacy understanding is included with the addition of “…And understand that printed materials provide information” to the language of CCSS RF.K.1 to create IN R.K.1.

·      The term apply is used in IN R.1.1 (regarding print features) and IN R.1.3 (regarding oral language components: words, syllables, phonemes), whereas the corresponding CCSS standards (RF.1.1 and RF.1.2) use the term demonstrate. Apply suggests going beyond demonstrating a skill in isolation to using it in context. It is appropriate to expect first grade students to apply the basic knowledge of print features and oral language components they learned in Kindergarten.

·      Some differences are frankly a matter of preference, such as subsuming attention to accuracy, appropriate rate, and expression along with reading for purpose and understanding within a single fluency standard (IN R.1.21). This is different from CCSS RF.1.4, which expands to unpack attention to fluency (CCSS RF.1.4b) and comprehension (CCSS RF.1.4a).

The evidence we have before us is this: First, on the whole, the line-by-line wording of the Indiana draft standards does not deviate greatly from the CCSS wording. Second, the deviations that do exist introduce issues in the Indiana draft that merit refinement. And third, this refinement will require additional time, effort, and resources and will likely further reduce the differences between the Indiana draft and the CCSS (e.g., applying an additional layer of grouping to the standards within strands). This line of thinking begs an important question: is it worth it?

My answer: no.

The ethos of the CCSS is to provide high-quality baseline standards, leaving room for “teachers, curriculum developers, and states to determine how those goals should be reached and what additional topics should be addressed” (See “What is not covered by the Standards” in the CCSS). Moving forward, the Indiana Department of Education should invest its time, effort, and resources into development of a companion guide interpreting and expanding the CCSS specifically for Indiana. An interpretive guide could include aspects such as additional standards; clarification of standards; and translations to specific materials, programs, and professional development the state has already invested in for their teachers.

Angelica Blanchette is a curriculum development specialist with the Core Knowledge Foundation and the primary author of the Kindergarten and Grade 1 Assessment and Remediation Guide for the Core Knowledge Language Arts program. She is a literacy specialist and former classroom teacher.

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