When 1 + 1 = 0: Why the new Indiana draft standards don’t make the grade

On February 18, the Indiana Department of Education released the first public draft of a set of new K–12 expectations for English language arts and math. The proposed changes take place against the backdrop of a rollercoaster debate about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) that has seen numerous ups and downs since the state first adopted the CCSS back in August 2010. This contentious debate culminated in passage of legislation in April 2013 that paused CCSS implementation and charged the state Board of Education with adopting new college- and career-readiness standards.

State officials hope these new standards will accomplish two things: build on the best of both the Common Core and of the state’s previous (highly regarded) ELA and math standards and put to rest the heated and polarizing debate over the Common Core.

It’s perfectly fine, and has been since the outset, for states to adapt, modify, and add to the Common Core in order to address singular interests, needs, or enthusiasms of their residents, leaders, and educators. The test is whether such changes yield improvements on the one hand without diluting the very considerable gains that the Common Core itself made over the status quo across most of the U.S.

In this post, I take a close look at the proposed ELA to understand how they stack up against the Common Core and the Indiana standards that came before them.

The short answer: not well at all. Both the previous Indiana standards for English language arts and the Common Core literacy standards were among the best in the nation. Both were clear, and both provided explicit guidance about what students should know and be able to do, as well as the kinds of texts they should read at each grade level to build vocabulary and knowledge from grade to grade. In principle, it should be possible to build on the manifest strengths of both documents and develop a set of K–12 expectations that are second to none. Unfortunately, the recently released public draft reveals ELA standards that are less specific, less coherent, and harder to navigate than either Indiana’s previous standards or the Common Core. The public draft fails even to address some of most vocal criticisms of the CCSS literacy standards. Cursive writing is still missing from the latest draft, for instance. And nowhere does the Board of Education emphasize the importance of focusing on literature and literary texts in English classrooms.

If drafting an exemplary set of college- and career-ready standards for literacy was the goal, the Indiana Department of Education has fallen well short of its mark.

Overview

The public draft is presented straightforwardly and follows roughly the same format as the Common Core. The standards are presented for each grade level, Kindergarten through grade 12, and organized by strand (reading, literature, information, writing, etc.).

The biggest difference in organization between the CCSS and the Indiana draft standards is that the former outlines ten college- and career-ready “anchor standards” for each strand (ten for reading literature, ten for informational reading, ten for writing, and on). These describe what a college- and career-ready student would know and be able to do upon graduation from high school. Then, for each grade, there are ten grade-specific standards provided for each strand. (So there are ten first grade writing standards, ten second grade writing standards, and on.) The grade-specific standards build logically from grade to grade, showing how knowledge and skills build over time towards the college- and career-ready anchor standard.

For instance, the college- and career-ready “anchor” standard 9 asks students to

Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take. (Common Core, Reading Standards for Literature, Anchor Standard 9).

The grade-specific standards that build towards this college- and career-ready goal for grades 3, 6, and 9 ask students to

Compare and contrast the themes, settings, and plots of stories written by the same author about the same or similar characters. (e.g., in books from a series) (Common Core, Reading Standards for Literature, Standard 9, grade 3)

Compare and contrast texts in different forms or genres (e.g., stories and poems; historical novels and fantasy stories) in terms of their approaches to similar themes and topics. (Common Core, Reading Standards for Literature, Standard 9, Grade 6)

Analyze how an author draws on and transforms source material in a specific work (e.g., how Shakespeare treats a theme or topic from Ovid or the Bible or how a later author draws on a play by Shakespeare). (Common Core, Reading Standards for Literature, Standard 9, Grades 9–10)

The alignment between the anchor standards and the grade-specific expectations in the CCSS make the document easy to read and navigate, particularly for teachers looking to track how knowledge and skills build over time.

The Indiana public draft has abandoned this structure completely. There are no college- and career-ready “anchor standards,” and there is no consistency in how expectations are organized and presented from grade to grade within each strand.

Worse, the Indiana draft standards have eliminated all of the introductory and supporting material that was provided in the Common Core. These omissions are a significant loss, because it was the introduction that made clear, for instance, that literature, rather than informational texts, should dominate study in English class (page 5). And it was the introduction that called specifically for a “content-rich curriculum” (page 6). Also missing is the guidance from page 33 of the CCSS, which emphasized the importance of text selection and the coherent sequencing of texts to build knowledge and vocabulary within and across grades. Absent these linkages, Indiana schools risk a continued narrowing of the curriculum, away from important subjects like science, history, and art in favor of literacy blocks that focus near-exclusively on skills, a tacit but enormously consequential emphasis shift that could—and in many places does—lead to English classes that rely on “manufactured texts” rather than great literature and seminal documents.

Diminished clarity and specificity

Many of the grade-specific literacy expectations were copied verbatim—or near verbatim—from the CCSS to the Indiana draft ELA standards. Occasionally, however, expectations have been modified or changed, sometimes in ways that compromise the clarity and specificity—and perhaps even the rigor—of the standard. Take, for example, the following fourth-grade Common Core standard:

Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including those that allude to significant characters found in mythology (e.g., Herculean). (Common Core, Literature, grade 4)

In Indiana, the standard has been edited and merely asks students to

Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text. (Indiana, grade 4)

With this change, a skill that may look the same loses the content link that would help students become truly literate, in this case by knowing something about significant figures from classical mythology.

In writing, the CCSS asks second graders to

Participate in shared research and writing projects (e.g., explore a number of “how-to” books on a given topic and use them to write a sequence of instructions). (Common Core, Writing Standards, Grade 2)

Indiana has dropped the parenthetical and merely asks students to “participate in shared research and writing projects.” In such examples, it seems clear that in striving to avoid being overly prescriptive, the authors have lost an opportunity to provide useful—and wholly optional—guidance to teachers and curriculum developers.

Similar examples can be found throughout. The consequence is a series of expectations that are less specific than either the CCSS or the Indiana standards that preceded them.

College- and career-readiness at risk

While no standards are perfect, two critical elements of the Common Core literacy standards make them game changers.

First, the standards recognize that what students read is as important as what they do with what they read. And to that end, they put a clear emphasis on the quality and complexity of the literary and nonliterary texts that students will read in class. Second, the Common Core make explicit the link between building content knowledge and vocabulary and improving reading comprehension.

The Indiana draft ELA standards have eliminated both of these fundamentals and, in so doing so, have seriously compromised the college- and career-readiness of the standards articulated in the document.

Text quality and complexity

While the Indiana draft standards retain an occasional reference to the importance of text quality and complexity, they have removed the clear and specific text-selection guidance included in the CCSS. This rejection of the centrality of text selection to literacy instruction is evident in three ways.

First, the expectation that students read grade-appropriate literary and nonliterary texts is often vague. In grades 2 and 3, for instance, students are asked to read “appropriately complex” literary and informational texts—a vague and insufficient reference to the importance of reading texts that are appropriately complex for the grade. By contrast, in grades 4 and 5, students are asked only to engage with “increasingly complex” texts—a distinction that suggests that as long as students are progressing and reading more difficult books over the course of the year, it matters little whether those texts are considered “grade-level” texts.

Then, in grades 6 through 12, the language shifts again, and students are asked read literary and nonliterary texts that fall within the appropriate “complexity band,” a phrase borrowed directly from the CCSS.

Unfortunately, at no level does Indiana provide any guidance about what it means to select texts that are “appropriately complex,” and nowhere do the standards help teachers determine which texts fall within the grade-level “complexity band.” In short, by borrowing the phrase without the related guidance about how to judge the quality and complexity of literary and informational texts, the standards meant to guide text selection are rendered virtually meaningless.

The absence of any guidance about what texts might meet the content and rigor demands of the standards is curious considering that, even before the CCSS, Indiana provided explicit text-selection guidance. The Common Core includes both a list of exemplar texts and explicit guidance about how to judge text complexity, and the previous Hoosier state ELA standards included a list of exemplar texts that was even more comprehensive than the CCSS exemplar-text list. Given the importance of giving students regular practice with suitably challenging literary and nonliterary texts across all grades, this omission seriously compromises the college- and career-readiness of the Indiana expectations, as well as graduates’ readiness to participate in full in the nation’s public life and culture.

Worse still, the Indiana draft standards go on to remove any required reading from the expectations. The Common Core explicitly requires students to read a Shakespearean play, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Preamble to the Constitution, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. These are essential foundational works in American history and literature that have been stripped from the Indiana draft ELA standard—a sad thing indeed.

Content knowledge and comprehension

In August 2010, at the same time the Indiana Board of Education was considering adopting the Common Core, one of the most respected educators and thinkers of our time, E.D. Hirsch, penned a letter urging Common Core adoption. Hirsch explained,

I support [the Common Core] because more than merely unifying the current patchwork of expectations among the states the Common Core Standards represent new approaches to language arts based on the deepest results of research in cognitive science. The new standards recognize that verbal achievement is based on general knowledge, and that instruction in language arts must cover all key academic domains, and be integrated with a content-rich curriculum.

Two years later, Robert Pondiscio, then–Vice President of the Core Knowledge Foundation, argued in a debate at the Pioneer Institute that the Common Core included the “57 most important words in education reform. Ever.” They are as follows:

By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.

Pondiscio went on to say,

Every teacher in elementary school in the land must understand that without imparting a coherent, knowledge-rich, language-rich ELA curriculum…most of our children will not meet any meaningful standard….I will not give up these 57 words. The foundation on which American education rests must be intentional and coherent. It must be not just literature rich but knowledge rich and language rich.

Unfortunately, like the references to Shakespeare and America’s Founding Documents, these 57 words have been stripped from the Indiana draft ELA standards. So has the explicit call for a content-rich curriculum, as well as the guidance about how teachers can build knowledge and vocabulary through curriculum and thoughtful text sequencing. In short, the heart of the Common Core literacy standards—the elements that earned the support of education leaders like Hirsch—have been gutted from the latest Indiana draft.

Because of Indiana’s long history of setting clear and rigorous standards for English language arts, arguably no state was better positioned to customize the CCSS in a way that made the expectations even stronger than the Core. And yet—remarkably and inexplicably—Indiana state officials have managed to do the opposite: draft ELA standards that are worse than either of the documents they hope to replace.

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